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What Makes Bella Run?

“The same thing that everybody is telling her around town she’s hearing in the family too,” her daughter Liz Abzug says. “You want to support her because you see her frustration, and she wants it because it will be such a great challenge. On the other hand it’s such a terrible job…and are we throwing our support behind something she doesn’t really want?” And that people may not want her for. Dick Aurelio feels that “Bella would endear herself to a lot of people if she would have the self-discipline not to make the run.” But that kind of endearment is—for Bella Abzug—clearly out of the question. “Bella is fully convinced that she can change the world,” a friend says. “And now that she’s 56, every moment is precious.” Too precious, anyway, for Bella to hesitate, much less retreat. Her response to her friends’ doubts is a snapped “Anyone who says things like that isn’t a friend….” Then she catches herself. “Well, they’re all concerned about my health,” she finally says, referring to her weight problem, brought on, primarily, by her nervous eating habits.

But there’s more at stake than her health in Bella’s desire to throw herself into—as she phrases it—“the biggest horse race since that horse, what’s-his-name…Secretariat.” For Bella, running for mayor will not be a long-planned piece of her grand political design—that was the Senate seat—but a chance for her to stay in the action. Equally important, it’s a chance for her to recover from the terrible ego blow she suffered when Moynihan beat her by about 1 percent of the vote: “She left a position as one of the most potentially powerful congresspersons to try for something that few people privately thought she was going to get,” a former aide explains.

Moving into Abe Beame’s house might salve some of the hurt from those still open wounds. So, for months before she announced, Bella says, she had been “weighing the whole process.” Her seeming equivocation caused her to petition hundreds of friends, former colleagues, and people on the streets. “She never has a moment’s doubt on any of the issues,” an aide says. “But the minute it’s a question of politics, Bella will discuss, agonize, and analyze with a hundred people.” The aide has missed it a little here: Bella may appear to be weighing her prospects, but she’s hardly considering the negatives. She’s oblivious to negatives in her anxiety to just…steam ahead. Everywhere she goes, Bella feels she’s seeing signs that the people really do want her.

After Stewart Mott’s medieval festival this past winter, Bella was climbing into a limousine when the driver turned around and said, “Are you running for mayor?” Bella turned to her fellow passengers: “You see, everywhere I go, people are begging me to run.” Her two favorite polls of 1977 have been Carter Burden’s private tally, which showed her to be the leading contender in the mayoral race, and another which showed that she was favorably thought of by 71 percent of the city. With ammunition like this, Bella Abzug isn’t taking in what might be considered more calming advice. She must constantly test herself; in this race it will be her ability to get out the vote. Always she keeps herself barreling forward. “There’s no realistic assessment of her own limitations,” a former aide explains. “Bella simply feels she can do everything.”

And if Bella’s “everything” had to suddenly change from the Senate to Gracie Mansion, well, for Bella Abzug, there’s little difference. “People are depressed in this city and I can give them hope,” she says. And until June 1, the only thing stopping Bella from officially trying to give them hope was the equal-time law. That Bella Abzug you saw on The Merv Griffin Show or on Saturday Night or in Sunday-morning interviews didn’t have to share time with the other candidates till her announcement became official. For weeks back then, her finance people were out raising money; Warner Communications’ David Geffen was lining up the superstar benefits, the buttons were printed, and the family became resigned to the inevitable. Already, in every way, Bella Abzug was actively trying to prove that New York is ready to embrace a municipal matriarchy.

If the biological appeal of matriarchy might function as Bella Abzug’s secret weapon, it’s a weapon that Abzug and her staff don’t seem to recognize or quite know how to cope with. Although she gets her votes from working-class Jews, Italians, blacks, Chinese, Puerto Ricans, women, and gays—all minorities which recognize the power held by a strong mother—Bella’s characterization of that support is that it’s based on strictly political, not anthropological, grounds. To Bella, votes come from people who agree with you, not from those who simply like you; she takes offense when she’s held up as a symbol. “People want leaders who care, who are people like themselves—real people, as human and emotional and agonized as they are,” she says. Congressional staff member June Zeitlin recalls, “Bella’s theory was that no matter how hopeless an amendment might be, if you really believe in what’s behind it, suppose you only do get five votes the first year? Maybe next time you’ll get 10 or 20, then 30, but it’s all part of the education process. Look at her antiwar stance; when she first started getting involved in the women’s peace movement, she was thought of as crazy.”


Related:

  • Archive: “Features
  • From the Jun 20, 1977 issue of New York
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