By John Marelius
, UNION-TRIBUNE STAFF WRITER
Tuesday, March 23, 2010 at 8:47 p.m.
— Midge Costanza, once the top woman in Jimmy Carter’s White House
and a fixture in San Diego Democratic politics for 20 years, died Tuesday.
Ms. Costanza died after a long battle with cancer surrounded by family and friends at Scripps Mercy Hospital in Hillcrest. She was 77.
“Midge was just a wonder — effervescent, irreverent, revered and adored by so many people,” said San Diego County District Attorney Bonnie Dumanis
, for whom Ms. Costanza worked as a public affairs officer since 2005. “I’m just beginning to see how many people she has touched through the students she has worked with, politicians she has worked with, attorneys she has worked with. It’s such a big loss to all of us.”
A scrappy crusader for women’s rights and gay rights, Ms. Costanza settled in San Diego in 1990 and worked on a number of Democratic campaigns including those of U.S. Sen. Barbara Boxer
, 1994 Democratic gubernatorial nominee Kathleen Brown
and former Rep. Lynn Schenk
“I’m the first woman DA in San Diego because Midge paved the way,” said Dumanis, a former judge. “She helped me in my judicial races. That’s how we met.”
In 2003, Ms. Costanza founded the Midge Costanza Institute for the Study of Politics and Public Policy, affiliated with the women’s studies department at San Diego State University.
Ms. Costanza and women’s studies professor Doreen Mattingly taught a course together in “sex, power and politics” in 2004.
Mattingly, who was helping Ms. Costanza write her autobiography, said she was a favorite of students.
“Every student said her coming to guest speak was the highlight of their college career,” she said.
Margaret “Midge” Costanza was Nov. 28, 1932, in Le Roy
, N.Y., to Philip and Concetta Costanza. The family moved to Rochester, N.Y., when she was 5.
Ms. Costanza worked for a Rochester construction and real estate development company for 26 years as she became increasingly active in Democratic Party
She entered politics in 1959 as a member of the executive committee of the 22nd Ward in Rochester and managed Robert F
. Kennedy’s 1964 U.S. Senate
campaign in Monroe County.
Ms. Costanza was elected to the Rochester City Council in 1973 and met then-Georgia Gov. Jimmy Carter a year later when he campaigned for her in an unsuccessful campaign for Congress.
The two struck up a friendship and Ms. Costanza became state co-chairwoman of Carter’s campaign in New York when he ran for president in 1976.
Ms. Costanza joined the Carter administration as assistant to the president for public liaison. Her sharp tongue and irreverent sense of humor made the 5-foot-tall Ms. Costanza a popular speaker and a favorite of White House reporters and columnists.
Those same qualities did not endear her to the more straight-laced members of the Carter inner circle nor did her outspoken advocacy of gay and women’s rights. The knives were out for her after an offhand comment to a local television reporter that embattled budget director Bert Lance should resign.
Unwilling to be blamed for jeopardizing Carter’s re-election chances, Ms. Costanza quit after 20 colorful, if contentious months.
Although Ms. Costanza didn’t leave the White House on good terms, Dumanis said Carter called Ms. Constanza last week.
“He called and told her she was in his and Rosalynn’s thoughts and prayers and thanked her for all she did for the country,” Dumanis said.
After leaving Washington, Ms. Costanza headed for Los Angeles
where she managed Shirley Mac Laine
’s “Higher Self” seminars and worked behind the scenes on television shows.
She moved to San Diego in 1990 where she plunged into local Democratic politics and directed training seminars for aspiring candidates for public office. From 2000 to 2003, she was a special assistant to Gov. Gray Davis
, serving as a liaison to women’s groups.
Ms. Costanza is survived by her brother, Anthony Costanza and several nieces and nephews A memorial service will be held in San Diego on an undetermined date next month. A private family service will be conducted in Rochester.
In lieu of flowers, the family requests that donations be made to the Midge Costanza Institute for Politics and Policy, P.O. Box 15523, San Diego.