Geraldine Anne Ferraro
As the first woman candidate for vice president of the United States in a major party, Geraldine Anne Ferraro expanded opportunities for women in national politics. Her place on the Democratic ticket as Walter F. Mondale's running mate in 1984 broke a gender barrier that had lasted for over two hundred years. Although Mondale and Ferraro lost to RONALD REAGAN and GEORGE H. W. BUSH, Ferraro proved herself a capable and dynamic campaigner. Her selection came on the strength of a highly visible three terms in the House of Representatives, from 1978 to 1984, during which she championed liberal positions, wrote legislation aimed at establishing economic EQUITY for women, and oversaw the drafting of the Democratic party's 1984 presidential platform. Charges that she had violated congressional rules on financial disclosure hampered her run for the vice presidency, and controversy over business investments helped sink a Senate campaign in 1992. She later headed the U.S. delegation to the UNITED NATIONS Human Rights Commission.
Ferraro was born August 26, 1935, in Newburgh, New York, the fourth child of a tight-knit family enjoying prosperity. The good life did not last. When she was eight, her father, Dominick Ferraro, an Italian immigrant and successful restaurant and dime-store owner, died of a heart attack. Two of Ferraro's brothers had preceded him in death. Bad investments left her mother, Antonetta L. Corrieri, nearly broke. The three surviving family members—Ferraro, her mother, and a brother—moved into a small apartment in the Bronx. Ferraro's mother supported them by crocheting, and managed to give Ferraro an education at the exclusive Catholic school for girls, Marymount. The bright girl excelled, and a scholarship to Marymount College followed, where she earned a bachelor's degree in English in 1956. For the next four years, she taught in Queens public schools by day and took classes at Fordham University Law School by night.
The next two decades laid the groundwork for Ferraro's political future. She earned her law degree in 1960, married, and set aside her ambitions in order to raise children. Occasionally, she did part-time law work for the very successful real estate business run by her husband, developer John Zaccaro. But her main outlet for professional development was membership in local DEMOCRATIC PARTY clubs. She worked on her cousin Nicholas Ferraro's state senate campaign. When he later became district attorney for Queens County, he made her an assistant district attorney. It was 1974, and Ferraro, at the age of 39, had her first full-time job. Assigned to the Special Victims Bureau, she prosecuted cases of rape, CHILD ABUSE, and DOMESTIC VIOLENCE so disturbing that she lost sleep at night. Even though she won praise for her fairness and persuasiveness in court, she was frustrated. She earned less than her male colleagues simply because she was a married woman. By 1978, more liberal in outlook than before, politics beckoned to her.
Ferraro ran for the U.S. House of Representatives. The Ninth Congressional District was a conservative, blue-collar section of Queens, and it was hardly surprising that the local Democratic machine did not support this liberal feminist. Her Republican opponent, Alfred A. DelliBovi, a three-term assemblyman, hammered at her political inexperience. But she won anyway, on a platform of law and order, support for labor and SENIOR CITIZENS, and neighborhood preservation, which she summed up in the campaign slogan "Finally … a Tough Democrat." She had help—her cousin's connections, and her husband's wealth, which in time would come back to haunt her. Meanwhile, she set about making good on her promises and opened a plain store-front congressional office.
Ferraro quickly scaled Capitol Hill. In just two terms, she transformed herself from a meat-and-potatoes politician into a noticeable congressional leader. The change was accomplished by party loyalty: she voted with the Democratic Party 78 percent of the time in her first term, and even more often in her successive terms. But she did not forget her own philosophy. By 1981, she cosponsored the Economic Equity Act, a bipartisan measure aimed at increasing women's economic rights that has been reintroduced in Congress several times. She took personal leadership of two sections that provided women with greater access to private PENSION plans and individual retirement accounts. Ferraro's personal style—tough yet compromising—won her a reputation for playing by the rules. In a short time, she came to the attention of the most powerful Democrat in Congress, Speaker of the House THOMAS P. ("TIP") O'NEILL JR. The Speaker liked her politics and hard work, and her reward was key assignments that traditionally
went to older, more seasoned leaders: an appointment to the Budget Committee in 1983; a position helping to draft rules for the Democratic National Convention; and the biggest prize of all, chair of the 1984 Democratic platform committee, drafting the party's positions in the forthcoming election. An extraordinary career leap, the chair of the platform committee meant real power and extra visibility.
The moment was ripe for even more success. Many Democrats wanted a woman nominated to the presidential ticket. Some viewed the issue as one of fairness; others thought it would capture women voters. By spring 1984, as Mondale emerged as the clear favorite for the presidential nomination, party leaders began urging him to pick Ferraro. The Woman's National Democratic Club endorsed her. O'Neill followed suit. By June, members of the National Women's Political Caucus argued that an analysis of voting trends showed that a woman on the ticket would be a winner. The cover of Time magazine pictured Ferraro and the other leading contender, San Francisco mayor Dianne Feinstein, under the heading "And for Vice President … Why Not a Woman?"
