Ferraro’s Moment

Good morning, it’s Wednesday, July 12, 2017. Thirty-three years ago today, Walter Mondale chose Rep. Geraldine Ferraro of New York as the Democrats’ vice presidential nominee.

If you were on the floor of the Moscone Center in San Francisco a week later when Ferraro addressed the convention, as I was, you couldn’t help but feel the import of the moment. Not in a partisan way, but a historic one.

In the spring of 1984, a group of prominent Democratic women, led by Colorado Rep. Patricia Schroeder, held a series of strategy sessions with a single goal in mind: persuading the party’s presidential nominee — either Walter Mondale or Gary Hart — to choose a female running mate. Schroeder herself was the choice that made the most sense, which meant that in taking the lead in this endeavor, she compromised her own chances. Pat Schroeder gave herself up for the team, so to speak.

By April that year, this effort was making news. “It’s gone beyond the hypothetical discussion stage,” Charles Manatt, the Democratic Party chairman, told Washington Post correspondent Elisabeth Bumiller,

Eventually, Mondale and his team would settle on Geraldine Ferraro, a little-known New York House member who represented a congressional district in Queens. Although well-liked and well-respected, Geri Ferraro wasn’t the most charismatic pol from New York. That distinction belonged to New York Gov. Mario Cuomo, who had decided to forgo a presidential run of his own but who would electrify the convention delegates in San Francisco. Close on Cuomo’s heels — though we didn’t think of it that way at the time — was a 37-year-old budding real estate tycoon and man about town, who wasn’t even involved in party politics (not yet anyway). He’d done Ferraro’s pilgrimage in reverse, progressing from a childhood in Queens to professional success in Manhattan.

You’ve probably guessed his name by now.

“Donald J. Trump is the man of the hour,” proclaimed the New York Times in a story published that same April in 1984. “Turn on the television or open a newspaper almost any day of the week and there he is, snatching some star from the National Football League, announcing some preposterously lavish project he wants to build. Public-relations firms call him, offering to handle his account for nothing, so that they might take credit for the torrential hoopla.”

The implications of this preternatural ability to command the spotlight wouldn’t fully manifest themselves for another three decades. But three months later, on July 12, 1984, Ferraro was the woman of the hour. On that date, Walter Mondale announced that he would ask the delegates in San Francisco to anoint her as his running mate.

“I know what it takes to be a good vice president — I was once one myself,” said Mondale in a rare display of immodesty. “I looked for the best vice president, and I found her in Geri Ferraro.”

“America is not just for some of us,” he added. “Our Founders said in the Constitution: ‘We the People.’ Not just the rich, or men, or white, but all of us. Our message is that America is for everyone who works hard and contributes to our blessed country.”

Seven days later, standing on stage before the delegates and a huge television audience, the historic pioneer amplified on this theme herself. “My name is Geraldine Ferraro,” she declared to thunderous applause. “I stand before you to proclaim tonight: America is the land where dreams can come true for all of us.”

That November, the dreams of the delegates in San Francisco went unrealized. The “gender gap” Democrats had counted on never materialized. Ronald Reagan won 56 percent of the women’s vote — and the Mondale/Ferraro ticket carried only Mondale’s native Minnesota and the District of Columbia. Ferraro couldn’t even help deliver New York.

She was hardly the problem. Nor could the Democrats’ landslide loss be blamed on Walter Mondale. No one was going to defeat Reagan that year. The country was doing well and the Gipper ran a positive campaign that perfectly captured the prevailing national mood.

Nonetheless, Geri Ferraro, who died in 2011, had broken a thick glass ceiling. In politics, a significant one remains. But it will happen. As Ferraro herself proclaimed 33 years ago: “If we can do this, we can do anything.”

Carl M. Cannon
Washington Bureau chief, RealClearPolitics

%d bloggers like this: