9:10 am Aug. 30, 20101
As a candidate for state attorney general, Kathleen Rice has a lot going for her.
She’s the Nassau County district attorney in real life, and she looks as if she ought to play a D.A. on TV: she is 45 years old, tall and attractive with shoulder-length red hair. As the only female Democrat running for any statewide office, she checks an important demographic box for ticket-balancing purposes (as presumptive governor Andrew Cuomo, who was reported earlier this year to be quietly supporting her, noticed). She is an engaging, efficient stump-speaker. And she has a simple, clear theme, from which she rarely strays.
“I am not a product of Albany,” she said, wearing a silk shirt with the top three buttons undone, at a media roundtable discussion at a conference table in the building on 37th Street and 10th Avenue where her campaign headquarters are located. “I am not part of the Albany culture.”
She has repeated that statement again and again, reminding commuters around the city as she shook their hands at subway stops that she was not from Albany, and saying so multiple times and in multiple ways in a separate interview with Capital in her campaign offices. The idea is that she will be in an excellent position to take on corruption and inefficiency in state government because she's never been in state government. In terms of specific ideas for the A.G.’s office, she hasn’t said much else.
She presented a variation on the outsider theme this weekend in Astoria during a visit to a Queens County Young Democrats backyard-barbecue event, which was attended by a number of Albany-based officials and staffers. It was a sweltering afternoon by the time she delivered her speech. She was dressed in a suit, and positioned next to a hot grill, but she didn’t break a sweat. She told the small, friendly crowd that she wanted “to join all of you good Democrats in Albany” to “turn government around.”
The stakes are high in the five-way Democratic primary for attorney general, since whoever emerges will probably win the general, and whoever wins the general—recent precedent suggests—stands an excellent chance, after one or two terms, of becoming governor.
Rice, it should be said, is the front-runner, and arguably the closest thing there is among the candidates to an institutional favorite. And, outsider rhetoric aside, she has comported herself as such.
When she has felt compelled to engage her opponents at all, she has worked to distance herself from them by pointing out that they are more Albany, and generally more public-sector, than she is. In the case of her most prominent rival, State Senator Eric Schneiderman—who was recently endorsed by The New York Times—Rice has gone so far as to say that it would be “dangerous” to have him monitoring public corruption.
While Rice has held elective office for only five years—she defeated thee 31-year- Republican incumbent Dennis Dillon, her former boss, to become D.A.—she has far out-raised her four opponents, and the Friends of Kathleen Rice are some of the state’s most prominent figures.
Aside from the tacit support she has from Cuomo, and the explicit political support she’s getting from Cuomo allies like the Queens Democratic boss, Representative Joe Crowley, she’s also making an extremely strong showing with connected donors.
Donald Trump gave her $25,000. Leonard Feinstein, CEO of Bed, Bath and Beyond, gave her another $25,000. William Lauder, of Estee Lauder Companies, gave $10,000. Steven Kantor, global head of investment banking at Cantor Fitzgerald & Co., gave $25,000. Valerie Feigen, hedge fund analyst Steve Eisman’s wife, contributed $10,000. Cablevision of Rockland/Ramapo gave Rice $10,000, and Cablevision of Warwick gave her $15,000. (Cablevision owns Newsday, which has covered Rice since she took office.)
Felicia Weitz gave $55,900. She’s from Weitz & Luxenburg, the law firm where Sheldon Silver is of counsel, and whose contributions reportedly account for nearly 12 percent of Rice’s campaign warchest. Justin Weitz, the son of the firm’s top partner, was hired by Rice to become an assistant district attorney. The Rice camp explained the hire to the Times: “The office didn’t believe he should be barred from such public service just because a member of his family is involved in politics.”
Rice’s most generous contributors are Ann and Russell Byers, who contributed tens of thousands of dollars to Rice since she first ran for office in 2005. Rice, who lived on the Byers’ massive Garden City estate before she became Nassau County D.A., says Ann was her best childhood friend. Russell is a private investor. Ann is listed as a “homemaker” in campaign finance filing reports. The Byers have also been very generous to the RNC, and to both John McCain and Rudy Giuliani’s presidential bids. (The Rice campaign would not furnish contact information for the Byers to Capital.)