In terms of strategic advantage, Ferraro offered more than her gender. She was an Italian American Catholic from the East with working-class roots, an identity that her supporters thought would give the Democratic ticket regional and ethnic balance. But objections came from some party members who viewed her as a pork barrel politician, too brash to be widely popular and, worse, inexperienced.
The Mondale-Ferraro campaign faced a tremendous challenge in offering an alternative to an appealing incumbent. President Reagan enjoyed great popular support, buoyed by love of his personal style and the economic recovery that had begun in 1983. The Democrats stressed negatives: Reagan's economic policies were built on huge federal deficits, they charged, which would force him to cut SOCIAL SECURITY benefits and raise taxes in a second term. Reagan responded that the United States was "standing tall" again in the eyes of the world and warned that Mondale and Ferraro would return the nation to the high inflation and unemployment that had plagued the presidency of JIMMY CARTER.
In speeches, Ferraro gave as good as she got. She blasted Ronald Reagan's penchant for tailoring facts to fit his positions, as constituting
"an anecdotal presidency." Since the Democrats were reaching out for their traditional base of organized labor and the underprivileged, she seized on opportunities to present the Republicans as the party of the rich. One opportunity came after George H. W. Bush made a point about taxes by asking if his audience knew what wins elections; he pulled out his wallet and said the election came down to who puts money into it and who takes money out. Ferraro told a crowd of supporters,
That single gesture of selfishness tells us more about the true character of this Administration than all their apple pie rhetoric. There's nothing in George Bush's wallet that says we should care about the disadvantaged. There's nothing in his wallet that tells us to search for peace. There's nothing in his wallet that says in the name of humanity let's stop the arms race.
But the voters did not respond. Democratic Party polls showed that Ferraro's negative ratings increased as she attacked Reagan. Mondale, hurt by an image of weakness, was doing no better. Reagan won by a landslide, with the greatest electoral vote margin in history, even capturing 55 percent of women voters. Ferraro's candidacy had changed history, but she had some regrets.
Ferraro's chief complaint was the Republicans' charges about her and her husband's finances. As far back as 1979, the FEDERAL ELECTION COMMISSION (FEC) had ruled that she violated the law by borrowing money from her husband for her first congressional race; she repaid it. The issue was revived in the 1984 race, along with new charges that she failed to fully disclose her family finances under the Ethics in Government Act (2 U.S.C.A. § 701). The newest accusations arose when the Washington Legal Foundation, a conservative group, filed a complaint against her with the JUSTICE DEPARTMENT and the House Committee on Standards of Official Conduct. She then admitted owing back taxes amounting to $53,459, blamed them on simple errors, and paid up. Yet not until after the election did the investigations in the Justice Department, Congress, and the FEC come to an end.
Although Ferraro was cleared of any wrongdoing, the inquiries hurt her political career. She later claimed that the Justice Department, under Reagan appointee Attorney General EDWIN MEESE III, bullied her into dropping plans to run for the Senate in 1986. She waited until 1992 to mount a Senate race in New York. Yet the charges of corruption resurfaced just as she was leading a three-way race for the Democratic nomination. Ferraro denied the allegations, calling them anti-Italian slurs. But her opponents exploited the charges and she lost the nomination.
In addition to being the managing partner of a New York law firm, Ferraro occasionally surfaced in national politics in the mid-1990s. She worked as a lobbyist for the American Association for Marriage and Family Therapy, arguing that family therapy should be covered under any NATIONAL HEALTH CARE system. In 1994, President BILL CLINTON appointed her as ambassador to head the U.S. delegation at the fiftieth annual meeting of the United Nations Human Rights Commission. Among other issues, she raised concerns about the treatment of women in the former Yugoslavia.
Ferraro served on the commission until 1996. After she stepped down, she served as a commentator on CNN's Crossfire, a political debate program. She also served as a partner in the consulting firm CEO Perspective Group, which advises corporate executives. She ran unsuccessfully for the Senate again, in 1998, losing in the New York senatorial primary to Representative Charles Schumer. After the defeat, she announced that her political career was over.
In 2001, Ferraro disclosed to the New York Times that she was battling multiple myeloma, a form of blood cancer. She was diagnosed with the rare form of cancer in 1998, and was one of the first patients to be treated with the controversial drug, thalidomide. With the cancer in remission, Ferraro commented, "This is a race I may not win, but I've lost other races before, so it's not the end of the world." Ferraro testified before Congress about her illness, and continues to speak publicly in a variety of engagements.
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