“I’m going to ask you to close your eyes,” says Kim Gandy, executive vice president of the National Organization for Women. “The year is 1984. You’re in San Francisco, in the Moscone Center.”
Actually, the year is 1998, and we are in Rochester, N.Y., at the Grand Ballroom of the Sheraton Four Point Hotel, but here at the National Organization for Women Vision Summit, just about everybody except The Observer has promptly put their lids down for a joy ride back in time.
“You’re standing on a chair, because it’s the only way to see anything. You aren’t worried about falling, because people are crushed all around you … The heat of the excitement is competing with the chill bumps on your arms.”
Fourteen years and a continent away from the thrill in question, there is actually something of a titter.
“And then Congresswoman Barbara Kennelly says those nine little words: Geraldine Ferraro, for Vice President of the United States!”
Ms. Gandy finishes up with “and the room falls apart,” but no one hears. The nine-little-word woman is there in the flesh, and the crowd is on its feet.
“Ger-ry , Ger-ry , Ger-ry, Ger-ry …”
Since January, when she entered the race to unseat Senator Alfonse D’Amato, the two-syllable object of worship has, in no particular chronology or order of disastrousness, demanded a no-nasty-campaigning pledge from her Democratic opponents, Representative Charles Schumer of Brooklyn and New York City Public Advocate Mark Green, only to call them both liars; been nailed for taking a $20,000 honorarium from the dread Philip Morris Companies; disappointed expectations for raising funds and for rallying the troops at political powwows, from the Schenectady straw poll to the state convention. She has resurrected the financial-disclosure flaps of campaigns past by “releasing” her tax returns only on a time-limited, at-the-accountant’s-office basis; called a press conference about breast cancer that caused leading breast-cancer advocacy groups to raise their voices in support of Mr. D’Amato; and appeared in public forums for semi-substantive exchanges with her opponents rarely, reluctantly, and to generally poor reviews. She has, in media from the Op-Ed page in The New York Times to Page Six of the New York Post , been depicted as a tart-tongued, arrogant, lightweight, norationale has-been; a front-runner just waiting to fold.
Indeed, so cumulatively unimpressed with candidate Ferraro does the New York City press now find itself that when campaign manager David Eichenbaum took his long-anticipated exit on July 7, the general assumption was that he wasn’t the problem; she was.
All nasty stuff, no doubt. But to stand there among the screaming sisterhood in Rochester is to arrive at the essential question still buried beneath the mistakes Ms. Ferraro has, indisputably, littered all over the campaign trail: So what?
Now, before the Charles Schumer and Mark Green campaigns have their respective cows, let us shadow the scene with Ferraro-unfriendly, and indeed valid, caveats. Yes, this is a room packed with flag-waving feminists at a time when, lamentably or not, a woman who calls herself a feminist radiates all the red-hot relevance of a car calling itself an AMC Pacer. (And if some feminists are up for a bit of an appeal-broadening ideological rehaul, they ain’t here. “Jesus Is a Liberal” read a bumper sticker on sale outside the ballroom, at the booth with the glass-ceiling pins; “OK ERA” cheered a license plate in the parking lot.) Yes, this being a national convention, many, if not most, of those now hailing their heroine will be unable to vote for her. Yes, though the 62-year-old Senate-seeking Geraldine Ferraro seated serenely on the dais looks remarkably unchanged from the 48-year-old history-making Geraldine Ferraro beaming down from a giant video screen, something not so funny has happened on her way to this forum: Namely, she has lost a Democratic Senate primary in the State of New York, in 1992. And, yes, as her enemies love to point out, she has thus far seemed almost determined to reprise the very routine that helped pave her way to that loss. Mr. Eichenbaum isn’t telling why he took early retirement, but here’s a guess: He, like everyone else, assumes that front-runner Ms. Ferraro is soon to come under one hell of an attack, if not by her fellow Democrats, then by the Republicans; whatever Ms. Ferraro’s stumblings, the presumption remains that she will have to be dragged to defeat. And if Ms. Ferraro has been this error-prone when the sailing should be smooth, he wasn’t going to stick around for the time when folks started trying to blow up the boat.
