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Geraldine Ferraro

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When she got on the phone, Geraldine Ferraro's voice was tentative and wary. But I understood.

This was 1987, I was doing some work in New York for the San Francisco Examiner, and Ferraro had spent much of the last three years going through a media wringer that resembled something out of Kafka's novella The Penal Colony. Her husband had been charged with tax irregularities, her own finances had been questioned -- and her son was at the beginning of an ordeal in Vermont centered on charges of cocaine peddling.

Much to the shock of the former vice-presidential candidate, I didn't want to ask about any of that. I was writing an article on her legacy, and where things were headed for women in politics. So she picked up the phone when I called.

By that time, and for all her troubles, Geraldine Ferraro was one of my heroes. Like a lot of people in 1984, I was stunned at her selection as Walter Mondale's running mate: not because she was a woman, but because she was very, very much an Italian from New York. We had the same rough edges in our accent, and the kind of hard-luck stories that seem to precede all Italian-Americans who break through and go mainstream. But I was afraid -- would she "play in Peoria?" Or would her Italian-ness hold her back?

I didn't have to wait long for an answer: soon after the campaign began, dark whispers arose about her husband, John Zaccaro, and his business dealings. Reporters applied much heat, but little light -- and there was Ferraro, like so many Italian-Americans before her, defending her family against insinuations of criminal ties and dirty doings. (These same types of whispers -- and the tribulations Ferraro faced -- may have contributed to then-New York Governor Mario Cuomo's decision not to run for president in 1992, when he was an early favorite and a media darling.)

My article was about women and politics since then: had Ferraro's run helped or hurt? In her New York home-base, no new female faces had emerged on the political scene. Instead, the names were too familiar: Bella Abzug, Elizabeth Holtzer.

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As Ferraro warmed to the topic, her natural optimism began to surface: just give it a moment, she said. It will happen. A ceiling has been broken, but everyone is pausing -- waiting to see if the hole gets boarded up or stays open. She was right. Diane Feinstein soon rose to national prominence, as did Katherine Sibileus, Barbara Boxer, Christine Todd Whitman, and many more.

She was overjoyed -- and perhaps a bit vindicated -- when Hillary Clinton ran for president and came within a whisper of her party's nomination. Ferraro -- by then battling blood cancer for about a decade -- joined Clinton on the campaign trial.

Italians, too, have taken their place in national political prominence: Mario Cuomo's son Andrew won the New York governor's post last November in a landslide -- with hardly a rumor about some dark "Godfather"-inspired past.

When Geraldine Ferraro passed on this weekend, she left behind a lot grateful people -- who owe much to her and the struggles she endured simply because she was "the first." Tough times and all, she remains one of my heroes.

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April 11-24, 2014

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