On March 23, 2010, Margaret "Midge" Costanza died in San Diego, California after a battle with cancer. Midge was a tireless advocate and impassioned champion for equality, justice and human rights. She was the first woman to hold the office of Assistant to the President of the United States, when President Jimmy Carter appointed her to the position of Assistant to the President for Public Liaison in 1977.
Midge Costanza was born November 28, 1932, in LeRoy, New York, to Philip Joseph Costanza and Concetta ( Granata ) Costanza. When she was five years old, Midge's family moved to Rochester, New York where she attended Public School #33 and graduated from East High School in 1950. She received an honorary LLD from Framingham State College. For 26 years, Midge worked for John J. Petrossi, a Rochester construction and real estate developer. At the same time, she was active in the Democratic Party, ultimately serving as a member of the Democratic National Committee. Midge entered politics in 1959 as an Executive Committee Member of the 22nd Ward of Rochester. In 1964, she managed the senatorial campaign in Monroe County for Sen. Robert Kennedy.
In 1973, Midge was elected to the Rochester City Council, receiving the highest number of votes of any council member. She was the first woman elected to the Rochester City Council and was appointed Vice Mayor.
Midge first met Jimmy Carter in 1974 when he traveled to Rochester to help in her campaign for U.S. Congress. Although she narrowly lost that race, she made a great friend in Carter. When Carter announced his candidacy for president, Midge began her work as co-chairperson of his New York State campaign.
Midge's straight-forwardness and quick wit made her a popular speaker, and Carter admired that skill. He asked her to second his nomination at the 1976 Democratic National Convention. Carter later appointed Midge to the post of Assistant to the President for Public Liaison. For the first 20 months of the Carter Administration, she received national media attention as Carter's outspoken and committed "Window on America."
"The White House should be the President's window to the nation," Midge said. " ( It should be ) a place where the people can voice what they want, what they feel and what they need."
Midge served as a link between the President and a wide range of groups who previously had limited access to the White House, including women, youth, seniors, minorities, gays and lesbians, and the disabled. She was particularly active in fighting for women's equality, advocating for many issues, including the passage of the Equal Rights Amendment, for the protection of women's reproductive rights, and for the appointment of more women to high office.
After leaving the White House, Midge moved to California, where she remained active in political causes and spoke at events across the country. In Los Angeles, she worked on the television shows America and America Talks Back and she managed Shirley MacLaine's "Higher Self" seminars.
Midge moved to San Diego in 1990, where she became an active and vital member of the community, working on the campaigns of Congresswoman Lynn Schenk, Sen. Barbara Boxer, and Kathleen Brown. She served on the Board of Directors of San Diego National Bank and co-taught classes at San Diego State University. From 2000 to 2003, she was Special Assistant to California Governor Gray Davis, serving as a liaison to the Governor for women's groups and as a speaker for him throughout California.
In 2005, she joined the office of San Diego County District Attorney Bonnie M. Dumanis as a Public Affairs Officer. She was assigned to the Communications and Community Relations Division with an emphasis on the prevention of elder abuse. She organized the office's Consumer Protection Days, Citizens Academies and Women's Advisory Council.
Among her many honors, the City of San Diego named October 7, 2008 as "Midge Costanza Day." She also received a 2008 "Women Who Mean Business" Award by the San Diego Business Journal, and was named "Outstanding Citizen of the Year 2009."
In 2003, Midge formed the Midge Costanza Institute for the Study of Politics and Public Policy, affiliated with the Women's Studies Department at San Diego State University. Through the Institute, Midge would speak frequently to young people about the importance of participation in government and politics. Midge trained candidates to run for political office regardless of party affiliation. The Institute will continue the work of organizing and digitizing her collection of historical archival documents to be used for her lifelong work of motivating young people in the political process.
Midge is survived by her brother, Anthony Costanza and wife Susan; niece Lauren Kent and husband Scott; niece Erin Costanza; nephew Donald Steiman and wife Diane; grand nieces Erica Steiman and Jessica Steiman; nephew Damien Costanza and wife Deana; niece Julie Bausch and husband Patrick; grand niece Leah Bausch and grand nephew Alexander Bausch; and a large local and national community of friends and collaborators.
A memorial service in San Diego will be held in April on a date that is yet to be determined. A private family service will be conducted in Rochester, New York.
In lieu of flowers, the family has requested that donations be made to the Midge Costanza Institute for Politics and Public Policy. Checks can be made out to the "Midge Costanza Institute," P.O. Box 15523, San Diego, CA 92175
National Gay and Lesbian Task Force mourns loss of Midge Costanza
WASHINGTON, March 24 The National Gay and Lesbian Task Force mourns the loss of Margaret "Midge" Costanza, 77, who died yesterday in California after a battle with cancer. Costanza was a part of the historic first meeting between a presidential administration and gay and lesbian rights leaders, including Task Force co-chairs and board members. That meeting took place March 26, 1977.
Costanza was at the time an adviser to then-President Jimmy Carter, and director of the Office of Public Liaison at the White House. She met with openly gay and lesbian leaders for briefing on critical policy issues affecting the community. The meeting was a critical milestone for the lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender ( LGBT ) community in terms of access to the country's most powerful leadership.
The criticism of the Carter White House that followed was intense. Appearing on television's Face the Nation, Carter press secretary Jody Powell responded, saying, "Costanza was only doing her job when she used the Office of Public Liaison to allow groups to present issues that they would like the administration to address." Costanza too responded by consistently noting that "a basic tenet of American government is the right of citizens to petition that government."
"We are saddened by the loss of Midge Costanza and offer our condolences to her friends and family," said Task Force Executive Director Rea Carey. "She took a risk in working to ensure our voices were heard at the highest echelons of government. In this regard, she was a pioneer, and for this, we will forever be grateful."
In 2007, the Task Force held a 30-year anniversary conference call with Costanza and other attendees of this historic meeting. Listen to a podcast of the call here.
Costanza further recounted what it was like to be part of that historic meeting in these quotes:
"Thirty years ago, I received a phone call from Jean O'Leary and Bruce Voeller, the co-executive directors of the National Gay Task Force. What they said was, 'It is time. It is time that a government we helped choose and a government we help pay for no longer discriminate against us. We want to talk and we want to talk in the White House.' And I agreed. Certainly the constitution demanded that everyone be represented under those laws, and that would include gays and lesbians."
"I made the comment that I wished the citizens of this nation could have joined me in that room to listen to the examples of oppression that I heard today. Perhaps the issue of homosexuality would be better understood and perhaps more widely accepted if they could have heard what I did."
"Anita Bryant back then wanted my resignation, as did many of the right-wing groups."
Read more about the historic meeting and its 30th anniversary here.
Costanza recently served as a professor at San Diego State University in the political science, communication and women's studies departments. She also founded the Midge Costanza Institute for the Study of Politics and Public Policy.