If the Dems Want to Gamble on a Woman for Veep, Tip O'neill Says Gerry Ferraro Is Just the Ticket

UPDATED 06/25/1984 at 01:00 AM EDT Originally published 06/25/1984 at 01:00 AM EDT

When Geraldine Ferraro was a platinum-blond, green-to-hazel-eyed tot, she used to tap-dance her heart out because her mother wanted her to shuffle "like Shirley Temple." The three-term Congresswoman from Queens, N.Y. never did make it to Hollywood, but as a darling of the Democratic Party she's scrambling right now for the biggest supporting role Washington has to offer. As party pros, reflecting glumly on Ronald Reagan's popularity, assess the political odds and seek to capitalize on the President's inability to bridge the gender gap, the Democrats have begun to see a female candidate for Vice-President as an intriguing possibility. Even in the heat of their primary shoot-out, both Hart and Mondale declared that they would consider a gender balance on the '84 ticket. For that role, Gerry Ferraro is the prime contender.

"She's got class, she's got talent, she's Italian, she's Catholic, she's a wife, she's a mother," reels off her chief endorser, Speaker of the House Tip O'Neill. "She's got all the virtues you need in a good woman candidate." When it comes time for smoke-filled rooms, caution almost certainly will make a comeback and the disadvantages will weigh more heavily. The party's potential female candidates (others are San Francisco Mayor Dianne Feinstein and Colorado Congress-woman Patricia Schroeder) lack national name recognition and broad territorial backing. As a Catholic who is personally opposed to abortion but favors women's right to decide, Ferraro will not appeal to the more conservative Democrats. Still, if risk-taking is called for, the charismatic Ferraro could help spark a lackluster Democratic campaign.

Slim and handsome at 48, wife and mother of three, Ferraro belongs to a new wave of women in Congress, which now has 24 female members. Unlike such embattled predecessors as Bella Abzug, 63, or Shirley Chisholm, 59, she has chosen to play canny inside politics like one of the boys. "Her style is not confrontational but to be thorough," says Suffolk County, N.Y. Democrat Tom Downey, a colleague on the House Budget Committee. Known as the "Archie Bunker" district, her Queens constituency is heavily blue-collar white. The voters have returned her to Washington with increasing majorities since she first won in 1978 with the slogan "Finally, a Tough Democrat."

"There is a problem with being a woman and being tough in Congress," says Downey. "It's still a man's institution." O'Neill agrees. "You've got a few old-timers who think she's pushy," he says. "I try to convince them otherwise." Still, Ferraro retains her brassy New York accent and style. One recent afternoon, she was observed tongue-lashing a wayward legislative ally in her Washington office. "I endorsed you with that understanding," she told the Congressman, who was being pressured by the Moral Majority to switch his pro-choice stand on abortion. "You can't fink out on me."

Ferraro's Washington experience has made her more liberal on such social issues as the plight of the poor and the elderly. She identifies instinctively with feminist causes, having herself encountered discrimination, for example in pay. "I don't know if I really knew the definition of a feminist before I came to Washington," she says. "And then I came down here and realized a feminist is just someone who is very concerned about equality for women in this country on every level."

Ferraro watched her own mother's struggle to make ends meet. In Gerry's early years in Newburgh, N.Y., she had everything she wanted, but when she was 8, her father, a restaurateur, died of a heart attack. The loss of income and a bad investment forced her mother, Antonetta, to move to a small apartment in the Bronx. She found a job crocheting beads to dresses to support her family. Antonetta took enormous pride as "my fantasti daughter" graduated from Marymount boarding school in Tarrytown, N.Y. and from Marymount Manhattan College, and then earned her law degree by studying nights at Fordham University. She passed the New York Bar in 1960 and three days later married ex-Marine John Zaccaro. In a decision unusual for the times, she kept her maiden name to honor her mother's self-sacrifice.

Even so, Ferraro says, husband John "is obviously numero uno. He's the person who has really had the greatest involvement in my career." A humorous, self-assured man, Zaccaro, 51, heads up a prosperous Manhattan real estate firm. "Our lives are really dedicated to her congressional job," he says. The opening day of the San Francisco Democratic Convention, July 16, will mark their 24th wedding anniversary. "We agreed before we were married that I would stay home when the children were little," she says. "Then I went back to work." Daughter Donna, 22, is a financial analyst in New York. John, 20, is a junior at Middlebury College in Vermont. Laura, 18, is bound for Brown University in Rhode Island, freeing her father of his daily chore of driving the children to their private schools. No meek house husband, Zaccaro says he missed his wife's company in the early years, but now feels "she is better off pursuing her own career." He runs the family home in upper-middle-class Forest Hills Gardens with the help of his "second wife," full-time housekeeper and cook Ernestine Robinson. Ferraro commutes from Washington, where she usually spends three days a week and keeps a one-bedroom apartment.

Her political career began in the campaigns of local pols, including the successful State Senate bid of her cousin Nicholas Ferraro, who later became a popular Queens district attorney. In 1974 Nick found her a place as an assistant prosecutor, and she established a special victims' bureau. The job opened her eyes to social injustice, she says. In 1978 she decided to run for Congress. Zaccaro bankrolled most of her campaign, the candidate paying him back later through fund raisers. "How could you do that without someone being behind you?" she asks. "How could you get yourself into a hole, and then lose, and turn around and say, 'Honey, guess what. I have no job and I just lost $170,000!' "

When she arrived on Capitol Hill, another man came into her life: Tip O'Neill. "I have absolute respect for him as a man and as a leader," she says of her mentor, with whom she has built a close working relationship. "Those first few years really were tough," she recently joked. "I was so inexperienced that when I heard somebody yell 'Veto!' I thought one of my cousins had shown up." O'Neill backed her rise to party prominence and her recent appointment to the high-profile chairmanship of the Democratic Platform Committee. As she has traveled the country for hearings, massaging special interest groups in the hope of averting platform rows at the convention, her name has become better known to Democratic voters, giving her the exposure she has needed to make the short list for the vice-presidential nomination.

Ferraro is not counting on winning the coveted second place on the Democrats' ticket. She is already considering a 1986 bid to unseat New York Republican Sen. Alfonse D'Amato. Still, she maintains that the mere consideration of a woman nominee for Vice-President represents progress: "Not only do I seriously believe that there will be a woman or two on the short list, but in addition there are going to be women inside that room with the guys helping to make decisions." With a combination of smarts, personal appeal and hard-driving ambition, Geraldine Ferraro may yet make history as the first woman candidate for Veep. She laid out the scenario at a roast for Tip O'Neill in Washington last March. "Boy meets girl, boy looks at the polls, boy sees the gender gap, boy asks girl to be his mate...running mate, that is."

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