Kathleen Rice
Kathleen Rice (NYLJ/Rick Kopstein)

Kathleen Rice, who is just beginning her third term as Nassau County District Attorney, has announced she is running for Congress, setting the stage for a new top prosecutor in the county if she prevails.

Rice will run for the seat held by U.S. Representative Carolyn McCarthy, D-Mineola, who announced earlier this month that she would not seek reelection when her term expires at the end of 2014.

Rice’s announcement on Wednesday night was widely-anticipated. The prosecutor, who took office in 2006, has gained national attention for her tough stance on drunk driving and reinvestigation of a notorious 1980s sex abuse case.

In a statement, Rice said she has spent her career “fighting in courtrooms for people who need advocates in the face of incredible injustice. These experiences have taught me that the people who need our help the most are almost always the first people forgotten by Washington when times get tough. They need an advocate. I want to be their congresswoman.”

She added, “I’m not going to Congress to be a part of the good ole’ boys club. I don’t care about the politics. I care about the people we’re leaving behind.”

The district attorney was not available for comment Thursday.

Last fall, Rice, 48, cruised to re-election, beating Republican Howard Sturim by an approximately 18-point margin (NYLJ, Nov. 7, 2013). Part of Sturim’s message was that Rice was looking past the district attorney’s post for higher office. Rice rejected that claim. In 2010, she unsuccessfully ran in the Democratic primary for state Attorney General. Eric Phillips, a Rice campaign spokesperson, said Rice’s “first priority will always be running the office” and when her schedule allowed, she would campaign.

She has resigned from her post as one of the chairs of the Moreland Commission to Investigate Public Corruption chairs. But she will continue in her role as president of the District Attorneys Association of the State of New York until her term ends in July.

If Rice is elected to Congress, Gov. Andrew Cuomo has the authority to appoint an attorney to a one-year replacement role to run the office, which employs about 180 attorneys, 180 support staff and handles 30,000 arrests yearly.

The appointment would trigger special elections in November 2015. The victor of that election would serve a full four-year term.

John Kase of Kase & Druker in Garden City, a retired Nassau County Court judge and supervising judge, said he talked to Nassau County prosecutors after the announcement. “Naturally, there’s quite a concern on who could succeed her as D.A.,” he said.

Though these are early days, a few names have already surfaced as possible Cuomo appointments to fill the seat or as candidates for district attorney.

A number of Nassau County sources say Jon Kaiman, who was appointed by Cuomo to chair the Nassau County Interim Finance Authority in September 2013, could be a likely appointment. Kaiman’s background includes service as a Nassau County District Court judge. He did not respond to a request for comment.

On the Republican side, Nassau County Republican Committee Chairman Joseph Mondello said “it’s far too early for any decisions to have been made.”

Still, he said current Oyster Bay Town Supervisor John Venditto “would be an excellent candidate.”

Venditto did not respond to a request for comment.

Rice has attracted national attention, including an appearance on “60 Minutes” after her office uncovered a cheating scandal at a Long Island high school in 2011. She has crusaded against drunken driving, winning rare murder convictions in two high-profile DWI-related fatalities.

Her office also reviewed the 1980s prosecution of convicted child molester Jesse Friedman, whose story was portrayed in a 2003 Oscar-nominated documentary.

The district attorney’s investigation concluded that police and prosecutors had sufficient evidence to pursue sex-abuse charges against the suburban New York man and his father (NYLJ, June 25, 2013).

Friedman, now 44, has for more than a decade maintained his innocence, saying he was coerced into a guilty plea; he is continuing to challenge Rice’s ruling.

With no incumbent in the field, the race for the Fourth Congressional District could be one to watch, according to political observers.

No Republican candidate has yet to announce their candidacy for the Congressional seat, but sources suggested Hempstead Town Supervisor Kate Murray and county legislator Francis Becker, who has twice lost to McCarthy. Possible Democrats include Malverne Mayor Patricia McDonald and county legislators Kevan Abrahams and David Denenberg.

Some say Rice’s strong name recognition could give some challengers pause.

“This is a quintessential swing suburban district, but Rice has won by big numbers in both Democratic and Republican areas,” said Lawrence Levy, executive dean of the National Center for Suburban Studies at Hofstra University.

McCarthy, who has been treated for lung cancer, has endorsed Rice.

Several defense attorneys said they were not surprised by Rice’s bid for Congress.

Steven Raiser of Raiser & Kenniff in Mineola, president of the Nassau Criminal Courts Bar Association said “the writing’s been on the wall for years” and that Rice was using the district attorney’s office as a “stepping stone.”

Her victory was “far from a guarantee,” he said, adding she could not “run away from her record.” In particular he criticized a prostitution sting dubbed “Operation Flush the Johns” that was widely publicized and which displaying arrestee mugshots, including a 17-year-old.

Rice said the minor’s picture was removed immediately from the collection of mug shots, and she defended publicizing the sting.

Raiser also maintained Rice’s office has a policy of listening to inmate calls to their attorney’s office, an allegation Rice denies (NYLJ, Nov. 8, 2013).

Bruce Barket of Barket, Marion, Epstein & Kearon in Garden City, who has often clashed with the district attorney, said, “It’s a good day for the criminal justice community of Nassau and probably a bad day for the people in the Fourth District…. I’m happy to see her leave that post. I think her political ambition has clouded her judgment as a prosecutor to a troubling degree. I can’t imagine that trait is going to leave her as she climbs up the political ladder.”

Marc Gann of Collins, McDonald & Gann in Mineola said Rice’s announcement was “a great move for her” that gave her an opportunity to bring issues she cares about, like drunk driving and gun control, to a “national stage.”

“Do I agree with everything she’s done? No. But I think she’s been true to her convictions and I can never fault somebody for that,” he said.

Phillips, the Rice campaign spokesperson, rejected the notion that Rice had used the district attorney’s office to gain a political advantage. He noted when Rice ran for re-election last year, McCarthy had not yet said she would be retiring.

Rice “doesn’t make promises she can’t keep and she was straight with voters about her interest in higher office. Her critics don’t seem to understand that part of why she’s so popular is that she tells the truth and she’s been a great D.A.”