Hillary’s Big Problem


A prediction: the Adirondack black-fly gaffe will be tired by the time Hillary Clinton makes it official. The carpetbagger issue will be old news when the election is held 16 months from now. Even the scandals that haunt her may play as the usual politics-by-sleaze. But there’s one thing about Hillary Clinton that could sink her senate campaign, though it won’t be mentioned except in code. She’s a woman— and no woman has ever won higher office in New York State.

Consider the casualties:

Geraldine Ferraro: ran for senator twice, but never got past the primaries.

Elizabeth Holtzman: another two-time Senate loser.

Betsy McCaughey: couldn’t top George Pataki, her former boss from hell.

Karen Burstein: ran for attorney general and lost to Dennis Vacco, a virtual unknown.

Catherine Abate: creamed by Elliot Spitzer, the current a.g.

Mary Anne Krupsak: ran for governor but lost to Hugh Carey, hennaed hair and all.

Bella Abzug: took on Daniel Patrick Moynihan in 1976. Fuggedaboutit!

New York has had a transvestite governor— Lord Cornbury, who ran the colony from 1702 to 1708 and liked to pose in a gown— but never a woman in the statehouse (unless you count the largely ceremonial lieutenant governor). Nor has any woman ever held court in City Hall. Carol Bellamy was too cold to unseat the huggy-bearish Ed Koch; Ruth Messinger was too liberal to beat Rudy Giuliani (and unable to control her hair).

Of course, if you believe the media, gender had nothing to do with why all these campaigns came to naught. Ferraro was sunk by her husband’s reputed mob ties (not to mention her abrasive style). Holtzman got mired in a banking scandal (not to mention her icy style). Krupsak wasn’t well-enough known (not to mention disloyal to Carey, her former boss). McCaughey wasn’t qualified (not to mention the fact that she stood up during Pataki’s state-of-the-state address). Burstein was gay (’nuff said). Abzug was . . . well, Bella.

Do these losses add up to a pattern of bias? No way. Nor does the fact that women constitute only a fifth of the state legislature, and none of the legislative leadership, mean that men rule. Hey, cream rises!

Never mind that women have done much better in the other northeastern states. New Jersey and New Hampshire have female governors, following the lead of Connecticut and Vermont. Maine had a woman senator, Margaret Chase Smith, in the 1950s. And elsewhere in America, the stats are even more dramatic. Four of the 10 statewide positions in California (including both U.S. Senate seats) are held by women. In Arizona, women occupy all five top state-government posts. The legislatures in Washington and New Hampshire have nearly reached gender equity. Yet, New York, the birthplace of American feminism and the home of Susan B. Anthony, ranks 29th among states in the number of women who hold office. We’re a stretch behind Utah (which elected its first female state senator back in 1896).

Why this sorry record? Mario Cuomo says it’s because the state’s reputation has more to do with its glory days than its current dotage. “We’re not progressive anymore,” Cuomo notes. “We’re regressive.” This is no news to feminists who have struggled against the glass ticket. “We have an entrenched political system here,” says Galen Sherwood, president of New York NOW. “It’s very much an old-boys network. And what we’ve seen over and over again is a failure of the state’s officials to stand with women candidates when it counts.”

Sherwood is referring to the common belief that party organizations dominate politics in the Empire State. For women to rise, they must penetrate the interlocking networks of business and patronage that decide who carries the electoral ball. When it comes to gendersharing skills, the Democrats are better than the Republicans, but even in the party of Eleanor Roosevelt, girls get the scraps from the boys’ table. Among the party’s 58 county leaders, for example, women rule only in the
patronage-lean rural areas.

Most women who fight their way through this marginalizing system are independent types with their own constituencies. “They tend to come from the left wing of the Democratic party, which is a hard place to run from,” says Ester Fuchs, professor of political science at Barnard College. “And when they run as outsiders, very aggressively, they’re bait for the media and the attack ads.”

