By Alex Robinson
Exactly 30 years after Geraldine Ferraro became the first female vice presidential nominee of a major American political party, her daughter Donna Zaccaro felt her mother’s story was just as important as it ever was.
The producer and filmmaker recently released a documentary chronicling the trajectory of her trailblazing mother’s career, from her beginnings as a Queens teacher to her apex as Walter Mondale’s running mate.
“Even though this is one of the hardest things I’ve ever done personally and professionally, I’m really glad I did it,” Zaccaro told a packed room at a screening of the film, “Geraldine Ferraro: Paving the Way,” hosted by the Queens County Young Democrats at St. John’s University Tuesday evening.
Ferraro was born in Newburgh, N.Y., and grew up in an Italian-American family. She later moved to Forest Hills to live with her Queens husband, John Zaccaro, and worked as a teacher before deciding to go to law school. She then worked as an assistant district attorney in Queens for four years before she ran for Congress in 1978.
She quickly rose through the Democratic Party’s hierarchy and was awarded a spot on the influential House Budget Committee in 1983.
Ferraro served three terms in the House before Walter Mondale asked her to be on his ticket for the 1984 general election against then-President Ronald Reagan.
In addition to showing some of Ferraro’s greatest triumphs, the film, which was directed and produced by Zaccaro, documented some of the more turbulent points in the Queens politician’s campaign for the vice presidency.
“I couldn’t shy away from the difficult things,” Zaccaro said. “People loved my mother or they really didn’t love my mother.”
Ferraro came under attack from the Catholic Church, to which she belonged, sending picketers to jeer at her because of her pro-choice stance during the campaign.
“It was very, very difficult for her,” Zaccaro said. “She was very hurt by the fact the church attacked her the way it did because her faith was something that was very strong.”
Questions about her husband’s tax returns and finances also dogged Ferraro and snagged some of her momentum.
Reagan went on to trounce Mondale and Ferraro by winning every state except for Minnesota and garnering more than 58 percent of the popular vote.
While her bid was ultimately unsuccessful, Ferraro had gone farther than any other woman had before.
“Even though they lost, the campaign had tremendous impact because she was a credible candidate,” Zaccaro said. “People could see her being vice president or president even if they didn’t vote for her, so that caused a shift in what this country thought was possible for women.”
Ferraro’s political career petered out with two unsuccessful runs for U.S. Senate, but she remained active in politics, working on Hillary Clinton’s presidential primary campaign in 2008.
“If it were not for women like Geraldine Ferraro, there is no way I would be the borough president today,” Borough President Melinda Katz said at the screening. “So I owe her a great amount of gratitude.”
Zaccaro said her mother was disappointed there had not been another woman nominated to the vice presidency in the 24 years between her bid and that of Sarah Palin in 2008.
“She actually was happy that Sarah Palin was nominated or that another woman was nominated to another party,” Zaccaro said. “She disagreed with her on everything and I think she would have liked her to have been more of a credible candidate.”
Ferraro died in 2011 after a struggle with multiple myeloma, never having seen a woman win the presidency.
“A big regret was that she didn’t see a woman elected president and she thought Hillary would make a great president,” Zaccaro said. “It will be an achievement of my mother’s dream. It’ll be the next step in the work that she did.”
Zaccaro said she hopes her film can be an educational tool in schools across the country to inform people about who her mother was and to show girls and women what they are capable of doing.
Reach reporter Alex Robinson by e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org or by phone at 718-260-4566.