07/20/2009 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

My Conversation with Geraldine Ferraro

Geraldine Ferraro has been a hero and inspiration to me since I was a young child, and I can say with some certainty that neither I nor many of the other women currently holding elected office would have had the opportunities to serve in high elected office without the leadership of women like her who came before us.

She was the first female Vice Presidential candidate representing a major political party and was a member of the House of Representatives from 1979 through 1985. She later served in the Clinton Administration as U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations Commission on Human Rights.

She is also my friend and neighbor. Recently, I had a chance to sit down with her. We spoke about governing, politics and family. I want to share some excerpts with you.

Melinda: It is great of you to give us your time when you are so busy.

Geraldine: I am never too busy to sit down and talk to you.

Melinda: Thank you very much. I wanted to talk to you a little bit about being not only an elected official and in government as a woman, but also as a candidate for Vice President. Now, you and I live in the same neighborhood, I know your children. So what was it like, first of all, being a sitting Congresswoman and raising a young family?

Geraldine: Well I have to tell you, in 1978 when I ran for Congress I had been in the District Attorney's office, I had been a Bureau Chief. By the way, I started the first special victim's bureau in the City of New York and actually in the country. Domestic violence was now becoming a crime, and so I said, I've got to do something about that. I felt that if I got into a position where I could make a difference then the thing to do was to run for office. So I ran for it in 1978. And my kids were, Laura was 12 and John was 14 and Don was 16. I always said that my teenagers were absolutely the smartest kids in the world because they helped me to win an election and they had figured out how to get rid of their mother three nights a week.

The edge I had was, number one, I had a house keeper who was just wonderful. She had been with us since Laura was very young and she was there from early morning until after dinner and had been there all along. The other thing I had was an edge over a lot of women today, was I had the world's most supportive husband and I knew that he would be there every night for dinner with the kids. I knew that he would be there in the morning to drive them to school. I didn't do it alone. And I think that's the difference. Today, you have so many women who are single heads of household trying to deal with childcare. I didn't have these problems.

Melinda: Now, at the DNC, Walter Mondale, when he introduced you, talked quite a bit about your history, talked about why he chose you over anyone else. I guess the code language for that would have been, [why he chose you] over a man.

Geraldine: It's interesting because, you know, what we did was historic. I was the first woman who was nominated by a major party for the position of vice president. And what was truly historic, in a lot of ways. The statement, even though it wasn't put as such, was the implication that, ok, women should not be excluded for running from any office simply because of gender.

Before I accepted the nomination I said to myself, can I actually do the job? You know, and it's not only the job of being Vice President, about which I had spoken to Fritz ahead of time. I had gone to Minnesota and we had talked about the job of Vice President. It wasn't merely showing up at funerals, it was the office of the Vice President as defined by Fritz Mondale when he was Vice President to Jimmy Carter. The two of them would work together and you would kind of be the right hand person for the President, doing things on the Hill as Joe Biden is now.

Melinda: He's very active ...

Geraldine: Very active. So it becomes a responsibility. And then the next question is, could you, under certain circumstances, God forbid, could you take over the job as President of the United States? I used to kid about women and men and how when they get elected, they deal differently with what their capabilities are. When a woman gets elected to the Senate, for instance, or to a governor's mansion, she gets up the next morning and she says to herself, I've got 6 years, or 4 years, and this is what I want to do, this is what I said I will do, this is what I am going to do to deliver.

Guys, they wake up the next morning and say, oh gosh, I'm presidential material. You know, it's a totally different thing, I mean it's just amazing.

Melinda: I think the question of perspective is an amazing discussion. I am running for City Comptroller, against three men. Two questions come up all the time: number one, how do you raise a child (meaning me) and run for office at the same time? You know, last I checked all of my opponents were fathers as well. But the second thing that is always being asked of me is, well, you're a woman running against three guys, you're the only woman citywide, does that mean that you should be there? And my answer is always ...

Geraldine: And you calmly respond to that? I would go, "pow" right in the eyes!

Melinda: It's amazing to me that, you know, people always talk about perspective, and I said you go to an office always bringing the life experiences you have. I am, in fact, a woman, and that just gives me a different perspective on how you govern. And so, you must have been asked that question so often.

Geraldine: You know the thing with "how do you leave your children?" That's the one I used to get. And you know I had my answer: my husband's home, he's perfectly capable of dealing with anything when I'm not there. And I used to do crazy things [to do what I need to do] which is what mothers do when we're in the workforce. I mean, when your son gets a little bit older, you will be going to PTA meetings no matter what you do, you schedule it so you can make sure you're there. What I found is I had to be extremely organized. I not only organized me, I organized my husband, I organized the kids.

