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Quick-thinking parents seize the chance to deliver a history lesson featuring Ferraro as Exhibit A. One particularly enthusiastic supporter drags over his daughter. "This lady ran for vice president," he says. Ferraro, 63, crouches down to shake the small girl's hand. As he leads her away, the father explains to his daughter: "She's going to be the next governor."
Oops. Not quite right. Ferraro whips around. "Senator! Senator!" she shouts.
Such is the candidate's predicament. Everyone knows her name, even if they don't know she's running in the Democratic primary on September 15 for a chance to unseat GOP senator Al D'Amato. Since Ferraro began her march down the campaign trail last January, she has posed for hundreds of photos, signed countless autographs, and received far more than her share of hugs. Fourteen years after Ferraro became the first woman to run for vicepresident, she is still reaping the benefits of her moment in the national spotlight.
But to win the U.S. Senate primary, Ferraro needs much more than fame. She needs votes--enough to beat two tough opponents, Public Advocate Mark Green and Brooklyn congressman Chuck Schumer. In this race, Ferraro has been the front-runner, and she's embraced a front-runner's strategy--a light public schedule, few detailed proposals, and hardly any debates. But in recent months, Ferraro's sizable lead has shrunk so much that she and Schumer are now running neck and neck. Critics charge she has been "coasting on her celebrity" and failed to give New Yorkers a convincing reason to vote for her.
"What is the rationale for her right now?" says Henry Sheinkopf, a political consultant. "That's the question people need answered. They like her. They just need to be pushed over the edge."
Some political experts wonder if Ferraro's true motive is a desire to avenge her 1992 defeat in the U.S. Senate primary. That year, she lost to former attorney general Robert Abrams by just one percentage point. After details of mob ties surfaced in the Voice, Ferraro's Democratic opponents used them to slam her. She accused critics of anti-Italian bias and denied any mafia connections.
In a January meeting at Jimmy's Bronx Cafe, Ferraro made an unsuccessful pitch to the chairs of the state's largest counties explaining why they should back her unanimously. "She basically said she was running because... she was so mistreatedin 1992," says an attendee, who is supporting one of Ferraro's opponents. "This was her rationale. It was a horrible, arrogant presentation."
But the question that could determine Ferraro's fate is: Does anyone besides political insiders really care how ill-defined Ferraro's message is? "I like her because she's a woman," says Sonya Delgado, 63, who bumped into Ferraro while the candidate was glad-handing beachgoers at the Fire Island ferries. "It sounds like a stupid reason, but why not? I like what she stands for." Asked exactly what Ferraro stands for, Delgado pauses, and says, "I can't think of one thing right now." The race is now in its final days, and Ferraro will win only if she manages to transform her celebrity into votes--and to convince supporters like Delgado to pull the lever for her.
Ferraro's journeyfrom little-known congresswoman to Walter Mondale's running mate is one of those political events that is frozen in the memories of late 20th-century Americans. She is indeed a historical icon. And her two-year stint as a co-host of CNN's Crossfire--getting into spitting matches with Republicans--only enhanced her celebrity.
As soon as they meet Ferraro, people blurt out the ways in which her life has intersected with theirs:
"You spoke at my brother's graduation."
"I wrote you when I was four years old."
"My mother has the same hairstyle as you--she's had it ever since you ran for vice president."
"You spoke at my community college in 1984, and you waved to me!"
When Gail Brick heard that Ferraro was visiting the county fair at her hometown in Long Island, she showed up with a copy of the candidate's 1985 autobiography. Ten minutes after Ferraro signs the book, Brick, 61, is still beaming. "Ever since she ran for vice president, I thought she was admirable," Brick says.
All this affection may be flattering, but Ferraro says she knows it is not enough. "If they're not paying attention on election day, what good does celebrity do?" says Ferraro as she strolls through the fair, past vendors peddling homemade potholders, wooden birdhouses, and pickled green tomatoes. "I'm just hoping that it translates into votes because, if it does, in November Al D'Amato is going to be emptying out his office."
The path to the U.S. Senate is a long and gritty one. Forget about basking under the lights in CNN's television studio or commanding crowds of thousands or zooming about town in a long black limo. Ferraro may be a millionaire, but her husband, John Zaccaro, is the one shuttling her around the city these days. Her campaign bus is actually a silver Lincoln Continental with a "Ferraro for Senate" sticker on the back bumper.
