Revisiting Geraldine Ferraro on the eve of Biden’s big choice

Vice-presidential candidate Geraldine Ferraro [right] with presidential candidate Walter Mondale.
Vice-presidential candidate Geraldine Ferraro [right] with presidential candidate Walter Mondale.
Warren K. Leffler/United States Library of Congress/Public Domain
Geraldine Ferraro. The congresswoman from Queens was the first woman to serve as a major party vice-presidential nominee. She was on the Democratic ticket with Walter Mondale (pictured left) in 1984, which lost to incumbent President Ronald Reagan.

Revisiting Geraldine Ferraro on the eve of Biden’s big choice

Democrats’ last female VP pick was from Queens and she gets a bad rap from political insiders.
August 6, 2020

Joe Biden, this year’s Democratic presidential nominee, is expected to announce his running mate in the coming days, and it will likely mark the first time the Democrats have put a woman not from New York on their presidential ticket. Everyone knows, of course, about former Sen. Hillary Clinton, who received the most votes for president of any candidate ever in 2016. But, though she is seldom mentioned in the same breath as trailblazing feminists from New York such as former Reps. Bella Abzug and Shirley Chisholm, an Italian-American woman from the outer boroughs was the first woman to be nominated for vice president. And maybe it’s time former Rep. Geraldine Ferraro got her due. 

Back in 1984, New York hadn’t yet had a female governor, the city hadn’t yet had a female mayor, and no woman had ever been president or vice president. But Democrats and their presidential nominee, former Vice President Walter Mondale, needed to try something new if they were going to have any chance of unseating the popular incumbent, President Ronald Reagan. So on July 12th, 1984, just as party leaders were heading to San Francisco for the Democratic National Convention, Mondale made an announcement: he was choosing a woman as his running mate: Ferraro, then 48, who had represented Queens in the House of Representatives for just six years. 

Choosing Ferraro was considered a mistake by most political observers. She’s often included on lists of the worst VP picks. Her personal finances were relentlessly scrutinized, and her reputation was hurt by her real estate developer husband’s reluctance to release his tax returns. Although she was chosen in part to appeal to Italian-Americans and other Catholics, Ferraro failed to carry those groups, in part because New York archbishop John Cardinal O’Connor attacked her support for abortion rights. That November, Reagan won in a landslide. Mondale and Ferraro even lost New York – a state the Democratic ticket has won in each of the eight presidential elections since then. 

Many of the conditions are the same today: a woman still has never served as governor of New York, mayor of New York City or president or vice president of the United States. The Democrats have nominated a gray pillar of the party establishment, and are looking for a running mate who will excite the party’s base. 

While Mondale was subject to pressure to elevate a woman by feminist leaders, he never publicly telegraphed his plan to do so. Biden, however, has explicitly promised to pick a woman, which would mark the first time the party has had a female vice presidential nominee since Ferraro. 

So it’s worth revisiting the former Queens representative, even if it’s only to realize that she deserves more credit, and far less scorn, than she has gotten. 

Ferraro was born and initially raised in Newburgh, New York, in the Hudson Valley. Her mother moved the family to the South Bronx after Ferraro’s father, an Italian immigrant who owned restaurants, died when she was just eight. Her path into law and politics was inspiring. First an elementary school teacher, she went to law school at a time when female attorneys were extremely rare, and worked for more than a decade as a lawyer at the real estate firm run by her husband, John Zaccaro. A bit of nepotism might have helped her then when her cousin, then-Queens District Attorney Nicholas Ferrarro, hired her as an assistant district attorney. But Ferraro earned respect in the office and was soon tapped the lead its newly created special victims bureau, dealing with rape and child abuse cases. 

Ferraro’s continued use of her own last name professionally and her subsequent rise to prominence helped popularize the use of “Ms.” as a title. She, her husband and three kids lived in Forest Hills, Queens, and she became involved in local politics. Mario Cuomo, another Queens resident who would later be elected governor, was a mentor, and encouraged her to run for office. So when former Rep. James Delaney announced his retirement in 1978, Ferraro jumped into the race and won her first-ever campaign as a self-professed conservative Democrat in a district stretching from Astoria on the East River to Central Queens. Ferraro’s profile increased over her three terms in Congress, and her politics shifted to the left. One highlight was her lead sponsorship of a bill that made it easier to access spousal retirement benefits under employee pension plans, an issue of particular concern to women at the time. She voted on the party line and was close to party leadership. Then-House Speaker Tip O’Neill lobbied for Mondale to pick her, and ahead of Mondale’s decision, she was named chair of the DNC platform committee. 

When Mondale made his announcement, it seemed like the whole country liked Ferraro as much as Democratic insiders did. The pick gave the flagging Mondale campaign an instant boost in the polls against Reagan, and to this day Ferraro’s acceptance speech at the convention is remembered among the finest political speeches of all time for its vision of forward progress, with her unlikely path to the stage as an example.

“Nine hundred people live in Elmore,” Ferraro said, referring to Mondale’s hometown in Minnesota. “In Queens, there are 2,000 people on one block. You would think we would be different, but we're not. Children walk to school in Elmore past grain elevators; in Queens, they pass by subway stops. But, no matter where they live, their future depends on education – and their parents are willing to do their part to make those schools as good as they can be.”

