In 1974, when her youngest child was in second grade, she went to see her cousin, Queens Dist. Atty. Nicholas Ferraro, who hired her as a prosecutor. Within three years she was promoted to chief of the special victims bureau, in charge of sex crimes, child abuse, rape and domestic violence cases. It was emotionally draining work, but she won six jury trials, aided, according to a review by American Lawyer magazine, by her "straightforward eloquent approach" and "meticulous courtroom preparation."
"You can force a person to have a child, but you can't make the person love that child," Ferraro wrote, reflecting on the child abuse cases she prosecuted. "I don't know what pain a fetus experiences, but I can well imagine the suffering of a four-year-old girl being dipped in boiling water until her skin came off and then lying in bed unattended for two days until she died. And that was only one of the cases seared in my memory."
In 1978, Ferraro formally entered politics. Running for Congress on the slogan "Finally, a tough Democrat," she won by a 10% margin despite being snubbed by local party leaders.
She was reelected twice by even larger margins -- 58% in 1980 and 73% in 1982.
She studiously strove to avoid the pitfalls of being a rookie and one of the few women in Congress. After overhearing a male colleague's putdown of a new female member who "couldn't find her way to the ladies' room," Ferraro mentally mapped out her exact route whenever she headed out the door. "Silly, right? And totally inconsequential," she said. "But nothing is worse than looking as if you don't know where you're going."
A quick learner, she soon caught the attention of House Speaker Tip O'Neill, who called her "a regular since the day she arrived." She was in many ways an old-fashioned politician who could schmooze and glad-hand with the most wizened colleagues. O'Neill rewarded her with seats on the Democratic Steering and Policy Committee and the House Budget Committee, as well as the position of secretary to the House Democratic Caucus. Male colleagues found her effective but, as then-Rep. Leon E. Panetta described her, "not a Bella Abzug type," a reference to the late New York congresswoman and feminist leader known for her confrontational style.
Ferraro supported a nuclear freeze, opposed Reagan's tax-cut proposal, upheld support for social programs for the poor, elderly and children, and was a strong supporter of Israel. She was passionate about abortion rights and championed the Equal Rights Amendment. She also voted against mandatory busing for integration and for tuition tax credits for parochial schools, positions that won favor in her conservative, largely blue-collar district. Her record earned a description in Time as "a New Deal Democrat with a good seasoning of traditional family values," an appealing balance that eventually would help her leap onto the national stage.
While she was building her career in Washington, interest in the gender gap began to intensify. Proportionally more men than women had voted Reagan into office in 1980. Many partisans began to take note of the fact that he had won by 8.4 million votes, a margin that they hoped could be overturned the next time by some 30 million unregistered women of voting age.
In late 1983, the drumbeat for a female vice president began at a conference of the National Organization for Women, the nation's largest feminist group. Polls began to ask whether a woman on the ticket would make a difference, and the answer was coming back as yes.
In Washington, a group of politically connected Democratic women began a stealth campaign. Calling themselves Team A, they prodded prominent Democrats to publicly endorse the concept of a female vice president. Eventually, Mondale, Gary Hart and Edward M. Kennedy spoke favorably of the idea. The ad-hoc group floated names of potential candidates, including women then in Congress such as Barbara Mikulski of Maryland and Pat Schroeder of Colorado, and then-San Francisco Mayor Dianne Feinstein. They encouraged women in the national media to write about putting a woman on the ticket.
Early in 1984, after vetting the possibilities, the group decided that the woman with the most voter appeal was Ferraro. Over a Chinese takeout dinner, Team A broached the subject with her. Would she "stay open to the idea of becoming the actual nominee" if the concept caught on? Ferraro recalled her reaction: "I was flabbergasted and flattered." The possibility of her nomination struck her as extremely remote, but she agreed to become the focus of the team's efforts.
To raise her national profile, she went after a prominent role in the upcoming Democratic National Convention and became the first woman to be platform chair. She earned high marks for averting a potential convention revolt by delegates pledged to Hart and Jesse Jackson, who ultimately were satisfied that the platform reflected their views.
While she labored over the platform, prominent figures, including House Speaker O'Neill, began to drop her name as a contender for the No. 2 spot on the ticket.
By early July, she was regularly mentioned as a finalist on Mondale's list, along with San Antonio Mayor Henry Cisneros, Los Angeles Mayor Tom Bradley, Philadelphia Mayor Wilson Goode, Kentucky Gov. Martha Layne Collins, Texas Sen. Lloyd Bentsen, and Feinstein. The party front-runner summoned her to Minnesota for an interview, but she nearly pulled herself out of contention after leaks from a high-ranking Mondale staffer resulted in stories deriding her prospects.
The waiting ended July 11 when Mondale popped the question: Would she be his running mate?
"I didn't pause for a minute," Ferraro wrote in "Ferraro: My Story," published in 1985.
At a news conference that day, an unusually effervescent Mondale said -- twice -- "This is an exciting choice."
Among the pundits who agreed was New Yorker political analyst Elizabeth Drew. Ferraro's selection, she wrote, was "a lightning bolt across the political landscape." It not only would help Mondale energize female voters, Hart supporters and independents, but would bolster the staid image of the Minnesota Democrat who, in a stroke, had "reduced the assumption that he is incapable of bold action." Dragging by double digits in the polls, Mondale had grasped his "best, and perhaps only, hope" for victory in November.