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Queens’ Ferraro remembered as trailblazer

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Geraldine Ferraro, the first woman to run for vice president on a major party ticket and a congresswoman who championed Queens in the House for six years, died Saturday in Boston after a 12-year battle with multiple myeloma, a blood cancer. She was 75.

“I remember shedding a tear when she was nominated for vice president at the Democratic convention in 1984,” said former Borough President Claire Shulman. “It was so exciting. It was a historic moment. I’m so glad Gerry had the opportunity. She represented us extremely well.”

Shulman said Ferraro “had the guts and the courage to run for vice president and really blazed a trail for everyone else. She was perfectly suited for that role because she had a lot of dignity and presence. She handled it with grace and intelligen­ce.”

Born in upstate Newburgh, Ferraro moved to the South Bronx as a child and later settled in Forest Hills Gardens after marrying Forest Hills resident John Zaccaro.

Always proud of her ties to Queens, Ferraro introduced the borough to the rest of the country in her 1984 convention speech, telling how schoolchildren pass by subway stops on their way to school, residents hang flags on Grand Avenue on the Fourth of July and small businesses “take pride in supporting their families through hard work and initiative.”

Ferraro, who represented Forest Hills and parts of western Queens for six years in the House, lived in the same Forest Hills Gardens house from the beginning of her congressional career in 1978 until the early 2000s, and patronized the restaurant belonging to lifelong friends the Abbracciamento family.

“She never forgot about the community, even when she moved,” said John Abbracciamento, who is now chef and owner of his late father’s eponymous restaurant, Joe Abbracciamento. “She was a wonderful woman. We knew her so well she was like an aunt.”

Ferraro often ate at the storied Italian restaurant with colleagues and, later in her career, sometimes a large press entourage.

“I would be in the kitchen workings away and she would come in and say, ‘John, don’t worry about it. Just get it done.’” Abbracciamento said. “I met so many people who came through those doors without every having to leave.”

Abbracciamento said that his family remained close to Ferraro even after she left for Manhattan to be closer to her doctors.

After receiving a degree from Marymount Manhattan College, Ferraro worked as an elementary school teacher in Astoria and took night classes at Fordham Law School.

In 1974, Ferraro created the Special Victims Bureau of the Queens district attorney’s office, where headed the bureau responsible for sex crimes, child abuse and domestic violence.

Former City Council Speaker Peter Vallone Sr., a classmate of Ferraro at Fordham Law, said she was “an innovative DA.”

“She was always very active. She was always interested in Queens, what was happening in Queens,” he said.

Four year later, Ferraro entered the 1978 Democratic primary for the Ninth Congressional District, defeating then-City Councilman Tom Manton, who later succeeded Ferraro in the U.S. House of Representatives and was the longtime Queens Democratic Party boss, by 53 percent to 28 percent. A third candidate received 18 percent of the vote.

Ferraro then won the general election, defeating Republican Party and Conservative Party candidate Alfred DelliBovi 54 percent to 44 percent.

Shortly after her election, Ferraro became a rising star in the Democratic Party and became close with then-House Speaker Tip O’Neill.

She was elected to leadership positions in the House, including secretary of the House Democratic Caucus from 1981-85.

In Congress, Ferraro was known for highlighting women’s issues, including the pay disparity between men and women.

She would win re-election in 1980 and 1982.

In 1984, Vice President and Democratic nominee for president Walter Mondale chose Ferraro as his running mate, making her the first woman and first Italian American to run on a major party ticket.

While the presidential campaign enjoyed a boost days after the announcement, it lost momentum after the press scrutinized the finances of Ferraro’s husband and she declined to release her tax returns after promising to do so.

Vallone, who said he believed the media attention was unfair, went on “Nightline” to stick up for Ferraro.

“I was the highest-ranking public official to defend her,” he said. “She survived that like she survived everything else.”

U.S. Rep. Carolyn Maloney (D-Astoria), who helped rename the Long Island City post office after Ferraro in August and was a convention delegate back in 1984, recalled watching Ferraro address the convention floor and the American people as she broke barriers.

“As an eager young delegate to the 1984 Democratic National Convention, I can tell you first-hand that Geraldine Ferraro thrilled us when she took the stage as the first woman ever nominated by a major political party to be its candidate for vice president of the United States,” Maloney said in a statement. “It was electrifying. She changed my life and she blazed a new path for American women.”

The Mondale-Ferraro campaign lost in a landslide to Ronald Reagan, who won re-election by carrying every state except Mondale’s home state of Minnesota and the District of Columbia.

Ferraro continued her political aspirations after the loss, but ran unsuccessfully for the U.S. Senate in New York in 1992 and 1998.

Both times she lost in the Democratic primary.

Maloney said the country “has lost a great leader who was wise as she was warm, a trailblazer who broke down barriers for women and a mentor who opened the doors of possibility to many.

“For women everywhere, Geraldine Ferraro was a champion and heroine,” she said.

Ferraro’s funeral, a private service only for family and friends, is scheduled for 9:30 a.m. Thursday at the Church of St. Vincent Ferrer in Manhattan.

Reach reporter Howard Koplowitz by e-mail at hkoplowitz@cnglocal.com or by phone at 718-260-4573.

Updated 10:56 am, October 12, 2011
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