BOSTON — Geraldine Ferraro’s selection as Walter Mondale’s Democratic running mate in the 1984 presidential election made her a winner as far as history was concerned, despite an unsuccessful campaign that proved to be a tough political slog against a popular incumbent.
Her vice presidential bid, the first for a woman on a major party ticket, emboldened women across the country to seek public office and helped lay the groundwork for Hillary Rodham Clinton’s presidential candidacy in 2008 and John McCain’s choice of his running mate, Sarah Palin, that year.
“By choosing a woman to run, you send a powerful signal to all Americans: There are no doors we cannot unlock,” Ferraro said in her acceptance speech at the 1984 Democratic convention. “We will place no limits on achievement. If we can do this, we can do anything.”
Ferraro died Saturday in Boston, where the 75-year-old was being treated for complications of blood cancer. She died just before 10 a.m., said Amanda Fuchs Miller, a family friend who worked for Ferraro in her 1998 Senate bid and was acting as a spokeswoman for the family.
Mondale’s campaign had struggled to gain traction and his selection of the congresswoman from the New York City borough of Queens revived his momentum, at least momentarily, and energized millions of women who were thrilled to see one of their own on a national ticket.
The blunt, feisty Ferraro charmed audiences initially, and for a time polls showed the Democratic ticket gaining ground on President Ronald Reagan and Vice President George H. W. Bush. But her candidacy ultimately proved rocky as she fought ethics charges and traded barbs with Bush over accusations of sexism and class warfare.
Ferraro later told an interviewer, “I don’t think I’d run again for vice president,” then added, “Next time I’d run for president.”
On Oct. 20, 1984, Ferraro came to Bangor, Maine, for the campaign and held a town-meeting style event in Peakes Auditorium at Bangor High School. About 2,000 people, who watched a closed-circuit television feed in the gymnasium, attended the event. Anti-abortion protesters picketed outside the school, according to a Bangor Daily News report from Oct. 22 of that year.
Reporter John S. Day compared her demeanor on stage to “an assistant principal rapping with students.” He wrote that she “raked Ronald Reagan over the coals on issues ranging from the environment and the nuclear arms race to comparable pay for women.”
“She declined, however, to inject herself into Maine’s ERA [Equal Rights Amendment] referendum issue, or to criticize directly the state’s three Republican incumbents — Sen. William S. Cohen, Rep. Olympia J. Snowe and Rep. John R. McKernan Jr.”
Mal Leary of Capitol News Service had an exclusive one-on-one interview with Ferraro.
“It was an interesting time and an interesting election,” he said Saturday. “I remember it being a fun interview. She was very pleasant to talk to and very engaged in the issues. She thought they really had a chance in Maine. It turned out they didn’t.”
Eventually, Reagan won 49 of 50 states in 1984, the largest landslide since Franklin D. Roosevelt’s first re-election over Alf Landon in 1936. But Ferraro had sealed her place as trailblazer for women in politics forever.
“At the time it happened it was such a phenomenal breakthrough,” said Ruth Mandel of the Center on the American Woman and Politics at Rutgers University. “She stepped on the path to higher office before anyone else, and her footprint is still on that path.”
Snowe, who entered the U.S. House with Ferraro in 1978, called her one of the nation’s “most remarkable trailblazers.” At the time Snowe and Ferraro were two of the 16 women serving in the House in 1979. “Over 30 years later, Geraldine’s legacy lives on through the 74 women serving in the House today, as well as the 17 women currently serving in the Senate,” Snowe added.
“While serving in the House, Geraldine and I were both members of the bipartisan Congressional Caucus for Women’s Issues, and together we worked across party lines on matters of importance to women and families. Geraldine was also a leader in the fight to end pension award discrimination against women and an integral force in the passage of the Economic Equity Act, legislation that enhanced workplace fairness for women and their families.
“Geraldine’s service is an unending source of inspiration to us all, both as a history-maker and as a vanguard for the equal voice of women in their government and in their workplace. My thoughts and prayers are with Geraldine’s family and loved ones during this difficult time,” Snowe said.
Palin, who was Alaska’s governor when she was selected to run for vice president, often spoke of Ferraro on the campaign trail.
“She broke one huge barrier and then went on to break many more,” Palin wrote on her Facebook page Saturday. “May her example of hard work and dedication to America continue to inspire all women.”
For his part, Mondale remembered his former running mate as “a remarkable woman and a dear human being.”
“She was a pioneer in our country for justice for women and a more open society. She broke a lot of molds and it’s a better country for what she did,” Mondale told The Associated Press.
Ferraro died at Massachusetts General Hospital, where she had gone Monday for a procedure to relieve back pain caused by a fracture. Such fractures are common in people with her type of blood cancer because of the thinning of their bones, said Dr. Noopur Raje, the Mass General doctor who treated her.
Ferraro, however, developed pneumonia, which made impossible to perform the procedure, and it soon became clear she didn’t have long to live, Raje said. Since she was too ill to return to New York, her family went to Boston.
