This is the grave of Geraldine Ferraro.
Born in 1935 in Newburgh, New York, Ferraro grew up in an Italian immigrant household. They did OK; her father owned a couple Italian restaurants in the town while her mother was a seamstress, She went to Catholic schools. But then her father died in 1943 and her mother made poor choices in investing the money they still had. By the end of World War II, they were broke. Forced to move to New York so her mother could work in the garment industry, Ferraro ended up going to Catholic schools in The Bronx and then in Tarrytown. She did very well there, skipping seventh grade. She went to Iona College, where she majored in English. She worked as an elementary school teacher in Queens for awhile. But ambitious, she decided to go get a law degree, which she achieved from Fordham in 1960, taking night classes while teaching second grade during the day. She also married a businessman named John Zaccaro that year, who she had dated since she was at Iona. She kept her maiden name, an unusual step in 1960.
For the first several years of marriage, Ferraro worked as a lawyer in her husband’s real estate agency. That was a part-time position while she also raised their children. But she was always busy outside the home too. She became an important Democratic Party volunteer in Queens. She met Mario Cuomo in 1970 when she was working on the opposition to a building development. Cuomo saw a lot of potential in Ferraro and encouraged her to play a more active role in politics. She became president of the Queens County Women’s Bar Association that same year. Then in 1974, Ferraro entered political office for the first time when she was appointed Assistant District Attorney for Queens. It helped that her cousin was the DA. Yep, Queens.
To be fair here though, Ferraro was a very aggressive and successful lawyer, family connections notwithstanding. This was the beginning of the war on crime and Ferraro was one of the first people to see the role of prosecutor as a ticket to political success, something that has only begun to wane recently. By 1977, she headed the new Special Victims Unit that was created in 1975 to prosecute sexual violence and child abuse. She found the work pretty stressful though and wanted to run for office anyway.
In 1978 then, Ferraro ran for Congress at the suggestion of Cuomo. She ran as a white populist who was tough on crime and she identified as a conservative. Suggesting the new northern urban law and order wing of the Democratic Party rising at this time, her campaign slogan was “Finally, A Tough Democrat,” an obvious swipe at liberals such as Bella Abzug. She used her increasingly wealthy family to help her, taking a lot of illegal campaign donations that the FEC caught. She had to pay back over $100,000. But this didn’t get in the way of her rise. Tip O’Neill thought she was great and took her under his wing. By 1981, she was already Secretary of the House Democratic Caucus, serving two terms there, and was placed on the powerful Steering and Policy Committee. She loved a good pork project that would help Queens and got on the Public Works and Transportation Committee to ensure she moved dollars back to her district. She was a deputy chair for the 1980 Carter-Mondale campaign. After that election, she was the prime mover in the creation of superdelegates in the Democratic primary, something that has become increasingly problematic in recent cycles due to the perceived nature of fixing the game.
Ferraro had her good side. She was big on legislation to help working women and was the prime mover on legislation that benefited working people who left their jobs for a long period of time and needed good benefits when they returned, which the Reagan administration reluctantly supported due to its popularity. She also fought to stop convoys of toxic waste from being trucked through heavily populated communities.
But white populism was always her bread and butter and made her popular with her white Queens base. For instance, she supported the attempt to create a Constitutional amendment to ban busing, which is just openly racist, as the entire backlash to busing was. But overall, she moved to positions of moderation on most issues, including abortion and was relatively friendly to unions.
