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ROBIN ABCARIAN

She Has Left Politics, but Politics Have Not Left Her

September 19, 1993|ROBIN ABCARIAN

The head of the Century City law firm finished his remarks and introduced the new managing partner of the New York office.

The new managing partner walked up to the podium, removed the microphone from its holder, then walked over to a stage and perched on the edge, her legs crossed. Now she was much closer to the breakfast crowd, now she could share a certain intimacy with the group.

"Hey," she said, in a familiar, fast-talking New York voice, "if Phil Donahue can do it, so can I."

You can take Geraldine Ferraro out of politics, but you can't take the politics out of Geraldine Ferraro. The woman can work a room while sitting still.

Remember Geraldine Ferraro? Sure you do. She was and always will be the first woman to win a spot on a major-party presidential ticket. Sure, the ticket got shredded in that election, but she made history and she will always have that.

Last year, her political comeback went down in flames too--or rather, was sunk in the muck of a vicious campaign. She vied against three other Democrats for the chance to unseat Republican Sen. Alphonse D'Amato, and lost by a single percentage point to New York Atty. Gen. Robert Abrams, who lost to D'Amato in the general election.

So, in May, she became the best-known attorney for Keck, Mahin & Cate, a 170-year-old Chicago-based legal firm, eclipsing another well-connected partner, Victoria Reggie Kennedy, who is married to Sen. Edward Kennedy. The legal world is kind of a small pond for such a big frog, but Ferraro will keep her hand in politics. She will spend one day a week in Washington and the firm is also willing to give her time for activities such as the U.N. World Conference on Human Rights, which she attended in June.

"I am now a lawyer," she says, settling in a chair in a conference room at the law firm after the breakfast meeting. "I am out of politics."

Sure. And I'm the Princess of Wales.

It's interesting to see how people weather turbulence and loss, particularly when their troubles are played out in public. Many and varied are the accusations that have been flung at Ferraro and her family (and most have been aimed at her family), but she is unbowed. For every charge, she has perfectly reasonable explanations, which fall into a kind of trio of themes: "Italian-bashing lives/Honest people make mistakes/Debts to society have been paid." She will invoke these explanations when discussing the accusation that her husband has mob ties or his 1985 misdemeanor conviction in a real estate deal or her son's 1988 conviction for selling a quarter-gram of cocaine.

But she does not shy away from these topics. Which may be why Ferraro is almost always described in profiles as "feisty."

It's a gender stereotype, an adjective you almost never see used to describe a man (unless he is small and old). I wondered if Ferraro, who stands 5-feet-4, was offended by the word?

"I don't mind that," she said. "I guess it has something to do with my physical stature. I am not very big as you can see. I don't know. Call me feisty. . . .Just don't call me dishonest."

Being--like Ferraro--out of politics myself, I have no way of knowing whether her explanations are mere rationalizations for bad behavior. At this point in her career, it probably doesn't matter.

Geraldine Ferraro is now a high-paid corporate lawyer, a job a lot of people would kill for, but you can't help but wonder if she isn't just biding her time.

After last year's elections, Ferraro, 58, watched from the sidelines as some of her good friends took their places in Senate: Dianne Feinstein and Barbara Boxer from California, of course, and Carol Moseley Braun from Illinois.

"There is a real sisterhood," she said. "Just because I am not there making a difference doesn't mean I should not be thrilled that my friends are there."

Her voice doesn't sound pained, but her words do: "I am so proud of these women. They are all speaking for me because I can't speak any more. My voice means nothing."

Hard to believe she actually believes it. After all, she didn't say no when asked if she might run for office again--perhaps D'Amato's seat when he comes up for reelection in five years.

In Washington, she will help her clients have their say in the health-care reform package and the North American Free Trade Agreement--the two topics she addressed during the breakfast meeting.

Sounding more pol than lawyer, she urged her colleagues to support health-care reform and spoke movingly about how her mother died in her arms--and how lucky the family was that her mother did not have to rely on Medicare to pay the bills. In most unlawyerly fashion, she asked that those whose taxes go up next year think of the extra money they pay as "a contribution to the future of your children."

At the end, she asked for questions. And for a few seconds, there was silence.

"God!" said Ferraro, "I used to get beat up on at town hall meetings! It's so much easier in the private sector!"

But not, one suspects, nearly as much fun.

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