WNYC's Bob Hennelly is an award-winning investigative journalist. While at WNYC he has reported on a wide gamut of major public policy questions ranging from immigration and homeland security to power outages and utility mergers.
Campaign Postcard: On the Trail with AG Candidate Kathleen Rice
Can This Long Islander Break New York's Glass Ceiling?
Wednesday, September 01, 2010
For the five Democratic attorney general candidates, the real challenge is inspiring voters in an off-year election to actually come out. For 45-year-old candidate Kathleen Rice, that means quickly identifying the potentially motivated voter while she keeps supporters energized -- all while holding down her day job as Nassau County's district attorney.
For Rice, there was no better way to start this campaign day than with really agitated West Village community organizers still incensed over the closing of St. Vincent's, their neighborhood hospital. "I know this community is still hurting from losing the great and affordable quality health care that St. Vincent's provided for all those years," says Rice. Rice tells the group that she, and all her nine brothers and sisters, were born at St. Vincent's.
Attorney Yetta Kurland, one of the coalition's organizers, forcefully makes her group's case.
"Talk about affordable health care and access to quality care -- that's what St. Vincent's mission was and that's what's very much missing in this area," says Kurland. "If you look at where hospitals are situated on the island of Manhattan, on the East Side there are 18 hospitals. And just to put that in perspective, on the West Side of Manhattan there are literally three hospitals. Maybe you could talk a little bit about what you would do as attorney general?"
Rice responds that in her campaigning around the state she's seen firsthand the major impact a hospital closure can have on any community. She says that through the attorney general's role of regulating non-profits, she will bring about increased accountability and transparency to the boards that govern non-profit hospitals.
Rice says that already as Nassau district attorney she developed a proactive health care track record. "I started the first Medicaid fraud unit in any D.A.'s office because I recognized how important and vital that program was, but we also need to figure out a way to root out the waste, fraud and abuse because hospitals and health care providers are crumbling under the weigh of that waste, fraud and abuse."
Coalition member Jim Fourath is also with the Village Independent Democrats Club. They're backing Rice's rival, state Sen. Eric Schneiderman. Fourath supports Rice but asked her how to counter criticism he is getting from Scheniderman supporters.
"They challenge your credibility as a progressive," he says. "So if we could talk specifically about a couple of things -- one of them is the Rockefeller [drug] laws and your approach to treatment around drugs."
"Sure, 'cause this has everything to do with our health care system really at its core," says Rice before going over her record on the issue as a sitting district attorney. "I am a big believer in treatment over incarceration for drug addicted, non-violent offenders, but we have to make sure there is funding for that treatment so people can take their lives back."
Fourath uses the intimate face time to dig deeper and see just how committed Rice is to an issue that carries a lot of weight in the Village: support of the LGBT community.
"You know everyone is the friend of a gay person as a politician. But just how in your personal life has your relationships with gay, lesbian, bi-sexual or transgender people have impacted how you see some of the issues?" he asks.
"First of all, it is a personal issue to me," responds Rice. "I have someone in my immediate family who is a member of the LGBT community. And it informs a lot of the sense of fairness that clearly has not been extended to him and his partner."
Rice has twice won election as district attorney in traditionally Republican Nassau County. Her crackdown on drunk drivers and sexual predators got national attention. She used her grand jury investigation into the 2008 fatal stampede at a Walmart in Valley Stream to force Walmart to develop national standards to improve crowd control and retail site security.
Early on in this race, Rice raised eyebrows when she said that as attorney general she could not, as an act of conscience, defend the state's current ban on same-sex marriage. Her rivals took her to task for not understanding the importance of the attorney general's constitutional mandate to defend all the state's laws.
On the ride over to her next event, Rice stood firm. "I believe at some times you have to stand up and be courageous enough to say, 'I will not enforce a law that is discriminatory in nature and excludes an entire section of our society or community from the full and equal protection of the law.'"
At the next stop, the DJ and the crowd of 1,000 are just getting warmed up at Chinatown's vast Jing Fong restaurant. One of Rice's early backers was Brooklyn County Chair and Assemblyman Vito Lopez. It's Lopez's eighth annual Chinese luncheon for the army of senior citizen residents who volunteer to improve the quality of life at the city's public housing projects they call home. And they never miss an election.
The high-energy seniors are whirling around on the dance floor as a veritable political who's who works the tables. Democratic State Comptroller Tom DiNapoli makes the rounds. Members of the Council make sure to put in an appearance.
Lopez warms up the house for Rice. "And we have someone who said they would like to come by and say hello. She worked at the Brooklyn D.A.'s office. She is Nassau County's district attorney. Let's bring up Kathleen Rice, who is running for attorney general. So I want to hear again, do you think women should be in government?"
The crowd delivers a thuderous round of applause on cue as the poised Rice takes the mic from Lopez.
"Thank you so much, Vito. I want to thank you for your warm introduction and thank Vito for everything he does not only for people in his assembly district but all across the state of New York. Let's give him a a big round of applause."
Rice wades deep into the dozens of banquet tables to connect with as many voters as she can. Thanks to Lopez's past invites, Rice found a lot of familiar faces in this senior citizen public housing crowd. She stops at a table and leans in to be heard and hear over the din of the event.
"You guys have a good meal? Right! Excellent!," she volunteers to a table of zealous diners.
Rice has been no stranger to Brooklyn. "I have spent a lot of time going to events where they are," she says. "I have seen that whole group twice in the last six weeks."
While Lopez had no qualms in playing the gender card to warm up the mostly female senior citizen crowd, Rice won't go there without prompting. "No woman has ever been governor, comptroller or attorney general," says Rice. "Do I run as the only female candidate? No, I don't. But it is one of those intractable facts. I happen to be the only woman in the field of five people."
"But the one thing I talk about even more than that, 'cause I don't run as the woman candidate, is I am the most qualified person in this race. I am the only candidate who has run a law enforcement -- the only candidate in this race who has run a big office of attorneys."
Rice says in traveling throughout the state what she hears that voters are most concerned about is the economy. "We don't know when it is going to end -- when people are going to be back on the road to recovery," says Rice. "But I think what this election is about is getting people elected who can begin to turn the state around. This kind of relief is not going to come from Washington. This is going to come from Albany. These are local issues. People want to have their faith restored in their local government and from that everything else flows."
One race Rice has already won is the dash for campaign cash. Early on she was touted as the frontrunner, but she says that was a burden. She says she'd rather run as an underestimated underdog.