Celebrate Bella Abzug’s Centennial with a Statue

Photo by By Warren K. Leffler, U.S. News & World Report Magazine, LOC, wikipedia.org
Bella Abzug, 1971
Bella Abzug, 1971

July 24, 2020 Bella S. Abzug (D-NY) would have turned 100. Her impact on the nation through her activism, brilliance and tenacity will long be remembered. Her short six years in Congress left an outsized impression on the nation. 

With all the statues being torn down I support erecting one of Bella; feminist, activist, civil rights advocate, lawyer, congresswoman. Harold Holzer recently reminded us it was Ed Koch who first suggested one be placed in Washington Square Park in New York. 

I was fortunate to work as a staffer for Bella and then continued as a friend. One never stopped working for Bella. My tenure began in 1972 when she cut a deal with my District Leaders to secure the Democratic nomination to replace William Fitts Ryan on the ticket after he passed away from cancer. It was a simple deal. They would assure her the votes needed if she would hire me as her community representative in the upper part of the District. The people of the District won because they got Bella as their Congressperson. I won because I got to work for the most brilliant woman I have ever known leaving my job as a teacher to do so.  

With Bella, 1976 (Photo by: Peter Rosenstein) With Bella, 1976

Bella was a tough boss, a Jewish mother, and someone who never asked her staff to work harder or longer than she herself did. I learned much from her which placed me in good stead for the rest of my career. There are legions of funny stories about Bella and her staff and nearly all are true. I was Deputy Campaign manager for her 1977 Mayoral campaign and we were late getting a piece of literature to hand out. We hired a photographer who followed us around to take pictures. He took one of me and I put it up in my office. Next morning Bella looked in and noticed it and yelled ‘What’s that? Take it down. There is room for only one ego in this campaign and its mine!” Another time at La Guardia airport, she asked me to walk on the shuttle with her to carry her papers to her seat. One gate agent told her I couldn’t as I didn’t have a ticket. The other agent looked at Bella, who was about to ream them out, and said quietly, “Let him go he has enough trouble working for Bella as it is”. 

But in every campaign every member of the staff came back to support her. When she lost the Senate primary to Patrick Moynihan by less than 1% she tried to come back running for Mayor, and twice for Congress. Though never winning another race she never stopped fighting for what she believed in which is why she is both respected and admired. 

Some called her ‘battling Bella’ and others would say about her she was a ‘piece of work’, and she was. Bella was a brilliant dynamo impatient to right the wrongs she saw in the world. Her work included fighting for world peace, civil rights, women’s rights and gay rights. Nothing she did ever deviated from her overall goal of ensuring equal rights for all. She won her first Congressional election with the slogan "This woman's place is in the House—the House of Representatives." No one watching her in action could deny how right that was. When she passed much too young at 77 the Washington Post wrote “She took stands against the Vietnam War and wrote bills to prevent sex discrimination and improve the status of women. She introduced the first gay rights bill in Congress. She also denounced her white, male colleagues, saying they were part of a privileged elite and out of touch with America.” That was well before we heard of AOC. 

Some criticized Bella for being a realist. She occasionally made deals to win votes as long as they led to progress on the issues she cared about. She never compromised her principles and was named an assistant whip to House Speaker Thomas P. "Tip" O'Neill Jr. (D-Mass.)

In the past year to celebrate her centennial Harvey Fierstein did a play about her; New York named a park for her; and Jeff Lieberman is doing a documentary film. Now it’s time to put up that statue.