Rice says that she and Cuomo have never had a conversation about the attorney general’s office. “We have a very good working relationship,” she said.
Rice has not pledged, as her four opponents have, not to run for higher office.
“I have no plans to run for governor,” she said. “I talk about not making campaign promises like that because they’re meaningless. My oldest brother, 54 years old, died last February. I can’t believe I’m 45 years old and I’m talking about a sibling of mine that’s no longer here. People ask me, ‘what are you going to do next?’ God willing, I get up everyday and put my feet on the ground, and I’m thankful for every day I have.”
Rice, who grew up in a large family in Garden City, is good at suggesting common ground with her audiences.
At a meeting of the New York State NAACP in Rochester two weeks ago, she said, “Look, I had to struggle. I came from a family of ten kids. Nothing came easy to anyone in my family, so I know how important it is to level the playing field.”
Rice’s sister, Ellen, remembers the family’s annual winter break ski trips fondly. “We would have slalom races at the end of the week and have medal ceremonies the last night,” Ellen said. “The year I beat Kathleen she showed grace in defeat. But the fire was lit and the following year I was left with the silver medal.”
Rice’s father owned a construction business, and her mother worked in advertising.
The whole family watched “It’s A Wonderful Life” together on Christmas.
“I’ve always liked to argue,” Rice said. “My father would always say ‘you’re going to law school.’”
Rice attended the Catholic University of America, where she majored in English. She graduated in 1987, took a year off, and started law school at Touro College at 23. At 24, she was hired in the Nassau D.A.’s office by Dillon.
She moved on to work in the Brooklyn D.A.’s office until she became an assistant United States attorney in Philadelphia in 1999, where she once tried twenty homicide cases in a single year, before finally returning to Nassau to run against Dillon.
Her record wasn’t perfect: a source in the Brooklyn D.A.’s office recalled that she once prosecuted a case that was remanded because, according to the case overview, of Rice’s “inexperience” and unfamiliarly with a 4th Amendment law described as basic, and not requiring any specialized knowledge to understand. (In response, the Rice campaign said, “Nearly a decade ago, she made a procedural, human error with regard to one piece of evidence in a single hearing within one of the many successful trial convictions she obtained as a federal prosecutor.”)
She has led a mostly apolitical life. She did not cast her first vote until three years before being elected D.A.
When she turned 18, she says, her father took her down to the Board of Elections, as he did with all her siblings, and she registered as a Republican.
“People say families shouldn’t talk about politics, and there’s a reason, it can cause a lot of strain.” She remembers some dinner table conversations about Vietnam, since her brothers were of draft age.
Most Garden City residents were Republicans, and registering as one was simply what one did. Being a Democrat was “a difficult thing in my family to be, it was a difficult thing in the community where I grew up to be.”
She registered as a Democrat in 2002, after years as a registered independent while she was a prosecutor in Philadelphia.
Her timing was very good, as it turned out—Nassau was just on the verge of turning Democratic, after decades as a bastion of machine Republicanism.
The five-way race between Rice, Schneiderman, Assemblyman Richard Brodsky, former superintendent of the New York Insurance Department Eric Dinallo, and former federal prosecutor Sean Coffey has been sluggish. Most news broke in late July and August, when few people were watching anyway.
A July 28th Quinnipiac poll showed Rice with 11 percent of the vote, with no other candidates breaking 5 percent. Seventy-three percent of voters were undecided, and only 3 percent of voters could name the candidates.
August has been a particularly good month, however, for Schneiderman, who consolidated his position as the progressive champion in the race by rolling out endorsements from Al Sharpton and the United Federation of Teachers, adding to earlier endorsements by 1199/SEIU and 32BJ and, of course, the Times.
