New Yorkers won't wait for much, but they apparently will wait for Geraldine Ferraro. For the last 12 months, the ex-vice-presidential candidate has been mulling over the idea of quitting her Crossfire job to run for office. She's about to make her decision: Ferraro will announce in the next two weeks whether she's entering New York's 1998 Democratic senatorial primary--also known as the race to decide who gets to mud wrestle Sen. Alfonse D'Amato. Ferraro's Godot act has overshadowed the campaigns of the two declared primary contenders, Rep. Charles Schumer and New York City Public Advocate Mark Green. New York political bosses and big donors are biding their time waiting for her announcement. The fund-raising group EMILY's List, which could steer $1 million to its chosen candidate, has encouraged members to withhold contributions till Ferraro makes her decision.
The latest Quinnipiac College Poll, a respected independent survey, shows Ferraro massacring Schumer and Green in the primary and routing D'Amato by 14 points in the general election. This enthusiasm is a little mystifying. After all, the 62-year-old has served a grand total of six years in public office (all in the House of Representatives), has not won an election since 1982, was brutalized in her last two campaigns (1984 vice-presidential and 1992 senatorial), and has been tangled in more ethics scandals than any politician except, well, Al D'Amato. A little ethnic arithmetic explains some of the Ferraro excitement. She's Italian; Schumer and Green are Jewish. "D'Amato beats any Jew, and he loses to any Italian," says a longtime New York political operative.
But Ferraro owes her popularity to something else: the Ferraro Aura (try saying that three times quickly). To this day, Ferraro is defined by 1984, by the four months 13 years ago when she was the most famous woman in the world. Democrats, especially middle-aged women, remember her at the Democratic National Convention, remember her white dress, remember her introduction, which brought the house down, "My name is Geraldine Ferraro." The Mondale-Ferraro campaign degenerated into a wretched, embarrassing spectacle, but Ferraro proved that a woman could be just as good--and just as bad--a vice-presidential candidate as any man. Ferraro, Maureen Dowd wrote, came to embody "the Cinderella myth, the American dream and the feminine mystique" rolled into one. Her admirers stopped seeing her as a politician. She became an icon, an unreal, idealized symbol of women's achievement.
But this image distorts Ferraro. As an individual, rather than a symbol, she's wonderfully engaging--charming, tough, smart, funny, thoughtful. But she is also very much a politician: self-aggrandizing, ambitious, and acutely sensitive to political wind shifts. Few New Yorkers, let alone few Americans, remember her six years in Congress, and with good reason. She was a pork-barreler and a more-or-less willing cog in the Queens Democratic machine. (Her path to Washington was cleared by the fact that her cousin Nicholas Ferraro was the Queens district attorney and a political player.) Ferraro had enough principles to stand on, not enough to get in her way. Despite her lionization by feminists, for example, Ferraro was not terribly progressive on women's issues. She was pro-choice, but not emphatically so. She supported the Equal Rights Amendment, but then maneuvered to keep it out of the 1984 Democratic platform. Her skills as an operator served her own career: When she arrived in Congress in 1979, she quickly inserted herself under the wing of House Speaker Tip O'Neill. His sponsorship was critical to her vice-presidential nomination.
F erraro seems to favor retail politics over ideology (like D'Amato). She has never attached herself to any particular set of ideas, never had any consuming passion. It's notable that none of the seven New York Democratic operatives I talked to could describe her ideology or name her pet causes. ("She's sort of moderate, I think," said one.) When I asked Ferraro about her key issues, her answer was boilerplate: "Education," the struggling economy of upstate New York, D'Amato's "horrendous" record.
Even her responses to ethics charges reflect her political instincts. Confronted with allegations about campaign-finance irregularities or with questions about her husband's business dealings, Ferraro has bobbed and weaved with Clintonian deftness: Hand out a few documents, hedge, cavil, deny, admit with explanation.
All of which is to say: Of course she'll run. She's a natural-born politician, and she can't stay away from the race. She sounds thrilled when she considers the prospect. "If you look at the time of my life that was the happiest, it was the time as a prosecutor and member of Congress," she says. "I am 30 points ahead in the primary. And I am the only one who beats Al D'Amato." Ferraro has always wanted to take on Sen. Pothole. She reluctantly skipped the 1986 campaign because of ethics problems. Scandal dogged her again in 1992, when she lost a vicious four-way primary. This year is her last chance at Al: "It's either do it now, or don't do it at all."
It's not likely to be an easy primary. Schumer has raised $8 million and is a relentless campaigner. Green has a loyal following among the liberals who vote in Democratic primaries. Ferraro says she needs to raise $5.5 million to win the primary. It will be a fratricidal, exhausting race.
A nd if she wins, D'Amato will be no pushover. The bars of New York are filled with politicians who led D'Amato in the polls a year before Election Day. He always polls low, he has $15 million to spend in the general election, and he solidified his base with lots of. And D'Amato will not underestimate Ferraro, whom he fears most of all his potential opponents. He has already fired a shot across her bow. In October, he ran TV ads--between segments of Crossfire, no less--slamming Ferraro as a pro-tax-and-welfare liberal. The ads mimicked Crossfire's format: "On the left, it's Geraldine Ferraro. And on our side, it's Al D'Amato." An icon would have ignored the attack, but Ferraro harpooned right back, calling the ad a "sign of panic." When Republicans asked CNN to drop Ferraro from Crossfire, complaining that she was using the program to advance her candidacy, Ferraro countered that "[i]t's almost unbecoming to see grown men whine."
If New Yorkers are lucky, this sniping is a preview of a delightful fall campaign: two leather-skinned, fast-talking, old-time pols whaling the bejesus out of each other. That's the kind of politics everyone enjoys, not least Geraldine Ferraro.
David Plotz is the Editor of Slate. He's the author of The Genius Factory: The Curious History of the Nobel Prize Sperm Bank and Good Book. He appears on Slate's Political Gabfest.