Geraldine A. Ferraro, first woman major-party candidate on presidential ticket, dies at 75

Geraldine A. Ferraro, who shattered political barriers as the first female major-party nominee on a presidential ticket when she was chosen as the Democratic vice presidential candidate in 1984, died Saturday at Massachusetts General Hospital in Boston, where she was being treated for blood cancer. She was 75.

Ms. Ferraro was a three-term member of the U.S. House of Representatives when the Democratic presidential nominee, Walter F. Mondale, chose her as his running mate. Democrats were elated by the choice, which was seen as a landmark achievement in U.S. politics and as a possible way to derail the reelection hopes of President Ronald Reagan.

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The first woman to run for U.S. vice president on a major party ticket, Geraldine Ferraro, has died at age 75. (March 26)

The first woman to run for U.S. vice president on a major party ticket, Geraldine Ferraro, has died at age 75. (March 26)

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A timeline of the life of the first female and the first Italian American from a major political party nominated for vice president.
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A timeline of the life of the first female and the first Italian American from a major political party nominated for vice president.

Her nomination energized the party faithful at the Democratic National Convention, where Ms. Ferraro received an eight-minute ovation, and she proved to be a dynamic presence on the campaign trail, where she often drew larger, more enthusiastic crowds than Mondale.

“This candidacy is not just a symbol, it’s a breakthrough,” she said during the campaign. “It’s not just a statement, it’s a bond between women all over America.”

Despite the historic nature of Ferraro’s candidacy, the Democratic ticket failed to inspire widespread support against the sheer weight of Reagan’s popularity.

Campaign missteps — including allegations of financial impropriety on the part of Ms. Ferraro’s husband — contributed to an overwhelming loss for Mondale and Ms. Ferraro as Reagan swept 49 of 50 states. He won 525 of 538 electoral votes, the largest number in any presidential election in history, and claimed 59 percent of the popular vote, including 55 percent of the ballots cast by women.

Ms. Ferraro never again held elected office, but she left a lasting impact on the voting public and on future officeholders. When she made her vice presidential run, 24 women were serving in the House and Senate. Twenty-seven years later, there are 88.

Palin and Clinton

In 2008, Sarah Palin, a former governor of Alaska, became the second woman to be a vice presidential candidate for a major party when she was nominated as John McCain’s Republican running mate.

Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton made a bid for the Democratic presidential nomination in 2008, and in 2007, Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) became the first woman to serve as speaker of the House.

In a statement Saturday, Palin called Ms. Ferraro “an amazing woman. . . . She broke one huge barrier and then went on to break many more. The world will miss her.”

Pelosi said in a statement that Ms. Ferraro “inspired women across the country to reach their own greatness as they strengthened our country.”

President Obama praised Ms. Ferraro as “a trailblazer who broke down barriers for women, and Americans of all backgrounds and walks of life.”

He said of his own two daughters, “Sasha and Malia will grow up in a more equal America because of the life Geraldine Ferraro chose to live.”

Ms. Ferraro’s rise to political prominence was as sudden and surprising as her later fall from political grace. In 1978, after serving as an assistant prosecutor in the New York City borough of Queens, she was elected to Congress, campaigning under the slogan, “Finally, a Tough Democrat.”

She quickly became a favorite of then-Speaker Thomas P. “Tip” O’Neill (D-Mass.) and vaulted into the House hierarchy. She was easily reelected in 1980 and 1982 and became a member of the Democratic Steering and Policy Committee.

Ms. Ferraro’s signature legislative victory in the 1980s was her sponsorship of the Economic Equity Act, which outlawed unequal treatment of women in workplace salaries and pensions. She failed, however, in her attempt to secure passage of the Equal Rights Amendment.

In 1982, she was appointed to the powerful House Budget Committee, and two years later she chaired the platform committee of the 1984 Democratic National Convention in San Francisco.

Detractors in her own party sometimes found her too willing to compromise or too willing to play pork-barrel politics to benefit her constituents, and her support for abortion rights proved controversial with Catholic leaders.

Yet she was a rising Democratic star and, according to a 1984 Washington Post story, was regarded as “one of the best instinctive politicians, man or woman, on Capitol Hill.”

A national figure

There had been speculation that Mondale, who had been President Jimmy Carter’s vice president, would choose a woman as his running mate. Ms. Ferraro and Dianne Feinstein, then the mayor of San Francisco, were considered the most likely choices.

More than 10,000 convention delegates and onlookers erupted in sustained applause when Ms. Ferraro was formally nominated on July 19, 1984. Not only was she the first woman nominated by a major party for national office, but she also remains the only Italian American on a presidential ticket.

Ms. Ferraro was as surprised by her sudden change of fortune as anyone.