In light of all this, far be it from The Observer to suggest that Ms. Ferraro is incapable of losing this primary. But, given the recent spate of Geraldine-adrift stories, it seems a good time to point out that this primary is still hers to lose. In a pursuit that is much less redolent of rocket science than of that old Sesame Street song, “One of These Things Is Not Like the Others,” Ms. Ferraro is still a woman running against two men. She is still better known than the two of those men put together. It is, in fact, mildly amusing to see Ms. Ferraro’s “celebrity status” derided as nothing, while her opponents are acting, quite intelligently, as if it is everything: Mr. Schumer has spent millions on television commercials, presumably in the hope that some time soon, average folks all over the state will start walking up to him the way they walk up to her. (A round of polls due out in the next few weeks will gauge the effectiveness of that effort.) As for Mr. Green, a-if not the-major reason why he cannot be counted out of the contest is his ability to find low- and no-cost ways to raise his profile. (Though a recent stroll in Harlem served, however, as a reminder of just how heavy a lift this is: In an area of the city where the Public Advocate is politically connected and personally popular, The Observer spent 20 blocks asking people if they knew anything about Mr. Green, including who he was. No one did.) And Ms. Ferraro can still right her campaign.
New York Democrats: Girl Power!
Not, it bears noting, that everything about her campaign is wrong. There is, of course, no upside to the verbal screwups. But the other decisions are not so easy to call. On the matter of debates, it is smart of Mr. Green to tar Ms. Ferraro for avoiding them, but it is also smart of her to keep doing so: What front-runner wants to supply lesser-known opponents with free publicity while giving herself the opportunity to screw up? Likewise, Ms. Ferraro’s much-lamented Lack of Substance might be the kiss of death-but only if, between now and September, New York turns into a place where lots of people vote on the finer points of policy. This is not, heaven forbid, to accuse the electorate of ignorance-though bumping into people under the impression that Ms. Ferraro once ran for President is starting to bother The Observer . But if the Democratic primary voter is the finely tuned, ideas-attracted political animal of whom the Green and Schumer camps seem so confident, that voter is sure to sense that on most of the big issues, the eventual voting records of a Senator Schumer, a Senator Green and a Senator Ferraro would probably be hard to tell apart. It’s the inverted proposition familiar to many a primary field: Where people care, the candidates are very similar; where the candidates really differ, people don’t much care. It is, for example, edifying to know that Mr. Green, unlike his rivals, opposes most-favored-nation status for China; hard to believe that he is going to get, or lose, many votes on it. Mr. Schumer’s desire to make college tuition tax-deductible is the sort of thing that has more resonance. But it is also the sort of thing that makes him one pro-choice Democrat whose themes include affordable education, accessible health care, and better jobs for the struggling middle class among three pro-choice Democrats whose themes include affordable education, accessible health care, and better jobs for the struggling middle class. Then there’s the political downside to being such a genius. The specific spelling-out of ideas informs the electorate. It also tips off the opponent. The liberal Democratic-primary voter will no doubt appreciate Mr. Green’s plan for universal health care for pregnant women and children. So, for different reasons, will Mr. D’Amato.
At least as much as what a person does, it is who a person is that draws voters. So Mr. Schumer is selling himself as a skilled, seasoned, has-done, can-do legislator. Mr. Green is selling himself as the whistle-clean advocate. Both are doing their best to sell Ms. Ferraro as someone who hasn’t done a damn thing since Walter Mondale. But she has done at least one thing very well: She has kept her image alive among women.
Of course, the whole feminist-icon thing may ultimately make lots of people, including women, yawn and roll their eyeballs. But think about it. New York has never elected a woman governor, senator, or attorney general. This year, given Betsy McCaughey Ross’ run for governor and Catherine Abate’s bid for attorney general, Democratic primary voters could quite possibly nominate women for all three. It remains to be seen how good it is for any one of these female candidates that there are two other female candidates up for major offices (three, if you throw in Sandra Frankel for lieutenant governor). But one thing is for sure: The campaigns of Ms. McCaughey Ross-who was, incidentally, a huge hit at the NOW conference in Rochester; the dark purple of her suit even matched the royal purple of the banner behind the dais-and of Ms. Abate will be working like mad to pull women to the polls. It’s very hard to see that hurting Ms. Ferraro.
You wouldn’t expect to find a pretty good nutshell for the Ferraro campaign in the way-upstate city of Plattsburgh on the Fourth of July, but there it was. In anticipation of the annual parade, a huge strip-mall parking lot had become a grid of line-dancers, Girl Scouts and bagpipers. The mayor, Clyde Rabideau-who’s also running for lieutenant governor-was scheduled to kick off the parade at 10 A.M., but he didn’t: Ms. Ferraro was 20 minutes late, and not all that apologetic. (Arrogant!) Jogging to the front of the parade, starting down the route, Ms. Ferraro took note of the thin, quiet crowd. “Not exactly the Puerto Rican Day parade,” she deadpanned. (Sarcastic!) But none of the Plattsburghers caught either scent, and as the crowd got thicker, the feeling got warmer.
“Look, it’s Geraldine Ferraro.”
“Hey, Gerry-thanks for coming to Plattsburgh.”
“My mother is in the coffee shop; will you come in and meet her?”
“You’ve got our vote.”