Advertisement
Share

Coming Back : Politics: Having learned from the disaster of ‘84, a wiser, warier Geraldine Ferraro is running for the Senate. This time, she knows she’ll have to face up to questions about her public and private life.

TIMES STAFF WRITER

The frosted blond hair has gone to gray, her face is more deeply lined and there’s a subtle barrier, a distance, between Geraldine Ferraro and the well-wishers who crowd around her these days.

But when it comes to letting the old boys have it, especially the Republicans who tormented Ferraro during her 1984 run for the vice presidency, the Queens housewife who made history is remarkably unchanged.

“Lemme tell ya, there’s a vicious rumor about me going around,” she tells a group of business and professional woman, early on a blustery morning. “They say I have my eyes on Sen. Al D’Amato’s seat.”

Pause.

“I don’t have my eyes on his seat. It’s his job that I want.”

The cheering crowd in a hotel banquet room rises to its feet, and Geraldine Ferraro is rolling once again. A heroine and role model to many women present, she’s attempting a political comeback from the ashes of her disastrous national campaign. And nobody is counting her out.

On a hot summer night seven years ago, Ferraro became the first woman in history to be nominated for the vice presidency. Based largely on that memorable event, she continues to enjoy a political celebrity that few can match. Although the New York Senate election is almost a year away, her battle to unseat D’Amato, a two-term GOP incumbent, is drawing enthusiastic crowds.

Advertisement

So far, however, Ferraro has been preaching to the choir. The people begging her for autographs these days don’t seem too concerned about the questions of ethical impropriety that dogged her vice presidential campaign . . . even though they are likely to be raised again in 1992. She has yet to face an ugly crowd--the kind that derided her support for abortion rights and insulted members of her family.

Those scars have not yet healed, and the 1991 Ferraro is a warier political creature. She’s less trusting of the press this time around and can be impatient with slow questioners at political events. Determined to protect her privacy, she has nonetheless put herself under the microscope again. Her personal tension is sometimes painfully evident.

At some point, Ferraro agrees, she will have to face the past: old questions about her husband’s real estate deals, whispered allegations of his mob ties, her son’s conviction for attempted sale of cocaine and charges that she mishandled her finances as a three-term congresswoman. But for now, there is no mistaking the excitement and feeling of rebirth surrounding her senatorial race, especially when she speaks to women’s groups. At a time when millions of Americans are turned off by politics, Ferraro has been whipping up the faithful with a spirited campaign--a feminist hour of power that pulls no punches.

“I was thinking about the unemployment bill that President Bush vetoed (last summer),” Ferraro tells the Syracuse crowd. “And then I realized, he probably thinks that if Clarence Thomas can get a job, anybody can get a job.”

The audience applauds, cheering her digs at the all-white, all-male Senate Judiciary Committee that debated Thomas’ nomination for the U.S. Supreme Court. But the biggest applause comes for a line she uses in every speech.

“Women in this country have a feeling they’ve been had,” she says. “And I’ll be damned if I’m going to let the ‘90s go down as the decade in which the Soviets won their rights and American women lost theirs.”

As she leaves the podium, the crowd surges forward, begging Ferraro to sign copies of"My Story,” her autobiography. It happens everywhere she goes.

“You have to understand, this woman changed my life ,” says Virginia Hundt, a businesswoman who is running for a local office next year and who has been waiting for 30 minutes to have her picture taken with Ferraro.

“She showed women that they could make a difference on the national political level, and she’s a tremendous inspiration to us all.”

Others are more skeptical. Across the room, Mary Carswell, a deputy airport manager, agrees that Ferraro is a historic figure and not just another political big shot. Still, Carswell wonders why the feisty, 5-foot-4 candidate would again put herself through the torture of public examination: “I wouldn’t change places with her for the world. Who needs the punishment? Why do it again?”

Indeed, some critics dismiss Ferraro’s campaign as an exercise in nostalgia, predicting that she cannot win a hotly contested Democratic primary next year against three other candidates. The formidable field includes New York Atty. Gen. Robert Abrams, New York City Comptroller Elizabeth Holzman and U.S. Rep. Robert Mrazek (D-Long Island).

But a recent Buffalo News poll had good news for Ferraro. Taken after the Thomas hearings, it showed her leading Abrams 40% to 38%, with Holzman and Mrazek far behind. Earlier this year, various polls put Ferraro 20 points behind Abrams, and many had written her off.

Yet even if she wins the primary, critics say, D’Amato could make mincemeat of her. They believe Ferraro, weighted by her own baggage, is the only Democratic candidate who could not credibly attack D’Amato for political corruption.

The controversial senator has been stung by charges of malfeasance over the allocation of federal housing funds in his district and is plummeting in the polls. Although he was exonerated by a Senate ethics committee, D’Amato is believed vulnerable in 1992, especially to a squeaky-clean candidate.

“The point is, Ferraro’s vulnerable too,” says a veteran Republican campaign consultant who asked not to be identified. “Voters will remember her problems, and if they don’t remember, they’ll certainly be reminded.”

If she’s bothered by the conventional wisdom, however, Ferraro doesn’t show it. Do the fellas want to play rough? She’ll play rough.

“I won’t let anyone get away with attacking me,” she says, settling in for a long drive from Syracuse to her next political event, in Albany. “If somebody hits me, my response (in a TV spot) will be in the can. I don’t run away from a fight. I’m a fighter.”

