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Geraldine Ferraro’s Daughter on Her Mom's Legacy and Kamala Harris


Filmmaker Donna Zaccaro, who helmed a documentary on Edie Windsor, discusses female trailblazers.

When Joe Biden picked Kamala Harris as his running mate last week, it wasn't the first time a former vice president chose a woman, and one whose ethnicity was a first.

In 1984, former vice president and Democratic presidential candidate Walter Mondale chose the first woman, and the first-ever Italian American, Geraldine Ferraro, a Democratic congresswoman from New York, as running mate.

And though the duo lost that race to Ronald Reagan and George Bush that year, Ferraro and her family all hit the campaign trail that summer and fall, including her daughter, Donna Zaccaro. As the oldest sibling, Zaccaro went on to make documentaries about her mother, including Geraldine Ferraro: Paving the Way, as well a film about Edie Windsor's historic and landmark Supreme Court victory for same-sex marriage, To a More Perfect Union: U.S. v. Windsor.

I spoke with Zaccaro about Vice President Biden's choice of Senator Harris as his running mate and asked her how she felt about what might feel like a deja vu moment.

"I'm just thrilled! So many great choices were highlighted, and it was heartening to see so many qualified women candidates being considered throughout the process. Senator Harris is a great choice, and I know my mother would be thrilled too."

Zaccaro also sees a few similarities between her mother and Senator Harris. "They're both rising stars in the Democratic party, and both are considered pragmatic and moderate politicians. Also, they ascended to their vice presidential nominations relatively early in their political careers, and they both have histories of working well across the aisle."

Zaccaro said she also appreciated that Biden and Harris, with their mutual love of Biden's son Beau, seem to have a good relationship with each other, just like her family had with the Mondales. I asked Zaccaro if she still kept in touch with them. "I actually spoke to Mr. Mondale last week. He's 92, and he's fine and still very much on the ball. Our families have remained in contact after all these years."

When Ferraro was selected and thrust into the national spotlight, the family had to put all their lives on hold and help out on the campaign trail.

"My mom was in California at the time, and at the Democratic convention, because she was the platform chair that year, so none of us were with her when she got the call from Mr. Mondale," Zaccaro remembered. "My father and my sister immediately flew out to the Mondale home in Minnesota for the public announcement."

"However, I was just out of college and working my first job when my mother called me at home with the news. At the time, it didn't even occur to me to ask for the day off to go to Minnesota. Instead, I went to the office, and my boss commandeered a TV for me to watch the announcement."

The family eventually met up in Lake Tahoe where Ferraro was being prepped, and they all went to the convention together. "After that, we all went our separate ways and campaigned individually for the ticket. My sister took a gap year, my brother took a year off of college, and I eventually took a leave from my job and we campaigned for the duration."

While it was a memorable experience for the family, the campaign was not easy. Like Ferraro, Harris has initially received glowing media coverage, but things turned ugly for the trailblazing candidate. "The Reagan campaign had a phenomenal attack organization, and unfortunately, they went after my mom," Zaccaro explained. "My guess is that it's going to be just as dirty for Harris, because the president has already started to attack her."

In 1984, it wasn't Reagan or Bush who went after Ferraro, but Barbara Bush, who famously told the press that she could not say on television what she thought of Ferraro, but "it rhymes with rich." According to Zaccaro, Mrs. Bush and her mother not only became friends, but the former First Lady spent the rest of her life apologizing for the remark.

"After my mom died, I began to work on the film about her life, and I wrote to President Bush asking him if he would be a part of it. At the time, he had stopped doing interviews, but wrote me back and said he, and Mrs. Bush, both wanted to be a part of the film. When I arrived at their home, the first thing Mrs. Bush said to me was that your mom was such a wonderful woman, how they admired each other, and she still felt so bad after what she said about her. I told Mrs. Bush that my mother wants you to get over this."

How then, would Zaccaro's mom respond to Trump if he started calling her nasty? "She would have no patience for him. I don't know if she would even dignify his crude comments with a response. She would have been so devastated by Hillary's loss, and equally devastated by Trump's behavior and incompetence."

With the Trump campaign presumably ready to go after Harris with all their opposition research and dirty tricks, I asked Zaccaro if she had any advice for the step kids of Senator Harris, if and when they decide to hit the campaign trail on her behalf. "If they go campaign, it will be a once in a lifetime adventure that they will never forget -- unless she runs again of course. It's not easy, but it's a great experience."

"My best memory was being on stage for my mom's acceptance speech," recalled Zaccaro. "That was incredible. The other moment I'll never forget was at the end of the campaign, after we had all been campaigning separately, I got to meet up with my mom at a rally in Ohio and introduce her before she spoke. It was fun to have her see me speak publicly and get the crowd worked up for her."

Zaccaro also said that the other moment that stood out for the family was Ferraro's famous debate with Vice President Bush. Many pundits thought Ferraro won that night, and Zaccaro feels that Senator Harris will also do a great job with her debate against Vice President Pence, since Harris " a strong debater, on top of all the issues, and a real fighter."

Another warrior she's proud to have known in her life besides her mom, was Windsor, who I assumed would also be thrilled with the selection of Harris. "She'd be very happy to have more representation," Zaccaro replied. "The ticket looks more like our country and more inclusive. Edie would also appreciate Senator Harris's record on LGBTQ issues. Edie was such a strong person, so smart and articulate and I think she'd appreciate those qualities in Harris as well."

Those attributes sound a lot like her mom, I thought? "Both Edie and my mother were so strong; smart, driven articulate women," Zaccaro reminisced. "Both of them never stopped trying to make a difference until they died. They were both like Energizer Bunnies. And they were both so beautiful and so elegant. They were always looking to do whatever they could to make things better for other people."

Thirty-six years after her historic campaign, Ferraro is still remembered as a change agent, fighting for what was right, and for her place in history. I asked Zaccaro what advice her mother might give to Harris? "Give it everything you've got. Stay true to yourself. Fight like hell. Don't let them get you down. Keep that thick skin. Keep doing your job. That's what my mother did, and I have no doubt Senator Harris will do the same thing."

John Casey is a PR professional and an adjunct professor at Wagner College in New York City, and a frequent columnist for The Advocate. Follow John on Twitter @johntcaseyjr.

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