While Ferraro shook hands along the Long Beach boardwalk on a recent muggy Sunday, her husband stayed in the car, hidden behind a pair of dark sunglasses. He remained by the wheel again a day later, while his wife courted several thousand reggae fans at a late-night concert in Bedford-Stuyvesant. But when the campaign trail led to a Greenwich Village street festival on a recent Saturday, Zaccaro walked the streets with his wife.
Once again, fans scramble to be close to Ferraro. One of the first is Richard Cogliandro, a 47-year-old schoolteacher. Concerned about organized-crime connections, Cogliandro asks: "Do you have anything to hide?"
Ferraro's grin tightens slightly. "I have nothing to hide and I never had," she says.
Cogliandro tells a reporter later that he found Ferraro's reply convincing. And the candidate is spared any queries about other ethical issues that have popped up during this campaign, including charges that sweatshops operate in a building she partially owns. "Her husband was the pain in the ass; she's a doll," cassette vendor John Rivera explains to his customers as Ferraro and Zaccaro walk by. "He's the one who got her in trouble last time."
When Michael Diehl meets Ferraro, he grills her about the Defense of Marriage Act. This legislation, which opposes same-sex marriage, passed Congress last year. Schumer voted for it.
"Would you vote for DOMA? That's what a Mark Green supporter told me," Diehl asks.
"Well, as long as you didn't say that," says Diehl, a 27-year-old attorney.
Ferraro pauses for a moment to digest Diehl's question. Then she changes her answer. "I would've voted for the Senate bill... Mark Green's guy is right."
Diehl is not pleased. "That's bad," he tells Ferraro. As she saunters away, Diehl turns to several friends, announcing that he's going to vote for Green instead of Ferraro because, he says, "She's pandering to her Catholic base."
Ferraro has turned down invitations to debate her opponents, and her performance at a recent candidate forum in Brooklyn Heights may explain why. First up is Mark Green, and then Ferraro. Standing behind the podium in the auditorium of St. Francis College, Ferraro rattles off the reasons voters should pick her. Near the top of the list is her own life story.
"My grandmother had to sign her signature with an X because she didn't know how to write," she tells the 200-person crowd. "When my father died when I was eight... my mother said, 'The one thing I want my children to have is an education.' That would be my priority in the Senate: making sure every child has an education."
Ferraro's personal history may be inspiring, but it doesn't always persuade her listeners. Nor do her frequent references to her legacy as a feminist pioneer. In July, Ferraro gave a speech emphasizing the importance of electing women because "we bring another dimension to the political process." But playing the gender card may not be enough, especially when there are now 62 women in the House and Senate and female politicians are no longer a novelty.
At the candidate forum, Green boasts of his longtime career as a consumer advocate and promises to keep fighting for reforms of campaign finance and HMOs. Then he dazzles the audience with detailed answers to their questions about everything from the Gowanus Expressway to the Brooklyn waterfront.
Asked what she would do about congestion on the Gowanus, Ferraro says, "I would work with the Gowanus Expressway Coalition... I would look at alternatives to what the city is proposing... We've got to do something about it... We've got to look at what we can do."
Afterward, two friends linger on the college steps to have a smoke and swap opinions. As Democrats who are closely following this race, these women are exactly the sort of people who actually go to the polls on primary day--the type of voters who could decide Ferraro's fate. "I thought her presentation was flat and vague," says 45-year-old Erica Zurer. "On local issues, either she had no knowledge, didn't do her research, or didn't care. That was very disturbing."
Her friend agrees. "I'm offended by the fact that she appears to think she's entitled to the nomination," says Susan Breslin, who trekked from Manhattan to hear the candidates. "She has to prove she's better than the others. She has to fight for it."
The two women do not hold their tongues as Ferraro herself exits the building. But Ferraro ignores them. Even as she clicks down the stairs in her black pumps, a man is moving into the sixth-floor window of the building across the street. "Hey, Gerry! Gerry! Up here!" he shouts. Ferraro grins and waves. Then she climbs into her Lincoln Continental and her husband drives off.
Research assistance: Jennifer Del Medico