Changing the minority position to popular acceptance is what Abzug thinks she is all about; every political office she held or aspires to hold is the vehicle of that mass transformation.
“If you have women who come out of a certain ideology, then they have certain goals when they come into politics. They want employment for everybody, decent housing, health care, child-care centers. Most people don’t have those kinds of commitments,” Abzug says. But liberal New York Democrats do have those kinds of commitments, and in this year’s mayoral race, ideological differences are practically imperceptible; the passionate tunnel-¬vision zeal on “the issues” which first gave Bella political visibility won’t help her this year. Neither will her brassy mouth (“talking straight,” she calls it); if talking straight and histrionics really impressed the voters, Norman Mailer and Jimmy Breslin would now be running City Hall.
One reason Abzug resists the purely personal appeal that might be most useful in this election is that she’s been battling her “Battlin’ Bella” image for years. When she first went to Congress in 1971, an unnamed reporter for Ralph Nader wrote that her name cosponsoring a bill was enough to cost it 20 or 30 votes. “You would have said, ‘Here’s an oddball who’s never going to make it,’” Tip O’Neill recalls. “But she made good. She was the guiding light for a group of young freshmen who had beaten Republicans and who figured she was fighting for the changes they’d come to Washington for.” Gary Hymel, who helps O’Neill set the House’s daily legislation schedule, remembers Bella’s “calling me every single day to find out if I could adjust the schedule to maximize her time. She was one of the only congresspersons I’d hear from regularly.”
The human cost—to Abzug’s staff as well as to herself—of those years in Congress is what worries some of her supporters when they think of her administrating City Hall. During her last, frenetic terms in Congress, Abzug lived in a motel from Monday to Thursday. There’s a certain resentment from her staff because even when she could have gone back to her room, she ¬didn’t. As one of her legislative aides explained, “I don’t mind working, staying late if there’s work to be done, but I never liked the idea of staying late just to be a companion.” Others speak more bluntly about Abzug’s reputation as an abuser of those who work for her. “Her staff has suffered tremendously at her hands,” Congresswoman Millicent Fenwick says. A staffer who endured explains the problem this way: “Once you learn she’s a good person and what she’s trying to do is good, then you can take everything off her. A lot of people couldn’t understand that.” Staffers who called in sick were often told, “I don’t give a damn. As long as I’m paying your salary, you’ll show up.”
Abzug knows she makes excessive demands on those who work for her, but complains that people use this criticism as a reason “not to like me.” Bella also insists that her staff has to accept overwork as part of their larger work effort—taking care of the underrepresented constituency which she regards as her extended family. Her former campaign manager, Doug Ireland, has a slightly different interpretation: “The people who stay with her are either masochists or ideologues.”
Nowhere is Bella’s maternal appeal more obvious than when she’s out on the streets. Yes, she is stopped every few feet, but it’s not because she’s a media star whose hat-dominated picture is instantly recognizable. If that were the case, Bella would get the greeting which involves a quick intake of breath and shy recognition from the accoster. She does not get this kind of greeting. People greet Bella as if they know her…as if she is, if not their mother, at least a close relation. At La Guardia, for example, a woman strolls over to her and begins, “Hi, Bella, you looked real pretty on The Merv Griffin Show the other night.” And Bella gets right into it. “Thanks,” she says sincerely. “How are ya?” “Well,” the woman confesses, “I’m really shlumping along this morning. …” “Aren’t we all?” Abzug says with a heavy sigh. Later she seems surprised to be asked how she can put up with a constant barrage of similar bores. “People talk to me,” Bella says. “That’s how I learn things.”
Because Bella Abzug doesn’t see this as the pull of the matriarch, she has no particular understanding of how the flip side of her personality can cost her as many votes as she gets. What the Ed Koch crowd decries as Bella’s “bad manners” can be translated into a larger truth—Bella is an uncomfortable figure, a larger-than-life representation of every aspect of an uncomfortable family structure they’ve tried to leave behind. “If Bella had the same politics, but looked like Mary Lindsay, she could be president,” one of her detractors told me.