Ferraro entered the 1992 race knowing that, somewhere along the line, opponents would recycle the 1984 charges. In response, she commissioned focus groups of sample voters to see how well the attacks would play--and how she could best counter them in an aggressive media campaign.

At first, almost one-third of those polled did not like her. But when the participants learned of Ferraro’s personal story--and her views on the issues--the negatives dropped into the low 20s, she says.

“What we’ve found is that 98% of the people have heard of me, but they don’t know much about me,” Ferraro notes. “And that’s what this campaign is all about, to tell people who Gerry Ferraro is.”

In a sense, it’s unfinished business. Any thoughts Ferraro had about campaigning on the issues seven years ago were dashed when she was hit by inquiries about her family’s business and tax records. The press knew little about her and had to play catch-up ball in a hurry. As the Democratic ticket sank in the polls, less attention was paid to what Ferraro actually said.

This time, she’s determined to get her message across. And if reporters ask about her family, she promises to answer all questions.

John Zaccaro, her husband, pleaded guilty to a misdemeanor in 1985 for scheming to fraudulently obtain bank financing for an apartment house venture. He was sentenced to 150 hours of community service and “has since moved on with his life,” Ferraro says.

In 1988, her son, John Zaccaro Jr., was convicted of attempted sale of cocaine and spent four months in custody. Since then, he has opened a successful pasta business and enrolled in law school. John Jr. has also moved on with his life. Ferraro hopes the questions will soon die down.

“People may still take whacks at us, but it won’t make a bit of difference,” she says. “We’ve been through it, and there just isn’t any more.

“What was I supposed to do? My life was supposed to be over? I’m a politician, and I love public service. . . . I wanted to try it one more time.”

Some observers believe Ferraro will weather the storm. Democratic political consultant David Garth, for example, says that any candidate who attacks her with the old charges could suffer a stinging voter backlash:

“In our political culture, there’s a feeling that after you’ve been punished for something, you shouldn’t keep getting punished. She’s clearly been punished. So what more is there to say? I think people will be willing to listen to her this time around and forget all the rest.”

To find out, Ferraro campaigns frequently in Upstate New York, in suburban and rural areas where voters are far removed from the media drumbeat of New York City. Since all four Democratic Senate candidates hail from the city or Long Island, and have support there, upstate voters may hold the key.

Six hours after her Syracuse speech, Ferraro arrives in Albany for a small afternoon fund-raiser. It’s another friendly crowd, a group of professional women who are undecided about whom to support.

Ferraro uses the occasion to refine her stump speech. Like the other Democratic candidates, she’s emphasizing middle-class resentment. It’s a crime, Ferraro says, that so many taxpayers can barely make ends meet, that they can’t afford decent health care and that their children may have trouble getting college loans.

“This is one Democrat who won’t be running as a conservative,” she says. “I think universal health care is the real right to life . . . because the middle class I struggled to get into is becoming an endangered species.”

In brief, punchy statements, Ferraro tells how she grew up as the child of immigrant Italian parents in Newburgh, N.Y. She tells how her father died at an early age, which forced her mother to support the family. Eventually, Ferraro earned a law degree and became a Queens prosecutor.

Bucking the odds, she won a 1978 congressional race in Queens and quickly worked her way up the ladder of House Democratic politics. Walter F. Mondale plucked her from relative obscurity to run on the Democratic ticket, which suffered a humiliating defeat by President Ronald Reagan.

For most, that’s where the Geraldine Ferraro story ends. Apart from a 1985 Diet Pepsi commercial, the woman who went toe to toe with George Bush in a sometimes nasty TV debate has faded from view. But she sees it differently.

“I haven’t allowed my brain to atrophy the past seven years,” says Ferraro, noting that she has kept up with domestic issues and traveled widely to expand her horizons. She has also kept her hand in politics, campaigning for Democratic senatorial candidates across the nation.

It’s fashionable nowadays for candidates to run as outsiders against the Washington Establishment, and that’s what Ferraro is trying to do. On the day she arrives in Albany, for example, she tells college students she’s a “recovering politician” who is alienated by shenanigans inside the Beltway. Ferraro insists that Washington politicians “don’t speak for me.”

Less than two hours later, however, she stresses her experience in Congress, telling women at the fund-raiser that it’s a key reason to vote for her over Abrams. Unlike her, “Bobby has no Washington experience. . . . If I get there, I’ll hit the ground running.”

And electing a woman to the Senate is important, she says, because the stakes have never been so high. Pointing to several children in the audience, she says women bring a different perspective to politics:

“How many events for male candidates have you been to where you find young children? There’s a difference (among women). . . . That’s who we are. And that voice is not being heard in Washington.”

For some admirers, the mere fact that Ferraro has come out of political hibernation is itself a victory. Joan Petersen, a university fund-raiser, says many women can’t thank her enough.

“She jump-started my career. She helped me realize that women could make a difference on the national stage,” says Petersen. “Now, it’s important that she’s back, trying again. She’s such an important symbol.”

It’s a familiar refrain, one Ferraro hears several times the next morning, as she makes her way through a gathering of professional women in nearby Schenectady. But just before she speaks, several women privately voice doubts about her. Why is she running again? Will there be new charges against her?

“Lemme tell ya something,” says Ferraro, warming up to her favorite punch line about D’Amato. “There’s a vicious rumor about me going around. . . .”


Advertisement