“I went from being ‘Geraldine Who?’ in 1978 to being a national figure in 1984,” she said in 1992. “I don’t know anybody who’d done it as quickly as I have. ”

Within weeks, however, she came under scrutiny when her husband, real estate investor John Zaccaro, backed off an early pledge to release his tax records. Ms. Ferraro compounded the gaffe by saying, “You people who are married to Italian men, you know what it’s like.”

She and her husband had an estimated net worth of $4 million and, when they ultimately released their returns, hastily paid more than $50,000 in back taxes and interest.

She found herself caught in a campaign of not-so-veiled innuendo. The press secretary of her Republican counterpart, Vice President George H.W. Bush, complained that Ms. Ferraro was “too bitchy.”

The vice president’s wife, Barbara Bush, referred to Ms. Ferraro as “the $4 million — I can’t say it, but it rhymes with rich.” Barbara Bush later apologized and said the word she was searching for was “witch.”

Finally, after a vice presidential debate, Bush joked that “we tried to kick a little ass last night.”

“As the first Italian-American on a national ticket,” Ms. Ferraro wrote in her 1985 autobiography, “Ferraro: My Story,” she expected to “be vulnerable to the inevitable and reprehensible attempts to link us with organized crime. . . . Still, never did I anticipate the fury of the storm we now found ourselves in.”

She and Mondale briefly drew even in the polls, but as Election Day approached, Reagan and Bush pulled ahead. Ms. Ferraro attracted tens of thousands of spectators to her rallies, but the campaign appeared more and more hopeless.

“To keep up staff energy and morale,” she wrote in her autobiography, “I started cracking jokes and belting out the theme song from the musical ‘Annie,’ loudly singing, ‘The sun’ll come out tomorrow’ whenever the spirit moved me. But I was tired, so very tired. And I was sick of pretending that we were going to win.”

Geraldine Anne Ferraro was born in Newburgh, N.Y., on Aug. 26, 1935. Her father ran a nightclub, but Ms. Ferraro did not know until she ran for vice president that he had been arrested in 1944 and charged with running a numbers racket. He died of a heart attack on the day his trial was to begin.

Two of Ms. Ferraro’s older brothers also died, one in infancy, another as a 3-year-old passenger in a car accident. Her mother moved to the South Bronx to raise her daughter and another son while working as a seamstress.

Ms. Ferraro, who kept her maiden name in honor of her mother, skipped seventh grade and graduated from Marymount Manhattan College in 1956. She was an elementary school teacher in New York while attending law school at Fordham University at night, graduating in 1960.

After becoming an assistant district attorney in Queens, she helped form a Special Victims Bureau in 1975, which handled cases of child abuse, rape and domestic violence. Ms. Ferraro said the experience transformed her political thinking from being a “small-c conservative” to a dedicated liberal.

“I have seen firsthand what poverty can do to people’s lives,” she said in 1984, “and I just can’t, in good conscience, not do something about it.”

After Ms. Ferraro’s vice presidential run in 1984, the House ethics committee ruled that she had violated ethics rules by not reporting details about her husband’s finances, but she did not receive any formal punishment.

In 1985, her husband pleaded guilty to a misdemeanor charge of filing misleading information to obtain a loan. He was indicted a year later and accused of attempting to bribe a Queens borough president but was acquitted in 1987.

Survivors include her husband of 50 years, of New York; three children, Donna Zaccaro Ullman, John Zaccaro and Laura Zaccaro Lee; and eight grandchildren.

With her family’s legal problems behind her, Ms. Ferraro launched campaigns for the U.S. Senate in 1992 and 1998 but lost both times in the Democratic primary.

Before and after her senatorial bids, she was a fellow at the John F. Kennedy School of Government at Harvard University and served as an advocate for women victimized by conflicts during the 1990s in the former Yugoslavia. In 1994 and 1995, she was U.S. ambassador to the U.N. Commission on Human Rights.

In 1996 and 1997, she was a co-host of CNN’s “Crossfire,” opposite Pat Buchanan and John Sununu, President George H.W. Bush’s former chief of staff, and she later occasionally appeared as a commentator on Fox News.

After voicing early support for the presidential campaign of Hillary Rodham Clinton, Ms. Ferraro stirred unwanted controversy in 2008 with comments about then-candidate Barack Obama, Clinton’s primary opponent.

“If Obama was a white man, he would not be in this position,” she said. “And if he was a woman of any color, he would not be in this position.”

After an awkward apology, she resigned from a ceremonial post with Clinton’s campaign.

Ms. Ferraro, who sat on a variety of corporate boards, was semiretired in recent years but never lost sight of how far the life of politics had taken her.

“I haven’t gone through life having things given to me,” she told The Post in 1984. “I had to work for it. So if that makes you tough, yeah, I guess I’m tough.”