The choice was also something that Queens could be proud of, remembered Mark Weprin, a former City Council member from Queens and now an attorney at Greenberg Traurig. Weprin flew to the DNC that year with his father, former Assembly Member Saul Weprin, and was amazed to see the face of “this local Queens congressperson who we knew” on the front page of newspapers from around the country. It was “an exciting time for Queens.” Days before Ferraro’s speech, Queens native Cuomo would deliver his famous keynote address, in which he eloquently laid out the liberal vision for government – and the case against Reagan. “We were all very proud,” retired Queens Supreme Court Judge Greg Lasak told City & State. “It focused national attention on Queens County at the time.”

But the good times wouldn’t last. Reporters started digging into Ferraro’s finances and found she was a stockholder in P. Zaccaro Company, her husband’s real estate firm that owned and managed properties in Lower Manhattan. From there, the stories didn’t stop for the next four months running up until the election. Zaccaro had been fined by the Federal Election Commission for illegal loans to an earlier Ferraro campaign. Apartments owned by Zaccaro were riddled with building violations, and one of his commercial tenants was a pornography distributor who may have had mafia ties. The couple owed more than $50,000 in taxes because of a supposed accounting error. While Ferraro released her own tax returns, Zaccaro would decline to do so for weeks – something then-New York City Mayor Ed Koch called an “embarrassment.”

Republicans seized it as a “genderless issue” where they could attack Ferraro without risking complaints of sexism, and right-leaning news outlets like the Wall Street Journal editorial page and the New York Post fervently chased the story. More than a month after she was picked, Ferraro finally released Zaccaro’s full tax returns and held a now-legendary two-hour press conference answering every question thrown at her. But voters’ perception of her may have changed. Ferraro may have first appeared as a humble working mom, but she and her husband were also millionaires with a condo in St. Croix. The scrutiny into their finances continued, leading then-Manhattan District Attorney Robert Morgenthau to open an investigation into Zaccaro’s part in a real estate loan scheme. Months after his wife’s loss, he’d plead guilty to a misdemeanor and be sentenced to 150 hours of community service

Of course, the real estate developer from Queens in the White House today never released his tax returns, ran a fraudulent “university” taken down by the New York state Attorney General, participated in schemes to evade tax liability for gifts from his father, given wildly disparate property value assessments to government and lenders – thus potentially defrauding either or both of those parties – and had business arrangements with mob bosses. But it was a more innocent time back then. 

One relative high point was the vice presidential debate. Ferraro entered as the underdog, but the three-term congresswoman fought the former United Nations ambassador and sitting vice president George H.W. Bus to a draw.

Nonetheless, Mondale reportedly said he thought that the disclosures about Ferraro’s finances cost the ticket 15 percentage points at the polls. To this day, Ferraro’s story is used as a cautionary tale. A win for the Democrats is more important than having a VP pick that represents any particular demographic group, Rep. Jim Clyburn, an influential Democrat from South Carolina, told the Washington Post back in June. Ferraro “was an outstanding woman,” he said. “But when they did the vetting of her, (they) didn't do proper vetting of her husband, and that turned out to be a problem.”

But Clyburn gets at the real point there: Mondale’s campaign seemed to fail to properly vet Ferraro’s family finances. Doing so might have led Mondale to choose a different vice presidential pick, or it might have just allowed the campaign to better prepare for the inevitable inquiries and stories. And of course, any defense of Ferraro has to note that sexism and anti-Italian racism played a role in the harsh scrutiny she received, like the apparently unfounded accusation that her parents ran numbers for the mob. For that, she denounced Rupert Murdoch, whose papers ran the story, as unfit "to wipe the dirt beneath my mother's feet.” (A charge that many Democrats today may agree with about Murdoch, now the billionaire chairman of Fox News.) Clearly, Ferraro wasn’t the running mate that Mondale needed to energize the electorate to turn against Reagan. But it would be a mistake to place the campaign’s failure on her padded shoulders. Evidence and political science suggests that running mates don’t have much of an effect on presidential elections, even in their home states. Mondale’s estimate of a 15-point reduction in his support because of Ferraro is probably off by at least a factor of 15. And the analysis of Mondale’s close aide Richard Moe holds just as true today as when he said it a week after the 1984 election: ''I don't think Mondale had a chance… the bottom line is you had an incumbent President presiding over a healthy economy and a country at peace.'' If anything besides those fundamentals significantly mattered, it would be that Reagan was famously charismatic and Mondale was not.And Mondale made his own strategic errors. Writing in The Washington Post in 1985, political analyst Mark Shields argued Mondale’s biggest mistake was a failure to embrace his party’s proposal for a loophole-closing and rate-lowering tax reform. It’s implausible that Mondale would have won if he had backed tax reform, but no less plausible than blaming the outcome on Ferraro. 

As much as Ferraro’s 1984 run raised her profile, it also may have cost her in subsequent elections. She ran in the 1992 Democratic primary for U.S. Senate and finished a close second to then-state Attorney General Bob Abrams, who would fail to unseat then-Sen. Al D’Amato in the general election. After serving President Bill Clinton as an ambassador to the United Nations, and another couple years co-hosting CNN’s “Crossfire,” she tried running for Senate again in 1998, but lost decisively to then-Rep. Chuck Schumer, who would go on to win the seat. 

Ferraro died from cancer in 2011, and her trailblazing legacy will surely be remembered this month by whoever is chosen as the Democrat’s second-ever female vice presidential nominee. But Ferraro’s political legacy also lives on in New York. Her son John Zaccaro Jr. is mayor of Saltaire, a tiny village on Fire Island. 

Jeff Coltin
is a senior reporter at City & State. He covers New York City Hall.
Ben Adler
is City & State’s senior editor.
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