Rice’s reaction, in the interview, was to say, “I think we have a candidate in the race that’s more powerful than anyone else and that’s Undecided.”
Rice has raised twice as much as her Schneiderman, and it has been said that she’s run a front-runner campaign, bolstered by the fact that she did not appear at one of City Hall News’ candidate debates in late July. Her spokesman, Eric Phillips, told local press, “We go to as many events as we can, mindful that the district attorney has a day job.” Rice is quick to point out her grassroots support; almost half of her total contributions were less than $100.
“There were years when I didn’t believe in the system,” she said. “I’m still a very active voter, and I’ve carried that optimism that life can be better and our government can be better if you’re involved.”
Now that Rice has regular occasion to account for her political views, her political philosophy is of the default New York Democratic variety. She introduces herself as a tough-on-crime social progressive, and tells voters that she will fight for them, against corruption in Albany and on Wall Street, for workers against labor law violations, for the LGBT community, against the Defense of Marriage Act, for consumers against scams.
She’s most animated when she talks about the cases she’s tried. After an employee was trampled to death at a Black Friday sale a Nassau County Wal-Mart, Rice convened a grand jury and ended up negotiating a settlement with Wal-Mart instead of taking them to court. Wal-Mart had to submit to a new safety plan in all its locations.
She wears the persona well, as her advisers are aware. Her first Law & Order-esque TV ad begins with a booming declaration: “If anyone thought Kathleen Rice would be a pushover as Long Island’s first woman district attorney, they were wrong.”
Rice, who is unmarried with no children, said modestly that her role as the only woman in the race is “one of those inescapable facts.”
Both her TV ads end with promises. “If you cheat the taxpayers of New York, you should go to prison,” she says, staring into the camera in her first ad. Her second ends with her pledge that “anyone who commits a violent crime or rips off the taxpayers will be brought to justice.”
She’s less enthusiastic talking about her personal life. Asked in the interview what she likes to do outside of work, she said she loved to read, but couldn’t name a favorite book. Her favorite author, she said after some consideration, would have to be Shakespeare, because she has a sister and a brother who have tried their hands at acting. She loves to go to the movies, but hasn’t been in over a year.
Often, when Rice listens to someone talk, she opens her mouth wide, showing her teeth but making no sound, smiling, as if frozen, and waiting for the person to say something funny, or interesting. While she shook hands with Pelham Bay residents outside the Buhre Avenue 6 train on a recent afternoon, she made this face constantly. Rice greeted one elderly woman in a long blue dress with yellow fish on it with a “Hi, Dear!” She spoke, sincerely and quietly, to a commuter about her eighty-five year old father, who she speaks about often.
“My father doesn’t drive, either,” she told the commuter.
Jimmy Vacca, the North Bronx councilmember who has endorsed Rice, and stood with her outside the Buhre Avenue 6 train stop introducing her to his friends from the neighborhood, said she was a “good listener.”
Rice wears a gold-studded peace sign around her neck. She usually wears black pantsuits with black satin shirts and patent leather heels. Rice gesticulates when she speaks, walking her fingers across a table in private, making large circles with her hands in public. Rice often carries Donald T. Phillip’s Lincoln on Leadership with her, which she likes for its anecdotes.
“I love Lincoln—love!” she said.
Friends talk about her warmth and humor. Thomas Lane, a former colleague of Rice’s from her days at the Brooklyn D.A.'s office, contributed $20,000 to Rice’s campaign, and had kind words to offer. He described her as “charming, incredibly funny, and extraordinarily warm.”
Most other people Rice described her as intense, as long as their names were kept anonymous.
When asked if that was a fair portrayal, Rice responded with a greeting-card maxim: “It’s important for anyone in their life to push themselves to be better.”
Rice is often asked what the attorney general’s office will look like if she wins; whether she will be like Spitzer, or like Cuomo.
“I’m going to be like me,” she says. “I’m going to be like Kathleen Rice.”
Josh Benson contributed reporting to this article.
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