Ferraro's contest should turn on issues, not more false accusations

January 09, 1998|By Jack Germond & Jules Witcover

WASHINGTON -- Geraldine Ferraro's campaign for the Senate is, above all, a test of her own political skills and ideas after 13 years off the national stage. But it is also a test of the way we play politics these days.

As Walter F. Mondale's running mate in 1984, Mrs. Ferraro never had much chance of becoming vice president. President Ronald Reagan was about as close to unbeatable as anyone can be in American politics.

Specious mob ties

But Mrs. Ferraro was put through a wringer anyway -- an explosion of accusations and, more often, innuendo suggesting that, as an Italian-American, she had some nefarious secret connection with the Mafia. It all proved to be hogwash. Mrs. Ferraro's only problem essentially was her paper connection to the management firm run by her husband, John Zaccaro.

There was a lot of smoke, however, including such breathless disclosures by the press as the fact that her parents took bets on the numbers when they ran a neighborhood grocery store in Newburgh, N.Y., almost 50 years earlier. But the mud thrown in that campaign, coupled with the subsequent legal troubles of both her husband and son, left Mrs. Ferraro, however unfairly, under a cloud that led to the judgment in the political community that she had been a net burden to the Mondale campaign. In fact, you might just as easily have concluded that a woman could be every bit as tough as any man under the pressures of a national campaign.

Six years ago, while memories of that campaign were still relatively fresh, Mrs. Ferraro once again was the butt of personal attacks, this time from fellow Democrats, that cost her the Democratic Senate nomination by a single percentage point.

Conduct pledge

Given this history, it is easy to understand why Mrs. Ferraro began her campaign the other day with a pledge to deliver no personal attacks on the two Democrats with whom she is competing for the nomination, Rep. Charles Schumer of Brooklyn and New York City Public Advocate Mark Green. No such pledge was forthcoming, however, about Mrs. Ferraro's ultimate target, Republican Sen. Alfonse A. D'Amato.

Mrs. Ferraro also made a point of noting that she had been vetted by the FBI and the State Department before her nomination to the United Nations Human Rights Commission in 1993.

The one-time vice presidential nominee enters the Senate race apparently in a promising position. Opinion polls show her far ahead of Messrs. Schumer and Green and, according to one December survey, 14 percentage points ahead of Mr. D'Amato. Although she is light years behind in money -- Mr. Schumer has raised $8 million, Mr. D'Amato $15 million -- Mrs. Ferraro has the special standing with both women's groups and traditional Democratic liberals so that she should be able to close the gap.

Popular foe

Mr. D'Amato is a formidable foe who has overcome deficits in polls repeatedly in winning three terms in the Senate. He has been quick and adroit in positioning himself on issues with particular volatility -- Israel, for example -- to important constituencies in the state. And his attention to the concerns of individual constituents is legendary, a reputation Mrs. Ferraro acknowledged when she told reporters, ''I believe this high office requires more than being Senator Pothole.''

Mrs. Ferraro's liberalism is both her greatest strength and vulnerability in a time in which the left is out of fashion even in New York. Mr. D'Amato is already zinging her for her role as the liberal advocate on the CNN television show ''Crossfire,'' on which she has been working for the past three years.

A campaign on whether or not she is too liberal for the times is entirely legitimate. And so is a campaign based on whether she has been out of touch because she has been out of public life so long.

What is not legitimate is another attack on Gerry Ferraro that implies her ethnic heritage inevitably suggests some shadowy connection to organized crime. That kind of garbage hurt her in 1984 and again in 1992, and it has no place in 1998.

Jack W. Germond and Jules Witcover report from The Sun's Washington bureau.

Pub Date: 1/09/98

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