When Walter Mondale won the Democratic nomination in 1984, he chose Ferraro as his VP. It made some sense. Of course, the focus was on her being the first woman to be nominated to the position by a major party. This was indeed a big deal and was intended to draw women to Mondale. But he was seen as a Minnesota liberal and she was a ethnic urban moderate from Queens, representing exactly the kind of Reagan Democrat that Democrats felt they had to win back in order to defeat Reagan. A sexist news media questioned how a woman could handle foreign policy if she ended up in the Oval Office, even though she had paid a good bit attention to it while in Congress, including visiting Nicaragua during its civil war. Unfortunately, the same sketchy finances that had always been on the margins of her career came back to haunt her. She and her husband had kept their finances totally separate, which in some ways was the sign of a feminist marriage but also meant that she had no idea how much money they had or how accurate their tax filings had been. As it turned out, they hadn’t been overly accurate and Mondale’s team did a poor job of vetting all of this. There’s no reason to think that anything about this led to the blowout loss for Mondale in November, but it certainly didn’t help.
Ferraro had resigned from the House when she took the VP nod. So what to do? She still had big ambitions. She wrote an autobiography, always a sign of future interest in higher office. But her husband was found guilty of obtaining fraudulent bank financing and then her son was found guilty of cocaine possession. The former only got community service, but the latter had to go to prison. So instead, she became a Democratic Party insider, recruiting female candidates for Congress, doing some cable slots, teaching at Harvard. Normal stuff for someone like this.
In 1992, Ferraro decided enough time had passed and she decided to run for the Senate, which was her goal even before Mondale had tapped her for VP. Not surprisingly, her opponents focused on her husband’s finances and this was enough for Robert Abrams to judge slide past her on his way to losing to Al D’Amato. For what it’s worth, D’Amato did fear Ferraro, feeling her own background would cut into his base, so he was happy to take on Abrams. She was so angry at Abrams’ nastiness and accusations that she was connected to organized crime that she refused to endorse him until Bill Clinton and Mario Cuomo interceded and convinced her to give a lukewarm endorsement only three days before the general election.
Ferraro was still a big insider and so Bill Clinton named her part of the UN Commission on Human Rights and as vice-chair of the U.S. delegation to the Fourth World Conference on Women in 1995. The next year, she joined the execrable CNN show Crossfire. In 1998, she decided on another run for Senate and was the early frontrunner. But Chuck Schumer worked like a dog and she didn’t and he ended up beating her easily.
That was it for runs at elected office for Ferraro. She was involved years in charities, on corporate and university boards, and the other things that influential ex-politicians end up doing. She was diagnosed with multiple myeloma in 1998 and lived far longer with the disease that most people. She became a public face of the fight against cancer. For some reason, she ended up as the rare Democratic talking voice on Fox News beginning in 1999 and even had a show with Laura Ingraham for awhile. Well, she was always the kind of Democrat who one could see going that direction.
Then in 2008, Ferraro really went over the edge. She was all-in for Hillary in the Democratic primaries, which fine. But she hated Obama for daring to challenge her. When she found out her daughter supported Obama, she actually told her, “What does he inspire you to do, leave your husband and three kids and your practice and go work for Doctors Without Borders?” which was actually blaming Obama for her daughter’s family choices. OK, well that’s kind of weird. But then she actually said that Obama had an advantage because he was Black. She stated, “If Obama was a white man, he would not be in this position. And if he was a woman (of any color) he would not be in this position. He happens to be very lucky to be who he is. And the country is caught up in the concept.” Uh……. Moreover, she had basically said the exact same thing about Jesse Jackson in his presidential runs. But then Ferraro was always a little racist. This was part of her politics and her rise in Queens. Then she started going on Fox again to slam on Obama, playing right into the narrative of that fascist news network. She was thrilled when John McCain picked Sarah Palin to be his VP, despite the obviously low quality and dangerous candidate that she was. She did eventually support Obama, but said that he should have to pay off Hillary’s campaign debts.
Ferraro mostly kept a low profile after her disastrous 2008. She died in 2011 of complications from the cancer, though it was technically pneumonia that did her in. She was 75 years old.
Geraldine Ferraro is buried in Saint John Cemetery, Queens, New York.
If you would like this series to visit other losing vice-presidential candidates, you can donate to cover the required expenses here. John Sparkman is in Huntsville, Alabama and Lloyd Bentsen is in Houston. Previous posts in this series are archived here.