BOSTON – Geraldine Ferraro was a relatively obscure congresswoman from the New York City borough of Queens in 1984 when she was tapped by Democratic presidential nominee Walter Mondale to join his ticket.
Her vice presidential bid, the first for a woman on a major party ticket, emboldened women across the country to seek public office and helped lay the groundwork for Hillary Rodham Clinton’s presidential candidacy in 2008 and John McCain’s choice of his running mate, Sarah Palin.
Ferraro died Saturday in Boston, where the 75-year-old was being treated for complications of blood cancer. She died just before 10 a.m., said Amanda Fuchs Miller, a family friend who worked for Ferraro in her 1998 Senate bid and was acting as a spokeswoman for the family.
Mondale’s campaign had struggled to gain traction and his selection of Ferraro, at least momentarily, revived his momentum and energized millions of women who were thrilled to see her on a national ticket.
The blunt, feisty Ferraro charmed audiences initially, and for a time polls showed the Democratic ticket gaining ground on President Ronald Reagan and Vice President George H. W. Bush. But her candidacy ultimately proved rocky as she fought ethics charges and traded barbs with Bush over accusations of sexism and class warfare.
Ferraro later told an interviewer, “I don’t think I’d run again for vice president,” then added, “Next time I’d run for president.”
Reagan won 49 of 50 states in 1984, the largest landslide since Franklin D. Roosevelt’s first re-election over Alf Landon in 1936. But Ferraro had forever sealed her place as trailblazer for women in politics.
“At the time it happened it was such a phenomenal breakthrough,” said Ruth Mandel of the Center for American Women in Politics at Rutgers University. “She stepped on the path to higher office before anyone else, and her footprint is still on that path.”
Palin, who was Alaska’s governor when she ran for vice president, often spoke of Ferraro on the campaign trail.
“She broke one huge barrier and then went on to break many more,” Palin wrote on her Facebook page Saturday. “May her example of hard work and dedication to America continue to inspire all women.”
For his part, Mondale remembered his former running mate as “a remarkable woman and a dear human being.”
Ferraro died at Massachusetts General Hospital, where she had gone Monday for a procedure to relieve back pain caused by a fracture. Such fractures are common in people with her type of blood cancer, multiple myeloma, because of the thinning of their bones, said Dr. Noopur Raje, the doctor who treated her.
Ferraro developed pneumonia, which made it impossible to perform the procedure, and it soon became clear she didn’t have long to live, Raje said. Since she was too ill to return to New York, her family went to Boston.
Raje said it seemed Ferraro held out until her husband and three children arrived. They were all at her bedside when she died, she said.
“Gerry actually waited for all of them to come, which I think was incredible,” said Raje, director of the myeloma program at the hospital’s cancer center. “They were all able to say their goodbyes to Mom.”
Ferraro stepped into the national spotlight at the Democratic convention in 1984, giving the world its first look at a coed presidential ticket.
Her acceptance speech launched eight minutes of cheers, foot-stamping and tears.
Ferraro, a mother of three who campaigned wearing pastel-hued dresses and pumps, sometimes overshadowed Mondale on the campaign trail, often drawing larger crowds and more media attention than the presidential candidate.
But controversy accompanied her acclaim.
A Roman Catholic, she encountered frequent, vociferous protests of her favorable view of abortion rights.
She famously tangled with Bush, her vice presidential rival who struggled at times over how aggressively to attack Ferraro.
In their only nationally televised debate, in October 1984, Bush raised eyebrows when he said, “Let me help you with the difference, Ms. Ferraro, between Iran and the embassy in Lebanon.” Ferraro shot back, saying she resented Bush’s “patronizing attitude that you have to teach me about foreign policy.”
Ferraro would later suggest on the campaign trail that Bush and his family were wealthy and therefore didn’t understand the problems faced by ordinary voters. That comment irked Bush’s wife, Barbara, who said Ferraro had more money than the Bush family. “I can’t say it, but it rhymes with rich,” Barbara Bush told reporters when asked to describe Ferraro. She later apologized.
Ferraro’s run also was beset by ethical questions, first about her campaign finances and tax returns, then about the business dealings of her husband, real estate developer John Zaccaro. Ferraro attributed much of the controversy to bias against Italian-Americans.
Zaccaro pleaded guilty in 1985 to a misdemeanor charge of scheming to defraud in connection with obtaining financing for the purchase of five apartment buildings.
Some observers said the legal troubles were a drag on Ferraro’s later political ambitions, which included her unsuccessful bids for the Democratic nomination for U.S. Senate in New York in 1992 and 1998.
Ferraro, a supporter of Hillary Clinton’s presidential bid, was back in the news in March 2008 when she stirred up a controversy by appearing to suggest that Sen. Barack Obama achieved his status in the presidential race only because he is black.
She later stepped down from an honorary post in the Clinton campaign but insisted she meant no slight against Obama.
In a statement, Obama praised Ferraro as a trailblazer who had made the world better for his daughters.
Ferraro received a law degree from Fordham University in 1960.
After years in a private law practice, she took a job as an assistant Queens district attorney in 1974. She headed the office’s special victims bureau, which prosecuted sex crimes and the abuse of children and the elderly. In 1978, she won the first of three terms in Congress representing a blue-collar district of Queens.
After losing in 1984, she became a fellow of the Institute of Politics at the John F. Kennedy School of Government at Harvard University until an unsuccessful bid for the U.S. Senate nomination in 1992.
She once discussed blood cancer research before a Senate panel and said she hoped to live long enough “to attend the inauguration of the first woman president of the United States.”