Melinda: And the house, and the checkbook, and everything, I know.

Geraldine: You get everything and you delegate where you can. And that's what you have done all along. I mean, the thing about it is, to me, it's a very annoying question because, for one thing, it presumes that these guys are fathers who just don't do anything at all. And it also presumes that their wives are home working full-time being a housewife. I would suspect that some of those wives are also out working as well.

Melinda: Sure.

Geraldine: The presumption is that because you have a child that somehow you're not going to be able to devote your full time ... that's garbage.

Melinda: Right.

Geraldine: I mean, figuring that, if you just have confidence in yourself, and if you can do a good job, there's nothing you can't do.

Melinda: I can't tell you the number of women that called me from throughout the country when I publicized the fact that I did IVF and they said "if you can do it, you're a role model, we can do it too." And the other issue that is amazing to me is that, in the same line as this woman who is getting the appointment, they keep a tally of everyone's attendance at the Council. Mine is 93%. I said to a reporter, "I'm at 93% and I had a baby, just so you know." It's amazing that question never came up from them.

And the [other] thing that I find amazing is the perspective of women bringing their children with them to work. I find that people who bring their daughters or sons to the Council, people talk about how cute that is, it's amazing that a father spends time with his child, he's giving his wife a break. When I bring my son, it's amazing how the perspective is very different.

Geraldine: Isn't it so.

Melinda: Yeah, people say, "oh the nanny couldn't be there today?" or "the help or worker couldn't be there today?" or "how are you managing to do both today?"

We were talking a little bit about perspective. As you are aware of, the next nominee to the Supreme Court is from New York City, Sonia Sotomayor. Do you have thoughts on that?

Geraldine: You know, the thing about it is, she [brought on some controversy by] talking about her experience, but isn't that what diversity is all about? I mean, don't you expect that you're going to bring your experience to the discussion? And again, that's something that I've always said, you get a different perspective when you bring a woman into a position. I mean it's been looked at through the lens of guys. And sometimes, believe it or not, because of our experiences as women, we do bring other perspectives and sometimes they're actually not only good but better.

I think part of what she was saying was that she was going to bring her experience. Actually Alito tried to say he was bringing his experiences as a son and he was concerned with what was going on with his mother and as a father of a daughter, you know, that type of thing, which is fine, but that's not unique. That's still the perspective of a father who's doing the law.

I'm not a Clarence Thomas fan to put it mildly, but it's not only politically. It's also because the only thing he does is affirm what Scalia says. He brings his experience and his viewpoint to the court but, you know, that's why you bring different people on. I've always thought that we put in a different perspective. Now, Sandra Day O'Connor and I did not agree on that. I had given a speech and she followed me and said "I don't agree" and I said so what, I'm not practicing law in front of the Supreme Court.

Melinda: What was her disagreement?

Geraldine: I think she thought it was a bit of a put-down. Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg definitely does [bring the perspective] if you take a look at her decisions. A lot of her decisions have resulted in legislation, even minority decisions where she has actually read them from the bench. She gets up and says "this calls for legislation" and has pushed for legislation to address an issue. She does bring her perspective and I would hope that, you know, that Judge Sotomayor would also bring hers. And she will.

Melinda: And she will because you can't help but bring your life experiences and education you had, and experiences as a mother, as an educator, whatever it is you have done, to the job that you're actually doing.

Geraldine: You know, I was like her, Sonia Sotomayor. I was raised in the South Bronx, my mother was a single head of household. My mother was a widow. I have to tell you, when I went to Congress, my mother was a little bit pushy, which is how I got to where I am today. She said to me, "now make sure you take care of all of us who want social security." And you want to know something? I was on the aging committee, and we did a whole bunch of interesting things on the social security system, we actually passed legislation that saved it until 2040, although it's not quite there. We did a whole bunch of things for seniors. We took a leadership role in that. And that was from my experience.

Melinda: You had to bring your experience.

Geraldine: In addition to that, I focused on a lot of the stuff that I thought was important for the elderly in the district. And I have to say, I think it went well.

Melinda: [Running for Congress] in 1978 was an amazing feat for a woman at that time and I am convinced that if you had not run in '78 and you had not run in '84 for Vice President, I would not be sitting right here running for City Comptroller. It is just a fact to me. I stand on the shoulders of people that came before me and you are an amazing model.

So what do you think the different perspective is now for women running for office? How do you think it's different now from it was then? Do you think we're still facing the same issues?

Geraldine: Well obviously you're facing some of the same issues like this: "How are you going to take care of your child?" I mean, give me a break. I wouldn't be running for this office if I wasn't organized and figuring this whole thing out and my kid comes first. But, you know what?, I've got it all under control and I can do it.

