Geraldine Ferraro Dies at 75

Tuesday, Mar 29, 2011  |  Updated 11:45 AM EDT
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In Memoriam

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Geraldine A. Ferraro, who rose from a U.S congressional seat in Queens to a place in history as the first woman to run on a major party national ticket for vice president, has died. She was 75.

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Geraldine A. Ferraro, who rose from a U.S congressional seat in Queens to a place in history as the first woman to run on a major party national ticket for vice president, has died.  She was 75.

Ferraro, born in Newburgh, N.Y., died Saturday at Massachusetts General Hospital while surrounded by her loved ones, a statement from her family said.

The cause of death was complications from multiple myeloma, a blood cancer that she had battled for twelve years, her family said.

Geraldine Anne Ferraro Zaccaro, a former Queens schoolteacher, was the first woman and first Italian-American to run on a major party national ticket, serving as Walter Mondale's vice presidential running mate in 1984 on the Democratic Party ticket.  

President Barack Obama called Ferraro a trailblazer and said his daughters will grow up in a more equal country because of her ideals.  Ferraro "fought to uphold America's founding ideals of equality, justice and opportunity for all," the president said.

Mondale chose Ferraro to run with him against incumbents Ronald Reagan and George H. W. Bush. Delegates in San Francisco 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-stomping and tears.

Ferraro sometimes overshadowed Mondale on the campaign trail, often drawing larger crowds and more media attention than the presidential candidate.

"No one asks anymore if women can raise the money, if women can take the heat, if women have the stamina for the toughest political campaigns in this country,'' Judy Goldsmith, then-president of the National Organization for Women told People Magazine in December 1984. "Geraldine Ferraro did them all.''

But controversy accompanied her acclaim. Frequent, vociferous protests of her favorable view of abortion rights marked the campaign.

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, John Zaccaro. Ferraro attributed much of the controversy to bias against Italian-Americans.

Mondale said he selected Ferraro as a bold stroke to counter his poor showing in polls against President Reagan and because he felt America lagged far behind other democracies in elevating women to top leadership roles.

"The time had come to eliminate the barriers to women of America and to reap the benefits of drawing talents from all Americans, including women,'' Mondale said.

In the end, Reagan won 49 of the 50 states, the largest landslide since Franklin D. Roosevelt's first re-election, in 1936 over Alf Landon.

In the years after the race, Ferraro told interviewers that she would have not have accepted the nomination had she known how it would focus criticism on her family.

"You don't deliberately submit people you love to something like that,'' she told presidential historian Arthur M. Schlesinger Jr. in an interview in Ladies Home Journal. "I don't think I'd run again for vice-president,'' she said, then paused, laughed and said, "Next time I'd run for president.''

In 1992 and 1998, Ferraro was an unsuccessful candidate for the Democratic nomination to the United States Senate.

Some observers said legal troubles involving her husband and son were a drag on her political ambitions.  Ferraro's husband 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 acquitted 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.

Mondale, her former running mate, said Saturday that Ferraro was 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," he said.

Though best known for her political achievements, Ferraro started her career in public service upon graduation from Marymount Manhattan College in Manhattan, where she received her B.A. in English in 1952.

She became a New York City schoolteacher, teaching second grade at P.S. 85 in Astoria, Queens, part of the district she would later represent in Congress.

While teaching, Ferraro earned a law degree from Fordham Law School. One of three women in her class, she recounted that an admissions officer said to her, "I hope you're serious, Gerry. You're taking a man's place, you know."

She passed the New York State Bar exam three days before her marriage to John Zaccaro, and practiced under the surname Ferraro as a tribute to her mother's struggles as a widow to raise her.

Ferraro spent 13 years at home raising her children, during which time she also practiced law pro bono in Queens County Family Court on behalf of women and children, and served as president of the Queens County Women's Bar Association.

In 1974, she was sworn in as an assistant district attorney in the Queens County District Attorney's Office. There, she started the Special Victims Bureau, where she supervised the prosecution of sex crimes, child abuse, domestic violence and violent crimes against senior citizens.

Ferraro was first elected to Congress from New York's 9th congressional district in Queens in 1978, and served three terms in the House of Representatives before being tapped for the vice presidential run.

In her second term, she was elected secretary of the Democratic Caucus (now called vice chair).

Her committee assignments in Congress included the Public Works and Transportation Committee, Post Office and Civil Service Committee, the Budget Committee, and the Select Committee on Aging.

Her legislative achievements included creating a flextime program for public employees, which has become the basis of such programs in the private sector. She also successfully sponsored the Women's Economic Equality Act, which ended pension discrimination against women, provided job options for displaced homemakers, and enabled homemakers to open IRAs.

From 1988 to 1992, Ferraro served as a Fellow at Harvard University's Institute of Politics.

In October 1993, she was appointed the United States Ambassador to the United Nations Human Rights Commission by President Clinton, and served in that position through 1996. During her tenure, the commission for the first time condemned anti-Semitism as a human rights violation and prevented China from blocking a motion criticizing its human rights record.

From 1996 until 1998, Ferraro was a co-host of "Crossfire," a political interview program, on CNN. She was also a partner in the CEO Perspective Group, a consulting firm which advises top executives.

In 2007, she became a principal in the government relations practice of Blank Rome LLP, where she counseled clients on a wide range of public policy issues. Prior to joining Blank Rome, Ferraro chaired the public affairs practice of the Global Consulting Group (GCG), a leading international communications firm.

In a statement released shortly after her death, her family said "Geraldine Anne Ferraro Zaccaro was widely known as a leader, a fighter for justice, and a tireless advocate for those without a voice. To us, she was a wife, mother, grandmother and aunt, a woman devoted to and deeply loved by her family. Her courage and generosity of spirit throughout her life waging battles big and small, public and personal, will never be forgotten and will be sorely missed."

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