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The Pioneer: Geraldine Ferraro (1935-2011)

7 minute read
Howard Chua-Eoan

There are two things to remember when we try to make out the lessons of Geraldine Ferraro’s career. The first is overwhelmingly historic: as Democrat Walter Mondale’s running-mate in 1984, the three-time Representative from New York was the first woman (and first Italian American) to be part of a major party’s presidential ticket. The second is much more sobering: after Mondale’s defeat, Ferraro never again won elected office. Making history lasted less than four months, from Mondale’s announcement of her choice to be his vice-presidential candidate on July 19 to Ronald Reagan’s landslide re-election on Nov. 6. The consequences of history would complicate the rest of her life.

Her brief star turn at the center stage of American politics had not really been part of the Ferraro’s own plan. Logically, the next step would have been to turn her six years as a tough but efficient congresswoman into the first of many six-year terms as U.S. Senator from New York. But Mondale and the Democrats needed drama on the ticket to offset Reagan’s overwhelming lead in the polls. So, why not a woman? A shortlist was drawn-up and, after much anticipation and last minute deliberation, Ferraro was picked over Dianne Feinstein, who was then Mayor of San Francisco.

(See TIME’s 1984 cover story about Ferraro.)

Though she was unfamiliar to most Americans, Ferraro had the Washington qualifications for the job. Ambition and hard work had seen her rise in the esteem of her fellow Democrats in the Beltway. She was admired for the probing questions she asked from her seat on various congressional committees; she was a key player in the formulation of the party’s platform and convention rules. Her back story too was bracing. The daughter of Italian immigrants, Ferraro pursued a law career when the profession was overwhelmingly dominated by men (she was one of two women in her graduating class). As assistant District Attorney in Queens, New York, she was in charge of the Special Victims Bureau, overseeing cases involving child and spousal abuse. Though married to the realtor John Zacarro, she continued to use her family name in her work, she said, to honor the mother who, after the death of Geraldine’s father, had kept the family going.

The choice electrified the contest — for a while. Women cheered. It was a bit of salve over the still fresh disappointment over the failure of the country to ratify the Equal Rights Amendment by a 1982 deadline. The bounce of attention and initial admiration for the historic choice moved Mondale up in the polls, bringing him about even with Reagan and his running mate George H. W. Bush.

(See Ferraro’s TIME covers.)

And then the big political lesson of the Ferraro choice emerged: Vetting. Not enough of it had been done of the finances of Ferraro and her husband. Ferraro and Zaccaro had always filed separate tax returns and his reluctance to make his returns public became an immense issue that quickly diminished the Mondale-Ferraro bounce in the polls. Though Ferraro was mostly adept at parrying questions from the press, the Vice-Presidential candidate did not help herself — and feminism — by trying to explain away her husband’s reticence by saying, “You people who are married to Italian men, you know what it’s like.” The debacle lasted until late August, when Zacarro finally relented. No financial improprieties were discovered though Ferraro had to pay the IRS $53,000 for what she said was an accounting error. The fact that the couple was worth $4 million seemed to shock some people. Barbara Bush, the vice-president’s wife, who was hardly poor herself, made her infamous remark, describing Ferraro as “that four-million-dollar — I can’t say it, but it rhymes with ‘rich.'” She would apologize for the remark but the tax returns controversy had erased any momentum the Mondale-Ferraro ticket may have had.

See “40 Under 40: The Rising Stars of American Politics.”

All that, unfortunately, overshadowed Ferraro’s strength as a candidate — ably filling the veep role of going on the attack while allowing the guy at the top of the ticket to appear above the fray. Journalists and politicians could not get over the novelty of a woman running to be a heartbeat away from the presidency — and there was not a small amount of condescension. In fact, during her debate with Bush, Ferraro turned to her opponent and said, “Let me just say first of all, that I almost resent, Vice President Bush, your patronizing attitude that you have to teach me about foreign policy.” But he was not the only one. She was asked at one point if, she assumed the top job, that the Soviets might take advantage of the fact that she was a woman. Her responses were dignified but not without strong hints of a fiery disdain for the tone of the inquisition.

Ferraro’s post-1984 existence began with promise. There was a big book deal and she still had ambitions about the Senate. She would make two stabs at it. But the detritus of her national campaign could not be washed away. (In fact, her husband would continue to have legal problems over it — problems she believed would never have arisen had she not run for Vice-President.) She would lose the Democratic primary in 1992 in a nasty three-way battle, with all the old controversy over taxes and her husband stirred up in the messy style of New York politics. She lost the primary by a percentage point and refused to concede for weeks. The seat was eventually won by Republican Alphonse D’Amato. In 1998, she ran again, and though she was the favorite in the beginning — as she had been in 1992 — she was outspent by Chuck Schumer who eventually went on to the Senate.

(See the top 10 veep debate moments.)

The rest of her life was varied and versatile. She was a television commentator on both CNN and Fox; and she served important stints as a U.S. appointee to the United Nations. But, even as she dealt with a chronic and incurable cancer, she seemed to know that she was filling the role of icon — and she played that role impressively, if not always tactfully. When Hillary Clinton was running for the Democratic Presidential nomination in 2008, Ferraro was one of her biggest champions — so much so that she started a controversy by questioning Barack Obama’s qualifications to be President, saying he would not be there if he was white, just as she would not have been Mondale’s veep had she been “Gerald Ferraro.” She welcomed Palin’s entry into the the contest though she warned again that any bounce in the polls would be shortlived.

In 1987, she reflected on the personal cost of being a historic figure, telling the New York Times : “More than once I have sat down and said to myself, oh, God, I wish I had never gone through with it,” but then added, “I think the candidacy opened a door for women in national politics, and I don’t regret that for one minute. I’m proud of that.” And toward the end of her life, she was certain of her contribution, despite the defeats and despite the disappointment. She told Newsweek in 2008, “Every time a woman runs, women win.” By being first, Geraldine Ferraro braved hazards no one had even thought of. Her mistakes and her trials have become lessons not just for women but for all American politicians. She won by losing.

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