Nassau County District Attorney, the only female in the race for New York State attorney general, says she’s the one who has the experience to restore confidence in state government. She explains her campaign to April Drew.
She may be the only female contender running to replace Andrew Cuomo as attorney general of New York, but Kathleen Rice doesn’t feel like an underdog.
Rice, 45, has fought her whole life to get where she is today. Currently the district attorney of Nassau County, Long Island, Rice believes her work ethic and dedication to her craft come from her Irish upbringing.
“Coming from a large Catholic Irish family you learn a lot about how to speak up for yourself, fight for yourself and your siblings,” Rice told the Irish Voice during a telephone interview on Friday, August 27.
“I think public service is a great tradition in the Irish community and I’ve been in public service my whole life, and of course getting into politics, as I did five years ago, is historically a very Irish tradition as well,” she said proudly.
Rice, who lives in Garden City where she grew up, is proud of her grandparents who came to the U.S. in search of a better life with as little as $20 in their back pocket.
Her paternal grandfather, from Co. Roscommon, arrived in the U.S. in 1892 and quickly made a life for himself as well as providing for his family back in Ireland.
“He was able to bring over his brothers and sisters who wanted to come in very short order,” Rice said.
Rice’s father Lawrence grew up in Forest Hills, Queens and her mother Christine, whose family emigrated from Co. Roscommon and Co. Sligo, married in New York in 1953. They later had 10 children.
Rice holds the land of her ancestors dear to her heart, and spent two “wonderful” vacations in Ireland with family in recent years.
On her first Irish vacation in 2002 she took it upon herself to run the Dublin City Marathon and was “extremely proud” to have completed it in a timely fashion.
“That was a really great experience, but it was the second visit that was much more of a trip down memory lane,” she explains.
During her second trip Rice, accompanied by family including her father, went in search of some family history and spent a good deal of time in Co. Monaghan.
“It was so nice, just to see how my father enjoyed it. The last time he’d been there I think he was four years old so it was really special,” she recalls fondly.
In November 2005, Rice defeated 31 year incumbent Denis Dillon to become the first woman elected district attorney in suburban Long Island history.
In 2009 she cruised to re-election, defeating her Republican opponent by more than eight percentage points despite sweeping Democratic losses throughout Nassau County.
Prior to being elected to office, Rice served as an award-winning federal prosecutor for the U.S. Department of Justice. She began her career as an assistant district attorney the Brooklyn DA's office, where she was eventually appointed to serve in the office's homicide bureau.
On being the first female DA elected in Long Island, Rice told the Irish Voice in a previous interview that she never thought about it too much.
“I had never experienced sexism in my family. My parents expected the four boys and six girls to go to college. We weren’t treated differently. I just forged ahead,” she said.
“To me getting promoted was merit based. I think I won that race based on merit. I’m very proud to be the first women and I take that role model aspect very seriously for young girls, but also for young boys to show that no matter what obstacles are put in your way you can overcome them though the strength of your character and hard work.”
This time around Rice said she stands alone in the race for attorney general.
“Out of the five people in this race the big difference between me and the four men I’m running against is that I’m the only one who has actually run a law enforcement agency equivalent of a large law firm as the DA’s office,” she says.
“I’ve spent every day of my 19-year career making legal decisions. When to go forward, how to go forward, when to prosecute, when to not. These kind of legal decisions I’ve made my entire career, and that is exactly what the attorney general is charged with doing.
“Yes, you have a lot of attorneys who work in the office, but ultimately the decision of what to do with cases and investigations lies with the attorney general.”
Referring to her opponents, Rice said unlike some of them she isn’t a “product” of Albany or Wall Street.
“I think that also separates me from everyone else in this race,” said the redhead who was ranked “the third most powerful person on Long Island” last year by the Long Island Press.
When asked if she potentially sees herself running for the governor’s seat in a few years, Rice gently laughs because she has been asked this question many times before.
“That was a question that actually Sean Coffey (her opponent) started by saying he was going to sign a vow not to run for governor. I think this is the sort of political gimmick that people come up with in races that are really not that relevant,” she says.
Rice said she is “solely focused” on this race and nothing more.
“I believe that I’m the only person in this race who can achieve the kind of reform we need now, especially in our state government. I stand on my record, and again it’s the most experienced person for this position and that’s the only thing I’m focused on right now,” she says.
Looking back on her career as Nassau DA, Rice said she has dealt with many harrowing cases but one specific one stands out for her.
Rice has made cracking down on drunk driving a signature part of her time as DA. She was diligent in prosecuting a drunk driver who killed a seven-year-old Irish American girl in 2005.
“I’ll never forget this case. It was a terrible tragedy where a seven-year-old girl named Katie Flynn, who was a passenger in a limousine that was carrying her family back from a wedding,” said Rice, providing some background.
Martin Heidgen, driving a 1999 Chevrolet pickup truck the wrong way in the southbound lanes of the Meadowbrook Parkway, slammed into the limousine killing the driver, Stanley Rabinowitz, immediately and decapitating Katie.
“Her grandparents also suffered serious injuries, and her father and her sister Grace. It was a terrible case,” recalls the DA.
“Heidgen was rightly convicted. The jury agreed that the facts were so egregious that he was guilty of murder.”
Rice and the Flynn family worked together to pass legislation to come down hard on drink drivers in New York State.
“In the aftermath of that case the Flynns were able to put aside their enormous palpable grief and travel up to Albany with us with legislation that my office wrote to fill in the gaping hole in the law that existed for DAs like me across New York State in trying to hold accountable and prosecute the worst of the worst drunk drivers who kill and seriously injure their victims,” she said.
“In a bipartisan way we were able to get these laws passed in large part due to the advocacy of the Flynn family, and now we can now hold a lot more drunk drivers accountable,” she says.
“I’m very proud to be part of that conversation, and I proudly carry the mantel for those who lost their lives or were seriously injured by drunk drivers and will continue to fight on their behalf.”
Rice believes the biggest issue facing New York at the minute is the lack of faith in the state government.
“There is no question that the number one issue in New York at the moment is restoring confidence in our state government. It is at an all time low, and 80% of New Yorkers feel that their government is dysfunctional,” she said.
Rice has already put strategies in place to begin working on bringing back the state government to an acceptable level.
“I’ve put out a public integrity plan that includes reform such as instituting campaign finance reform, an independence state ethics committee, independent redistricting. All steps that we can take to reform the political and the governmental ethics reform to lead to that reform in Albany.”
Rice will also focus, if elected, on “every day issues” facing New York families.
“When business is bad and the economy takes a downturn you see an increase in businesses cutting corners and victimizing people through scams involving credit lending, mortgage fraud and insurance fraud. I’m going to work to be the people’s attorney to protect them from these scamsters,” she said.