As a city council member, Manhattan borough president and then mayoral candidate, Ruth Messinger’s focus was New York City. But after leaving local politics, she embarked on a new career, one that has taken her around the world.
"I would start my speeches by saying 'Let me introduce myself, I'm a recovering elected official,'" Messinger said.
And so it's been for almost 20 years. Ruth Messinger has had a fulfilling "life after New York City politics."
Looking back, Messigner reminisced on a number of international public service projects since she left politics behind:
"In Ethiopia helping women's farming cooperatives. ... Working with a group of garment workers in Cambodia who are in the worst possible situations. ... Working with this great microfinance effort in Zimbabwe."
Messinger, the former Manhattan Borough President and 1997 Democratic mayoral nominee, has traveled the world since 1998 as president of the American Jewish World Service, a nonprofit that works with grass-roots activists in developing countries to pursue human rights and fight poverty, themes that Messinger says are connected to Jewish texts, history and values.
"This is not just for Jews," she said. "This is what Jews should do to address the needs of the 'other' and the 'stranger,' to work for justice in the world."
This summer Messinger will step down as president but continue as a global ambassador for the American Jewish World Service.
She's credited with increasing the number of countries where the organization operates, and boosting its fundraising to $60 million dollars a year, from $2.8 million a year when she began.
"It’s easier to raise money when you’re not raising it for yourself," she said. "And it's tax deductible than what I did for years as a candidate."
She also teaches a course in Policy and Politics at Hunter College with Manhattan Borough President Gale Brewer.
Ruth Messinger was a fixture on the city's political stage for years.
Then she ran an unsuccessful campaign for mayor in 1997.
Everyone understood that unseating Republican Rudy Giuliani would be difficult.
Messinger says waiting four years to run in 2001, in a race with no incumbent, when she would be 61, would have been even more daunting.
"Eleven candidates ... I'm not likely to emerge from that pack," she said of a potential 2001 race. Running against an incumbent in 1997 would be difficult but, "A, it would be to do something I'd really like to do; B, there won't be a lot of other people in the fray; and C, if I lose, it's a much better age at which to go get another job."
Messinger says she is not a grudge holder.
And yet the scars from the campaign of 1997 are still painful, especially the lack of support from some of her fellow Democrats who backed the Mayor.
"There are people, I think what I would say is who really disappointed me," Messinger said. "And a couple of them I just decided I didn't need to have anything more to do with."
"One elected official also not mentioned by name. Who realized that he had to campaign with me in his district — which is what happens — invited me to walk his district on a Sunday morning at 8 a.m., that's the time I had. Fine. I'm coming, but you and I know nobody is out of their house until 9:30."
Messinger grew up on the Upper West Side, not far from where she lives now, in a progressive, politically active home with lessons spoken and unspoken.
"This country has been good to us," she said. "This city has been good to us. We should be giving something back, should be working for change. I come from a household in which two daily newspapers were read every single morning at breakfast and then my parents would then discuss the news and just assume that we would learn what we had to learn."
Messinger's father was an accountant, but her mother's career as a teacher at Queens College in the 1930s ended before it began.
"They hired her to be an instructor in philosophy," Messinger said. "And then they called her a month before the term opened and said, 'Never mind, we found a man.'
"I have one sister. She didn’t tell us that story for 30 years because I think she thought — I think she and my dad wanted to send us the message that we could be anything wanted to be."
Messinger attended the Brearley School and then Radcliffe College.
But the seminal period at this time of Messinger's life came in an unlikely place.
"My experience in Oklahoma was a significant turning point in defining my life that would be committed to social change work."
In the early 1960s, Messinger's first husband worked as a doctor in a federal prison in Oklahoma as part of the public health service.
Messinger pursued a graduate degree in social work at the University of Oklahoma.
"With the exception of one boy in the class whose father was a lawyer, no one in that class had anybody in their family who had graduated from college and they were all about to get master’s degrees. And I was like, OK, there’s actually something to this American dream notion."
Her degree in hand, she was hired by the federal government to oversee child welfare services in two rural counties.
Messinger says some Local officials, all men, were not amused.
"They told me, in fairly short order, that they’d never reported to a woman about anything, they’d never known anybody from New York, they’d never met a Jew and I talked too fast. So I said 'Well, the only thing I can change is how fast I talk but you are actually gonna have to work with me.'
The family eventually moved back to New York. Messinger got involved in her children's school and then ran for school board.
"Increasingly I see where these decisions are made," she said. "They're not made by parent activists and they are not made on the school board, but they are made by city council members and legislators. And so it's time to run for office. "
For 20 years, Messinger served in the New York City Council and then as Manhattan Borough President.
She was credited for her work on issues like a lesbian and gay civil rights bill, and expanded wheelchair and handicapped accessibility.
She believes some things haven't changed for women in politics.
"You're doing everything else. You're worried about your legislation, you're worried about your staff. You're worried about a speech. You know that if you don't look the way people expect you to look, which is something you see dogging women in politics right now, it's still a huge issue. "
She experienced slights — intended and otherwise.
"This particular member of the City Council was significantly senior to me and interviewed me, asked me five questions about the bill. At the end just sort of sat there, and I said 'So, Mr. Chairman can we have a hearing?' and he said 'I never could say no to a pretty girl.'
"Things like that throw you for a loop. You don't say what in any other circumstance I would've said about being called a pretty girl at the age of whatever I was because you just try to get his favor and want to keep it."
Messinger is married with grown children and grandchildren, and as the leader of a nonprofit with a global imprint, she's enjoyed a rich second act after New York politics.
"So many of the people who leave elected office, especially because they lost an election, seem to only know how to go back and hang around in a similar related job. So they become lobbyists or they become campaign managers, and all that is to the good, not all lobbyists are to the good but some of them are. But for me it was very exciting to say wait minute there are other things to be done here."