Ruth Messinger wins Democratic mayoral primary in New York City

September 9, 1997
by Moss Herberholz

On September 9, 1997, Ruth Messinger became the first female Democratic mayoral candidate in New York City history when she beat Al Sharpton in the Democratic primary election. Her victory over Sharpton came after a recount calculated that she had surpassed the 40 percent threshold needed in order to avoid a runoff by a margin of 800 votes. Although she went on to lose to the incumbent, Rudy Giuliani, in the November election, her success in the primary was a significant milestone for the advancement of women in New York City politics.

Before running for Mayor, Messinger served as a City Council member for New York City from 1978 to 1989 and then as the Manhattan Borough President from 1990 to 1998. After her loss to Giuliani, she became the President of American Jewish World Service (AJWS), a role she held for eighteen years. As President of AJWS, a nonprofit organization that supports work for economic development and human rights around the world, Messinger spearheaded a wide variety of causes including ending violence against women and people with diverse sexual orientation and gender identities, condemning human rights violations such as the genocide in Darfur, and improving food aid and disaster responses throughout the world. Although she stepped down from the presidency of AJWS in 2016, she continues to work as a global ambassador for the organization. Along with continued work for AJWS, Messinger also serves as the inaugural Social Justice Fellow at the Jewish Theological Seminary of America (JTS), a prominent rabbinical school associated with the Conservative movement and as Social Justice Activist-in-Residence for the JCC of Manhattan.

Born on November 6, 1940, Messinger has had a long and influential career fighting for social justice both in public office as well as within the Jewish community. She has a BA from Radcliffe College and a Masters in Social Work from the University of Oklahoma. She has received numerous awards, including the Julia Vadala Taft Outstanding Leadership Award and has been identified as an influential leader by The Jerusalem Post (which identified her as the sixth most “influential Jew in the world"), The Huffington Post, and The Forward (finding a place on its “Forward 50” list for more than a decade). She continues to serve on the board of various organizations including social justice organizations like Hazon, Aegis Trust, and the National Committee for Responsive Philanthropy. Although her mayoral race marked the end of her career as a political leader, she has continued to influence government policy, most recently by serving in the Task Force on Global Poverty during the Obama administration and in the State Department’s Religion and Foreign Policy Working Group. She also continues to advocate for human rights around the world as a member of the World Bank’s Moral Imperative Working Group on Extreme Poverty and through AIDS Free World.

In short, Ruth Messinger has been a powerhouse of social justice advocacy with a significant impact on the national and global stages. She has worked tirelessly to advance the human rights of all people. As it turns out, her loss to Rudy Guiliani, after becoming first female Democratic mayoral candidate in New York City history, was only the gateway to decades of impact far beyond the city of her birth.

This entry was created for This Week in History as part of a course on the history of American Jews and Social Justice taught by Karla Goldman at the University of Michigan, Winter 2021.

Sources: Ruth Messinger. (n.d.). American Jewish World Service. Retrieved March14, 2021, from https://ajws.org/who-we-are/our-team/staff/ruth-messinger/; Ruth Messinger. (n.d.). Jewish Women’s Archive. Retrieved March 15, 2021, from https://jwa.org/people/messinger-ruth; Oppmann, J. (1997, November 4). Giuliani Wins With Ease. All Politics. https://www.cnn.com/ALLPOLITICS/1997/11/04/mayor/; Getting Beyond the Democratic Primary. (1997, September 19). The New York Times. https://www.nytimes.com/1997/09/19/opinion/getting-beyond-the-democratic-primary.html

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Ruth Messinger.
Courtesy of American Jewish World Service.

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Jewish Women's Archive. "Ruth Messinger wins Democratic mayoral primary in New York City." (Viewed on October 25, 2021) <https://jwa.org/thisweek/sep/09/1997/ruth-messinger-wins-democratic-mayoral-primary-new-york-city>.

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