When D.C. Mayor Marion Barry disclosed last week that his wife Effi holds Cabinet rank in his administration, he made official what already had become apparent -- that she is one of the most visible local figures in Washington.
In recent months Effi Barry has defended her husband's appointment of controversial aide Sallie Melendez, admonished other Cabinet members to be more loyal and has gone on television for extraordinary interviews in which she lashed out at political enemies, talked about the purchase of a fur coat with city funds -- later repaid -- and spoke openly about perceptions that her husband is an "arrogant . . . street dude" who as a powerful official draws the attentions of other women.
In the process, Effi Barry has mixed issues of public policy with private concerns, establishing a role that is not clearly defined in law but that highlights the ambiguities of being a modern-day spouse of an elected official.
Tom Cochran, executive director of the U.S. Conference of Mayors, said that although "the spouse of the modern-day mayor is becoming quite a partner," Effi Barry's membership in the mayor's Cabinet appears to give her unique status among such spouses in city halls around the country.
Cochran said, however, that many politicians involve their spouses in running local governments. Former Louisville mayor Harvey Sloane provided his wife, Kathy, with a working office while former representative Richard Fulton, a former mayor of Nashville, also worked side by side with his wife, he said.
Effi Barry maintains an office in the mayor's suite at the District Building, and has two full-time aides. In addition, a full-time police security officer is assigned to her and the couple's son Christopher.
An aide said Effi Barry's schedule last week showed that she had four official events on her calendar. On Sunday she appeared at a convention of concierges at the Organization of American States building; on Monday she scheduled a Christmas Card portrait session and received a briefing on her trip to London scheduled for this weekend, and on Friday attended a meeting of the Cabinet.
Jeannie Baliles, wife of Virginia Gov. Gerald L. Baliles, has a similar staff of two persons assigned specifically for her activities. A check of her schedule last week showed 10 events, including making two speeches, visiting the Virginia Treatment Center for Children, taping a Department of Information Technology video on illiteracy and planning a celebration next year marking the 175th anniversary of the governor's mansion.
Maryland Gov. William Donald Schaefer is a bachelor, who calls on longtime friend, Hilda Mae Snoops, to appear at social occasions and act as hostess at Government House.
Over the years, Effi Barry also has attempted to fill more traditional roles played by political spouses. She has been active in supporting a variety of organizations, including the Hospital for Sick Children, the Ellington School for the Arts, the local chapter of the American Cancer Society, the United Negro College Fund, the Whitman-Walker Clinic for gay and lesbian patients and the mayor's task force on infant mortality.
More recently, according to an aide, she has begun studying part time at Johns Hopkins University to obtain a master's degree in public health. Her studies have cut down substantially on her public appearances, the aide said.
In September, she resigned her $45,000-per-year job with JAM Corp., a public relations firm that does extensive business with the District government.
At the time, Effi Barry said she intended to pursue other career opportunities. A spokeswoman said yesterday that Effi Barry is not employed and that the couple lives on the mayor's $83,013-per-year salary.
Effi Barry declined to be interviewed for this article, but has appeared several times since September in television interviews with WRC-TV (Channel 4) to offer her views. She has complained that the news media invade her privacy, citing as one example news accounts of the arrest of her mother this year on an arson charge in Prince George's County.
But while deploring invasions of her privacy, the mayor's wife paradoxically seems to have stepped up efforts to raise her public profile.
In September, she flew to Amsterdam as one of many first ladies from world capitals who took part in a flower bulb promotion, which was paid for by a private flower grower and an airline. In return for her participation, the grower donated 5,000 bulbs to the University of the District of Columbia.
On Saturday, she leaves for London where she will promote Washington at a European travel show attended by about 35,000 travel agents. The trip is financed by D.C. taxpayers.