Nassau District Attorney Kathleen Rice said Wednesday that she will run for Congress to replace nine-term incumbent Carolyn McCarthy, ending weeks of speculation -- and courtship -- by national Democrats.
Rice said that if elected, she would continue McCarthy's work to reduce gun violence, and also focus on issues that include immigration reform, human sex trafficking and small-business aid.
"I think my skill set and experience shows that I can address these issues and more, just as Carolyn has done," said Rice, who this month began her third four-year term as district attorney.
"Carolyn has convinced me that when you get to Washington, you can get involved in as many issues that are relevant to your constituents," Rice added. "You're not pigeonholed by your background and what your past experience is."
McCarthy, 70, a Mineola Democrat who represents the 4th Congressional District, joined Rice, 48, at a Westbury diner to endorse her candidacy. McCarthy has been on leave from Congress to undergo treatment for lung cancer since June, but said her decision to retire after 18 years in office wasn't based on any single factor.
Rice, of Garden City, was first elected district attorney in 2005 in a race against Republican Denis Dillon, a 31-year incumbent. She had worked previously as an assistant United States attorney in Philadelphia and as a prosecutor in the Brooklyn district attorney's office.
After Rice narrowly lost a Democratic primary for state attorney general in 2010, party officials often mentioned her as a prime candidate for higher office. In November, she defeated Republican Howard Sturim, a former prosecutor, by 18 percentage points to remain the only Nassau Democrat with a countywide seat.
McCarthy and Rep. Steve Israel (D-Huntington), chairman of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, began speaking to Rice about running last fall, when McCarthy started telling people she might not seek a 10th term in office.
McCarthy announced last month that she would retire at the end of the year. Since then, Rice has visited Washington, D.C., for meetings about a candidacy, and top Democrats, including House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi and Vice President Joe Biden, have encouraged her to run.
"When you love the job you have, you want to see someone come in and continue the work," McCarthy said Wednesday. "Kathleen is going to take her own path; she'll find what interests she'll go with, but I also know she's passionate about reducing gun violence from her years being the DA."
Israel has said he wouldn't discourage candidates from running in a Democratic primary in the 4th District. Legis. Kevan Abrahams (D-Freeport), minority leader of the Nassau County Legislature, has formed a campaign committee to explore a run, and held a fundraiser Wednesday night. Legis. David Denenberg of Merrick and Malverne Mayor Patricia Norris-McDonald also have expressed interest in running.
On the GOP side, officials are courting Hempstead Town Supervisor Kate Murray, but she has yet to decide. Other Republicans seeking support include Nassau Legis. Francis X. Becker Jr. of Lynbrook and attorney Frank Scaturro of New Hyde Park -- both of whom lost to McCarthy in 2012.
Democrats hold a nearly 40,000-voter enrollment edge in the 4th district, but Republicans had dominated before McCarthy first won office in 1996.
Rice has had a good relationship with Nassau Republicans, but recently came under fire from the local leader of her own political party.
County Democratic chairman Jay Jacobs questioned why Rice didn't bring criminal charges against former Nassau Police Commissioner Thomas Dale, who resigned last year after Rice found that he directed officers to arrest a witness in a politically charged election-year case.
Developer Gary Melius, an Independence Party member, called Dale in October, saying the county executive campaign of former Freeport Mayor Andrew Hardwick wanted to file a perjury charge against a witness who testified that Hardwick paid him $1.25 for each signature he collected on nominating petitions. Petitioners can be paid per hour, but not per signature. Melius was the sole donor to Hardwick.
Democrats said Hardwick's candidacy was meant to siphon votes from their candidate, Thomas Suozzi, and help incumbent Republican Edward Mangano, whom Melius backed over Suozzi.
Jacobs has called for a special prosecutor to handle the case, citing ties between Rice and her chief investigator and Independence Party figures, including Melius, who were involved in the controversy.
Rice said Wednesday that Jacobs "is well within his right as a political leader to have his opinions, and he can voice them, but my job as DA is to make decisions based on the facts and the evidence and the law." She said Congress "needs people not to make decisions based on politics or overly partisan ideologies."
Looking ahead, despite criticisms she may face about the Dale case, Rice said: "I'm confident that I can win this race, I'm confident that I can be the best advocate for this district, and I'm looking forward to the campaign."
The Rice Resume
Kathleen Rice, Democrat
Occupation: Nassau County District Attorney
Home: Garden City
Education: Garden City High School; bachelor's degree, Catholic University of America, Washington, D.C.; J.D., Touro Law School
Career: Assistant district attorney, Brooklyn, 1992-1999; Assistant U.S. Attorney, Philadelphia, 1999-2005. Elected Nassau County District Attorney, 2005, and re-elected in 2009 and 2013; co-chair of Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo's special commission to investigate public corruption, 2013-present; ran unsuccessfully for New York State Attorney General, 2010.
Fundraising: Has $1.99 million in her state campaign account. Rice cannot directly use those funds in a federal campaign, but she may transfer them to political committees that contribute to House races.