Melinda: Right, you don't have to worry about it, that's my job.

Geraldine: That's it. You know, it is not a disqualifying factor to me, that it is more of a qualifying factor because it shows that you can not only care about the job that you're going into but you care about it because you are looking at the future for your own family.

Melinda: As you know, the Comptroller's race is heating up now. I was a New York State Assembly member for five years, chair of the Land Use Committee for seven years in the City Council ... but so often folks that question me or talk to me focus on issues that I dealt with that are considered "women's issues." You have an amazing history in Congress of dealing with so much legislation for every walk of life, but I know that most folks talk about your experience with the Equal Rights Amendment. The fact that folks talk only about that is amazing to me.

Geraldine: When I got elected, I asked for committees that were important to my district and my constituents. I asked for public works because we had problems with infrastructure. I asked for aviation because La Guardia Airport was in my district. I asked for Post Office and Civil Service because when I was running for office people would say, "can you change the zip code?" [because] they were being redlined on their insurance out of the zip code for parts of Brooklyn that were in bad shape. So I said those are the committees that I want.

Now, none of those really are places for women's issues. You know, when I got elected in '78 there were 17 women in Congress. If we didn't speak up on those things, it's not that the guys wouldn't support it. Actually, they'd say "Oh, gee, really that's right" and they would go along with this. Pat Scherlin, Lindsey Boggs and I made sure that when they're setting aside for different minorities, when they're setting aside construction jobs, we have to set aside some for women.

How was that done? One, it was fear. But the second thing was, we used our political power. These guys wanted us to come into their districts because they knew women were going to go out and vote, and they wanted to be sure that women were supportive of them.

And when you get in there, you're going to do the job of Comptroller. You'll do what the office needs, but you will also, because you're in that position, be reflective of what can be done and should be done as far as taking account of how these things affect women and affect their lives.

Melinda: Do you think that women, along with the perspective we talked about, are more helpful in negotiations and bringing the parties together?

Geraldine: That's what the guys don't like to hear but, yeah. [At my law firm] I'm working on a settlement, a very large settlement for a client. The fun part of any of this stuff is trying to figure out how to reach a conclusion.

I was President Clinton's Ambassador to the United Nations Human Rights Commission. I am sitting down with the world Islamic states and getting them to negotiate with Israel. Israel was not a member of the UN and was an observer. I got anti-Semitism condemned in a UN document in 1994. Madeline [Albright] did it here at the UN itself, but we did it in Geneva.

And, you know, you approach things a little bit differently. The Stephen Spielberg film Schindler's List wasn't out yet, but the ambassador was flying to Los Angeles to see Spielberg and I said, "Can you ask him if I could borrow a copy to show [here in Geneva]." It was going to be released in Europe, I just want to show the UN because I want to tell these other ambassadors why this is important and how destructive anti-Semitism is. I got the film and I invited the ambassadors and their wives.

Melinda: I'm sure it was successful.

Geraldine: Well, it was. When it was all over, I said "Tomorrow we're going to vote on this thing please take a look, this is the type of thing we want to avoid in the future." And I have to tell you something. The number of ambassadors who showed up for that film, the number of wives who were there and the vote the next day was amazing. So, you know, it was a different approach. Would a guy approach it in the same way? I don't know.

Melinda: Well, you know they hadn't yet.

Geraldine: So, you know, it was a different way to do it. That is utilizing different ways to achieve the goal.

Melinda: One of the things I talk about going around the city now, running for Comptroller, is that, in today's economic turmoil, you're going to have to work with other states in order to combine our resources and get things done at the corporate level and in the pension system. It's good to have someone who can negotiate and someone who can bring parties together in a room and sit them down. And I do find, as a woman, it's important for us to explain why we think we should do things and try to work out negotiations.

Geraldine: Well you've done that on the Land Use Committee, you have a history of being able to sit down and get them to reach [agreement]. You know, not everybody's going to get everything they want and I think that's always the issue. Somebody once said to me, how could you settle? Well, to be quite frank, it's because I'm a woman. If I can't get it all, give me a little bit and then I'll come back next year, maniac that I am, and I'll get a little bit more. I think that's the way, women, we tend to do things. We don't need it all at once. It doesn't satisfy constituents but it's doing the job the right way.

Melinda: I appreciate your time here today. It was an honor to have the discussion.

Geraldine: It was great, I've known you for so many years, for me, it's absolutely wonderful to see that you've been honest, you know, just done everything right, including having that wonderful baby, and I think that, you know, I'm looking forward to seeing you as Comptroller for the City of New York. You're going to do not only a good job, you're going to do a magnificent job. I'm looking forward to that, because I think it's important to my city.

Melinda: Thank you very much, Congresswoman.