Raje said it seemed Ferraro held out until her husband and three children arrived. They were all at her bedside when she passed, she said.
“Gerry actually waited for all of them to come, which I think was incredible,” said Raje, director of the myloma program at the hospital’s cancer center. “They were all able to say their goodbyes to Mom.”
Ferraro stepped into the national spotlight at the Democratic convention in 1984, giving the world its first look at a co-ed presidential ticket. It seemed, at times, an awkward arrangement — she and Mondale stood together and waved at the crowd but did not hug and barely touched.
Delegates erupted in cheers at the first line of her speech accepting the vice presidential nomination.
“My name is Geraldine Ferraro,” she declared. “I stand before you to proclaim tonight: America is the land where dreams can come true for all of us.”
Her acceptance speech launched eight minutes of cheers, foot-stamping and tears.
Ferraro, a mother of three who campaigned wearing pastel-hued dresses and pumps, sometimes overshadowed Mondale on the campaign trail, often drawing larger crowds and more media attention than the presidential candidate.
But controversy accompanied her acclaim.
A Roman Catholic, she encountered frequent, vociferous protests of her favorable view of abortion rights.
She famously tangled with Bush, her vice presidential rival who struggled at times over how aggressively to attack Ferraro.
In their only nationally televised debate, in October 1984, Bush raised eyebrows when he said, “Let me help you with the difference, Ms. Ferraro, between Iran and the embassy in Lebanon.” Ferraro shot back, saying she resented Bush’s “patronizing attitude that you have to teach me about foreign policy.”
Ferraro would later suggest on the campaign trail that Bush and his family were wealthy and therefore didn’t understand the problems faced by ordinary voters. That comment irked Bush’s wife, Barbara, who said Ferraro had more money than the Bush family. “I can’t say it, but it rhymes with rich,” Barbara Bush told reporters when asked to describe Ferraro. She later apologized.
In a statement, Bush praised Ferraro for “the dignified and principled manner she blazed new trails for women in politics.” He said that after the 1984 race, “Gerry and I became friends in time — a friendship marked by respect and affection.”
Ferraro’s run also was beset by ethical questions, first about her campaign finances and tax returns, then about the business dealings of her husband, real estate developer John Zaccaro. Ferraro attributed much of the controversy to bias against Italian-Americans.
Zaccaro pleaded guilty in 1985 to a misdemeanor charge of scheming to defraud in connection with obtaining financing for the purchase of five apartment buildings. Two years later, he was acquit ted of trying to extort a bribe from a cable television company.
Ferraro’s son, John Zaccaro Jr., was convicted in 1988 of selling cocaine to an undercover Vermont state trooper and served three months under house arrest.
Some observers said the legal troubles were a drag on Ferraro’s later political ambitions, which included her unsuccessful bids for the Democratic nomination for U.S. Senate in New York in 1992 and 1998.
Ferraro, a supporter of Hillary Clinton’s presidential bid, was back in the news in March 2008 when she stirred up a controversy by appearing to suggest that Sen. Barack Obama achieved his stat us in the presidential race only because he is black.
She later stepped down from an honorary post in the Clinton campaign, but insisted she meant no slight against Obama.
In a statement, Obama praised Ferraro as a trailblazer who had made the world better for his daughters.
“Sasha and Malia will grow up in a more equal America because of the life Geraldine Ferraro chose to live,” Obama said.
Ferraro received a law degree from Fordham University in 1960, the same year she married and became a full-time homemaker and mother. She said she kept her maiden name to honor her mother, a widow who had worked long hours as a seamstress.
After years in a private law practice, she took a job as an assistant Queens district attorney in 1974. She headed the office’s special victims’ bureau, which prosecuted sex crimes and the abuse of children and the elderly. In 1978, she won the first of three terms in Congress representing a blue-collar district of Queens.
After losing in 1984, she became a fellow of the Institute of Politics at the John F. Kennedy School of Government at Harvard University until an unsuccessful bid for the U.S. Senate nomination in 1992.
She returned to the law after her 1992 Senate run, acting as an advocate for women raped during ethnic conflict in the former Yugoslavia.
Her advocacy work and support of President Bill Clinton won her the position of ambassador to the United Nations Human Rights Commission, where she served in 1994 and 1995.
She co-hosted CNN’s “Crossfire,” in 1996 and 1997 but left to take on Chuck Schumer, then a little-known Brooklyn congressman, in the 1998 Democratic Senate primary. She placed a distant second, declaring her political career finished after she took 26 percent of the vote to Schumer’s 51 percent.
In June 1999, she announced that she was joining a Washington, D.C., area public relations firm to head a group advising clients on women’s issues.
Ferraro revealed two years later that she had been diagnosed with blood cancer.
She once discussed blood cancer research before a Senate panel and said she hoped to live long enough “to attend the inauguration of the first woman president of the United States.”
BDN reporter Judy Harrison contributed to this report.