Freshman Democrats seem to be channeling Bella Abzug. Bella who?

Alexandria Ocasia-Cortez may think she is something unique regarding a precocious, feisty left-wing New York congresswoman. Many may see Rashida Tlaib’s profane remark in conjunction with impeaching President trump as a breach of longstanding tradition. Ilhan Omar may see her campaign to end the House ban on wearing headgear (hijab) on the floor as a unique effort. But … they may only be channeling the all but forgotten Bella Abzug, who did all those things – and she was only one woman.

Bella means “beautiful” or “gorgeous” in Italian. Those are adjectives that neither foe nor friend would apply to Abzug. She was the daughter of Russian immigrants – a short but husky bull-dog of a woman with the personality of a rabid pit bull.

Like Ocasia-Cortez, Abzug was a product of the Bronx, although she won her first congressional race in the tonier neighboring Manhattan district. Like Ocasia-Cortez she secured the seat by similarly defeating a seemingly powerful seven-term congressman, Leonard Farbstein, in the Democrat primary. It was a very liberal district that assured her victory in the General Election. She had the support of Republican-turned-Democrat Mayor John Lindsey – the historical political prototype of Republican-turned-Democrat Michael Bloomberg.

In the liberal populist traditions, Abzug took what she called an oath for the people on the steps of the Capitol Building – suggesting that upholding the constitutional right of the people was insufficient. The publicity garnering stunt could be compared to Ocasia-Cortez participation in a demonstration outside the office of Nancy Pelosi during congressional freshman orientation.

Like the aforementioned ladies of the radical left, Abzug came to Congress with her agenda. On the first day of her incumbency, Abzug introduced legislation to end the war in Vietnam and end the draft – and she called for an investigation of FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover for his abuse of power and politicizing the agency. (It is about this time that I recall Yogi Berra’s famed comment, “Its déjà vu all over again.”)

Known for her trademark wide-brim hats, Abzug defied convention and the rules by wearing it on the floor of the House as part of a publicity stunt to have the ban overturned for her benefit. Unlike Omar, Abzug did not have a religious argument. It was merely her personal and political fashionista desire. Her stunt and campaign to ban the headwear ban failed – as did most of her other pet issues.

With her old district re-drawn for the 1972 election, Abzug opted to run in the Bronx district. She lost the primary, but her opponent, incumbent Congressman William Fitts Ryan, died shortly thereafter and Abzug was picked to replace him on the November ballot.

Ocasia-Cortez’, Tlaib’s and Omar’s campaign pledge (albeit broken) to dump Nancy Pelosi as Speaker was like Abzug’s pre-congressional effort to dump the leader of her party, President Lyndon Johnson. The modern three sisters folded in their opposition to Pelosi, but Abzug was given some credit for Johnson’s decision to not seek re-election in 1968.

Abzug was a tough-talking feminist with a style and vocabulary that even many women did not like. While Abzug’s language was short of the “motherf***er” with which Tlaib described President Trump, she was responsible for contributing a coarseness to the political rhetoric of her time. She described her mission as figuring out a way to “beat the crap out of the political power structure.” That may seem rather mild by today’s standards, but in those kinder and gentler times, such talk – especially from a woman — was quite bold.

Her non-feminine demeanor and locker room talk made her the butt of jokes on Capitol Hill. One member of Congress opined that Abzug never wears a mini-skirt – the rage of the day — because her balls would show. Author Norman Mailer wrote that Abzug’s voice would “boil the fat off a taxicab driver’s neck.” Not sure how that bit of literary license all fits together, but we can assume it was not a compliment.

Abzug’s Joan-of-Ark approach to legislation made her unpopular even within her party. It was said that any bill with her name on it would automatically lose 30 to 40 votes of those who might otherwise support the legislation.

Abzug gave up her seat to run for the United States Senate. She lost. Subsequent efforts to become mayor of New York City and several attempts to return to Congress were all unsuccessful. Her flamboyant manner and ineffectiveness as a legislator made her unpopular with the electorate. She understood that and later said that she was “at heart an activist more than a politician.”

So, to all the newly minted firebrand radicals in Congress, let Abzug be a lesson to you. You may burn brightly based on your new-found celebrity, but you may one day look a back on a life that was short on accomplishment. Your place in history may be no greater than that of Bella Abzug. Bella who?
So, there ‘tis.

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