The current head of the state Democratic party, Judith Hope, can be expected to make inroads into this system, but it won’t be easy. As veteran political consultant Norman Adler notes, “the history of politics in New York is that men have been the leaders and women the workers.” The same holds true in the media, where, with some notable exceptions, men are the hunters and women the gatherers of news. With few women writing political columns— and none drawing editorial cartoons— male biases can easily be confused with truth. The press’s cherished image as a Great Leveler goes out the window when it comes to female politicians, though they usually are the underdogs. “Anecdotally, I’d say the New York press is harder on women candidates than on men,” Adler maintains.

And when it comes to the crucial tasks of raising money and fielding an effective organization, men have a distinct advantage, if only because of the little-boy’s-room atmosphere of politics in New York. “Literally or figuratively, a lot of deals are done around the urinal,” Adler explains. “So you can understand why women aren’t there.”

Leave it to Dick Morris, the working girl’s best friend, to tell it like it is. “Our image of the Empire State is as a bastion of liberalism, feminism, and good will to women who seek higher office,” Morris wrote recently, in a pointed warning to Hillary Clinton. “In fact, it is one of the most sexist political environments in the nation.”

Sexist, nous? Didn’t we invent second-wave feminism in the 1970s? Doesn’t New York have more female executives than any other state? Yes to both. But for women who seek higher office, that classic slogan “the personal is political” has a grimly ironic ring.

“Take the way a character trait is described,” says Ruth Mandell, director of the Eagleton Institute at Rutgers University. “If a man is strong-willed, a woman is shrill. If two men run against each other, it’s a contest, but with two women, it’s a catfight. And there are interminable discussions about hair.”

When five female candidates for statewide office were asked how gender shaped their fate, four described a very similar experience: what McCaughey calls “a tendency by the media to focus on my appearance and personality rather than on the issues I tried to make part of my campaign.” Her career as a policy wonk was largely ignored, McCaughey insists, in favor of derisive comments about her political inexperience— something that (as the Jesse Ventura saga attests) is often regarded as a virtue in a man.

Abate was singed by the accusation that she wasn’t tough enough to be state attorney general, even though, as the city’s corrections commissioner, she ran “the largest jail system in the country.” Then there were the comments about her physical appearance. “There’s no question that there’s an emphasis on your clothing, your makeup, and your hairstyle,” says Abate. “You never hear about a male candidate gaining weight.” But Abate’s oddest moment came when one reporter described her as aloof. She agonized about how he could have reached that conclusion. “I had looked in his eyes and answered every one of his questions. Maybe I didn’t hug him.” If she had, he would proably have concluded that she was too
tender-hearted to be the state’s top cop.

But if a female candidate is too tough— or her hair too short— she runs of the risk of being gay-baited. “That confirms the stereotype,” Burstein explains. “Here they are, these tough women; they must be abnormal, which translates as ‘dyke.’ ” Of course, Burstein actually is gay and she didn’t try to hide it during her battle with Dennis Vacco, who capitalized on her candor by charging that she supported child pornography. But even if she had been closeted, Burstein would still have had to deal with the curse of the Jewish female politician in New York: bad hair.

“The first time I ever ran for office,” Burstein recalls, “someone said to me, ‘You were too outspoken and you should have worn your hair differently. I said, ‘Look, my hair is curly and besides I’m not interested in gratifying your ego.’ ” In New York politics, that attitude dooms a woman to be what Burstein is today: a judge.

Holtzman’s image of being cold (one neocon wag, John Corry, said he couldn’t imagine her in a low-cut dress) not only chilled her Senate campaigns but haunted her tenure as city comptroller. When she failed to recuse herself from a city contract with a bank that had loaned her money, all the terror of her blunt demeanor (not to mention her progressive politics) came pouring out in the form of righteous indignation. As Alisa Solomon noted in these pages, Holtzman has the dubious distinction of being characterized as a witch by liberal Newsday and the conservative Post. This bipartisan consensus demonstrates the powerful currents of demonization that swirl around women who threaten the men’s club that is politics in New York State.

