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Former Congresswoman Geraldine Ferraro Dead At 75

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Geraldine Ferraro (Photo by Jamie Rose/Getty Images)

Geraldine Ferraro (Photo by Jamie Rose/Getty Images)

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NEW YORK (CBSNewYork/AP) — Geraldine Ferraro, a former New York Congresswoman and the first woman vice presidential candidate of a major party, has died at the age of 75.

PHOTOS: Notable Deaths 2011

Ferraro, who was diagnosed in 1998 with a blood cancer called Multiple Myeloma, died at Massachusetts General Hospital on Saturday just before 10 a.m., said Amanda Fuchs Miller, a family friend who worked for Ferraro in her 1998 Senate bid and was acting as a spokeswoman for the family.

“To us, she was a wife, mother, grandmother and aunt, a woman devoted to and deeply loved by her family,” a family statement said. “Her courage and generosity of spirit throughout her life waging battles big and small, public and personal, will never be forgotten and will be sorely missed.”

In the statement, her family called the first woman and first Italian-American on a major party ticket “a leader, a fighter for justice, and a tireless advocate for those without a voice.”

LISTEN: U.S. Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand comments on Ferraro’s influence on her

Ferraro was an obscure New York City congresswoman when she was catapulted to national prominence at the 1984 Democratic convention. Walter Mondale chose her to run with him against incumbents Ronald Reagan and George H. W. Bush. In the end, Reagan won 49 of the 50 states, the largest landslide in nearly half a century.

Delegates in San Francisco erupted in cheers at the first line of her speech accepting the vice-presidential nomination.

“My name is Geraldine Ferraro,” she declared. “I stand before you to proclaim tonight: America is the land where dreams can come true for all of us.”

Her acceptance speech launched eight minutes of cheers, foot-stamping and tears.

Ferraro sometimes overshadowed Mondale on the campaign trail, often drawing larger crowds and more media attention than the presidential candidate.

“No one asks anymore if women can raise the money, if women can take the heat, if women have the stamina for the toughest political campaigns in this country,” Judy Goldsmith, then-president of the National Organization for Women told People Magazine in December, 1984. “Geraldine Ferraro did them all.”

But controversy accompanied her acclaim. Frequent, vociferous protests of her favorable view of abortion rights marked the campaign.

Ferraro’s run also was beset by ethical questions, first about her campaign finances and tax returns, then about the business dealings of her husband, John Zaccaro. Ferraro attributed much of the controversy to bias against Italian-Americans.

Mondale said he selected Ferraro as a bold stroke to counter his poor showing in polls against President Reagan and because he felt America lagged far behind other democracies in elevating women to top leadership roles.

“The time had come to eliminate the barriers to women of America and to reap the benefits of drawing talents from all Americans, including women,” Mondale said.

In the end, Reagan won 49 of the 50 states, the largest landslide since Franklin D. Roosevelt’s first re-election, in 1936 over Alf Landon.

In the years after the race, Ferraro told interviewers that she would have not have accepted the nomination had she known how it would focus criticism on her family.

“You don’t deliberately submit people you love to something like that,” she told presidential historian Arthur M. Schlesinger Jr. in an interview in Ladies Home Journal. “I don’t think I’d run again for vice-president,” she said, then paused, laughed and said, “Next time I’d run for president.”

Zaccaro pleaded guilty in 1985 to a misdemeanor charge of scheming to defraud in connection with obtaining financing for the purchase of five apartment buildings. Two years later he was acquitted of trying to extort a bribe from a cable television company.

Ferraro’s son, John Zaccaro Jr., was convicted in 1988 of selling cocaine to an undercover Vermont state trooper and served three months under house arrest.

Some observers said the legal troubles were a drag on Ferraro’s later political ambitions, which included her unsuccessful bids for the Democratic nomination for U.S. Senate in New York in 1992 and 1998.

Ferraro, a supporter of Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton, was back in the news in March 2008 when she stirred up a controversy by appearing to suggest that Sen. Barack Obama achieved his status in the presidential race only because he’s black.

She later stepped down from an honorary post in the Clinton campaign, but insisted she meant no slight against Obama.

Ferraro received a law degree from Fordham University in 1960, the same year she married Zaccaro and became a full-time homemaker and mother. She said she kept her maiden name to honor her mother, a widow who had worked long hours as a seamstress.

After years in a private law practice, she took a job as an assistant Queens district attorney in 1974. She headed the office’s special victims’ bureau, which prosecuted sex crimes and the abuse of children and the elderly. In 1978, she won the first of three terms in Congress representing a blue-collar district of Queens.

After losing in 1984, she became a fellow of the Institute of Politics at the John F. Kennedy School of Government at Harvard University until an unsuccessful bid for the U.S. Senate nomination in 1992.

She returned to the law after her 1992 Senate run, acting as an advocate for women raped during ethnic conflict in the former Yugoslavia.

Her advocacy work and support of President Bill Clinton won her the position of ambassador to the United Nations Human Rights Commission, where she served in 1994 and 1995.

She co-hosted CNN’s “Crossfire,” in 1996 and 1997 but left to take on Chuck Schumer, then a little-known Brooklyn congressman, in the 1998 Democratic Senate primary. She placed a distant second, declaring her political career finished after she took 26 percent of the vote to Schumer’s 51 percent.

In June 1999, she announced that she was joining a Washington, D.C., area public relations firm to head a group advising clients on women’s issues.

Ferraro revealed two years later that she had been diagnosed with blood cancer. She discussed blood cancer research before a Senate panel that month and said she hoped to live long enough “to attend the inauguration of the first woman president of the United States.”

(TM and Copyright 2011 CBS Radio Inc. and its relevant subsidiaries. CBS RADIO and EYE Logo TM and Copyright 2011 CBS Broadcasting Inc. Used under license. All Rights Reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed. The Associated Press contributed to this report.)

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