Friday, March 14, 2008

Geraldine Ferraro, Queens, and the Politics of Backlash

With the furor over the recent comments from Geraldine Ferraro, I thought we’d take a trip back in time to look at her time in the House of Representatives (1979-1985). During her time in the House, Ferraro represented what was then New York’s 9th congressional district. Basically, the district was the western most part of Queens, directly across the East River from Manhattan. In thinking about her comments, I wondered if they were not just a commentary on the 2008 election, but deeply rooted in the political culture from which she emerged in the 60’s and 70’s. I’ve written quite a bit about this period of upheaval and the politics it spawned. In his mayoral race of 1965, William F. Buckley found Queens to be quite receptive to his candidacy, receiving 17% of the vote. As New York City sank into decline, and reaction to the failures of the Great Society mounted, the inhabitants of this area saw their political allegiances start to transform. Not far away in Brooklyn, conflict exploded in the wake of Mayor Lindsay’s school reforms in such neighborhoods as Ocean Hill-Brownsville. If we look at the presidential race of 1968, we see that George Wallace performed quite well in what became Ferraro’s district. While Wallace received 4.7% of the vote citywide and 5.8% in Queens, in the assembly districts making up the 9th district he received greater support. Assembly districts 30-34 gave Wallace 9.8%, 5.3%, 7.1%, 8.4% and 9.2% respectively.

Looking at the voting behavior of this constituency during the 1970’s and 80’s, one sees the emergence of a true “Reagan Democrat” district. In 1972 it gave a large margin of victory to Richard Nixon, voted for Ford in 1976, and went big for Reagan in 1980 and 1984, even with Ferraro on the ticket as Walter Mondale’s VP. Throughout this time, though, it sent Democrats to the House, but of a more culturally conservative stock. Prior to Ferraro, the 9th was represented by James Delaney and afterwards by Tom Manton. Since redistricting, it is now represented by Congressman Joseph Crowley. While Ferraro was more culturally liberal than her predecessor and successors, she did have to strike a balance between her positions on such issues as abortion with those of her ethnic, largely Catholic, constituents.

The demographics of the 9th district when Ferraro served were roughly 75% white, 15% Hispanic, 5% Asian, and only 3% African American. At the time, the Almanac of American Politics described the 9th thusly:

“It can be said with some certainty that the durable Archie Bunker lives in the 9th congressional district of New York. The aerial shot taken by TV cameramen of Archie’s neighborhood shows the kind of aging, though still neatly maintained, one and two family houses that line the streets of Jackson Heights, Astoria, Long Island City, Ridgewood, and Glendale, Queens. Moreover, Archie’s views, as modified over the years, are a fairly accurate, if stylized, portrayal of attitudes that are often, though not always, shared in this district…Most of the people here, Bunker notwithstanding, think of themselves as coming from some sort of immigrant stock. And if they were not eager to share their neighborhoods with low-income blacks in the 1960s and 1970s, they are willing, at least grudgingly, to share them with people who are doing today what their grandparents did 80 years ago.”

So, while many are speculating on whether Ferraro’s comments are part of a coordinated effort by the Clinton campaign to make Barack Obama the “black candidate” in the eyes of white, working class voters, I thought part of the explanation for her rhetoric might lie in her past as well.

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