Thursday, January 24, 2008

Women in New York Politics

Let me share with Greater New York readers a fascinating post by Mark Schmitt on the TAPPED blog on women in New York politics. If I was a blogger worth my salt I would know how to link to the post. Instead, here it is below, in its entirety:

Addie Stan's question about Senator Clinton, "whether she possesses an 'Inner Bella [Abzug]'?" reminds me of a point I was going to make as an addendum to Holly Yeager's excellent column last week about the absence of a "bench" of women ready to run for president.
The point being that for some number of women, particularly those of Clinton's generation in New York (of whom I know a few), her success is inseparable from the particular tragedy of women in New York politics. Starting in the 1970s, New York was the birthplace of successful women running for office independently. The bench was deep: There was Abzug; there was Liz Holtzman, who took down the chair of the House Judiciary Committee in a primary in 1972 and went on to make her own mark in that committee's hearings on the Nixon impeachment; there was Carol Bellamy, a skillful politician who won the then-powerful position of City Council President in 1977; there was Geraldine Ferraro, elected to Congress in 1978. One could probably add the names of Shirley Chisholm, the first black woman elected to Congress, and Ruth Messinger, who became Manhattan borough president a little later. New York has sent 22 women to Congress, second only to California's 31.
From this talent pool, surely senators, governors and mayors would emerge. That was the hope. And then what followed was disappointment compounded by disappointment:
• Abzug lost the 1976 nomination to the U.S. Senate by 10,000 votes, largely because the New York Times endorsed the then-neoconservative Daniel Patrick Moynihan, a move so controversial that the editorial page editor, John Oakes, overruled by the publisher, his cousin Arthur Sulzberger, was forced to convert his endorsement of Abzug to a short letter to the editor (himself).
• Abzug toned down her style and missed the runoff in the 1977 mayoral primary, one of the greatest yet nastiest political campaigns in history, a tale told well in Jonathan Mahler's Ladies and Gentlemen, The Bronx is Burning.
• Holtzman won the 1980 Democratic Senate primary, but the ailing incumbent Republican Jacob Javits, having lost his party's primary to Al D'Amato, insisted on staying in the race on the Liberal Party line and took 11% of the vote, costing Holtzman victory by a tiny margin.
• Ferraro reached the pinnacle, a place on a national ticket in 1984, but her selection (which briefly boosted the Mondale-Ferraro ticket to parity in the polls), was overshadowed by controversy about her husband's finances.
• In the 1992 Senate primary, for the chance to take on a weakened D'Amato, Holtzman and Ferraro effectively destroyed each other with personal attacks, letting Robert Abrams win the primary and lose the general election. Bitterness over that race carried over into Holtzman's 1993 race for reelection as New York City Controller, which she lost.
• Bellamy's political career fizzled with a defeat in the 1985 mayoral primary, just as Messinger's did in 1997.
Addie Stan's question about Senator Clinton, "whether she possesses an 'Inner Bella [Abzug]'?" reminds me of a point I was going to make as an addendum to Holly Yeager's excellent column last week about the absence of a "bench" of women ready to run for president.

Mark Schmitt

I guess the question this poses is whether all of this was bad luck or fate? Were there reasons why New York politics in the 1970s and 1980s was not really ready for a dominant woman? There has much written about the unrepeatability of the success of black mayors in major cities such as David Dinkins, Harold Washington, and Tom Bradley. For the most part, women have not yet even had that much success, and probably not enough has been written about Hillary Clinton as the most important female politician in the state’s history.

Is there a common thread that explains the failures of Abzug, Holtzman, Ferraro, Bellamy, and Messinger (who by the way lost to Giuliani in the general election in 1997, not the primary.) Perhaps it was running against self-proclaimed tough guys like Koch, D’Amato, and Giuliani, and the presumption that somehow these liberal women weren’t tough enough to make hard decisions, and stupid blowhard crap like that. (Or with Abzug, treat her feisty and difficult personality as a liability in a way that, say, Giuliani never had to deal with.) Perhaps Hillary has learned this lesson, and has become, for better or worse, the sort of acceptably “tough liberal” that can neutralize the presumption that the electorate seems to have that only men have enough rage and vindictive spleen to be effective leaders. Whether this is a good thing or a bad thing is a topic for another post.


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