As for Ferraro: “Right out of the box, she was treated as a bitch,” notes Democratic fundraiser Daedre Levine. “There was constant harping on how her campaign offices were cushy and staffed by people who indulged her. This is something that would be seen as a sign of power in a man.” Yet Ferraro herself has no such complaints. “Primaries in New York State are ethnic events,” she insists, “and Italian Americans do not vote in the Democratic primary. The vote that did come out was heavily Jewish and I got 15 percent of it, so it was virtually impossible for me to win.” (True, the two men who beat Ferraro are Jews, but so are three of the seven women who lost their statewide bids.)

Still, this being New York, Ferraro’s tribal spin can’t be entirely dismissed. Republican rage at Rudy could help his rival, Long Island congressman Rick Lazio. In the unlikely event that Lazio wins the GOP primary, Giuliani might be forced to run as an independent, and, as Cuomo notes, “If two Italian American conservatives run on different lines, Hillary will win.” Can she win otherwise? “I hope so,” Cuomo says— a classic New York hedge.

Still, Ferraro’s biggest impediment may not have been her heritage but the fact that she hailed from every upstater’s image of Moloch: New York City. In fact, six of the seven women who failed to break the male-only mold came from the five boroughs. “I think the city is associated with things that frighten people,” Burstein says, “flash and European habits and accents”— not to mention attitude. “When you compound that with being a woman,” notes fundraiser Daedre Levine, “it’s almost impossible to win.”

So perhaps the most auspicious thing about Hillary Clinton’s likely candidacy is that no one associates her with the city. Like Robert Kennedy (who enjoyed insisting that he came from the Bronx because he’d spent part of his childhood in Riverdale), she is the sort of carpetbagger New Yorkers might prefer to the stereotype of a pushy woman from the teeming streets. Rudy, on the other hand, is a walking punch line from an anti­New York joke: How many mayors does it take to screw in a lightbulb? Nunna-ya-fuckin’-bizness.

Clinton has another advantage over the
other women who have run for higher office in New York State: access to big bucks. Her celebrity negates what might be called the no-cash loop. “It’s almost like a fait accompli,” Catherine Abate explains. “If the leadership thinks you can’t raise money, they don’t understand that this can be overcome with organizational support. I raised over $1 million, but that was peanuts compared to what Elliot [Spitzer] could bring to the table. So while I had the environmentalists and women’s groups, he had the Brooklyn organization.”

No doubt Hillary Clinton will have all of the above. She also has a shot at mobilizing the women’s vote (which usually constitutes the majority of the state electorate), and the minority vote (blacks support her over Rudy by a whopping 88 to 3 percent, according to a recent poll).

What she won’t have is immunity from the usual impediments for female candidates in New York State: coverage dripping with calumny indirectly related to her gender (consider the numerous cartoons of Hillary as a harridan or dominatrix); subtle accusations that she’s an unnatural woman in a fake marriage (why don’t these charges ever stick to Donna-less Rudy?); and a righteous rage betraying deep-seated and unacknowledged fear. She will be accused of being too tough, too cold, too corrupt, and just plain oogly. These may or may not be traits that apply to Hillary Clinton, but isn’t it interesting that they have also been applied to every other woman who dared to storm the state’s political gates?

There’s another thing about HRC that bodes ill: she’s seen by many as a closet radical hounding her more “flexible” husband. Indeed, her campaign has been viewed by a number of pundits as an attempt to get back at Bill. (A version of this scenario also haunted Krupsak and McCaughey when they ran against male governors who had chosen them to be lieutenants.) The rule is that conservative women do better in politics because they’re more traditional— and respectful of men. No one has drawn Elizabeth Dole as a witch; it’s an image reserved for progressive women, and especially for avowed feminists. So don’t be surprised to open the paper and see a drawing of Hillary in a pointy black hat, possibly wielding a whip.

Perhaps the greatest sign of the struggle she faces is the absence of powerful older women to campaign beside her. With Abzug dead and Susan B. Anthony on a silver dollar, there’s no dynastic figure, “no sage, no wise old woman, no Abe Lincoln,” Burstein notes. “All our motherly types stay home.” Hillary Clinton could become that missing female sage who passes the torch to a new generation of New York strivers. But first she has to get past the good old boys.

Research: Steph Watts