Rice gives strong sign of run for NY attorney general

Nassau County District Attorney Kathleen Rice (Sept. 14,

Nassau County District Attorney Kathleen Rice (Sept. 14, 2006) (Credit: Newsday File / Ed Betz)

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Nassau District Attorney Kathleen Rice Tuesday gave the strongest signal yet that she will run for attorney general next year, when two of her top staff members resigned to take posts on her political committee.

Jeffrey Stein, 38, Rice's chief administrative officer, and Eric Phillips, 28, her communications director, both of whom played essential roles in developing political strategy in her previous campaigns, will now work to bring her local ideas to the state level, Phillips said.

The announcement is a good indication of what direction Rice may be leaning, one expert said.

"It's only the logical conclusion to draw," said Douglas Muzzio, a professor of political affairs at Baruch College in Manhattan.

Rice, 44, of Locust Valley, was the only Nassau Democrat to win a decisive victory in last month's election, which toppled County Executive Thomas Suozzi and the county Legislature's Democratic majority.

What's more, she ended the campaign with more than $1 million in the bank, leaving her in a strong position to begin a statewide bid.

"She is an excellent district attorney, and I'm sure if she does decide to run for attorney general she would be a formidable candidate," said Jay Jacobs, chairman of both the Nassau and state Democratic committees.

Several political experts said Rice could be a strong candidate, both because of her record as a prosecutor and the diversity that she could bring to a Democratic ticket. If elected, she would be the state's first female attorney general. She is also Irish Catholic and from the suburbs, both hard-won constituencies in any statewide campaign, political experts said.

During the campaign, Rice conspicuously did not promise that she would serve out her second four-year term, saying instead that she would have to look at all opportunities that were presented to her.

Gerald Benjamin, a distinguished professor of political science at SUNY New Paltz, said New York voters are especially understanding when local candidates leave their offices for state posts - as long as they haven't promised not to.

"New Yorkers tend to believe that they should produce state leadership," Benjamin said.

Phillips confirmed that he will leave at the end of the year to serve as Rice's principal political spokesman and to head her political committee's speech-writing, media outreach and policy departments.

Stein, who was Nassau's Democratic elections commissioner before joining Rice's office in 2005, will assume day-to-day oversight of Rice's political committee, Phillips said.

Their replacements have not been announced.

Asked whether Rice is planning to run for attorney general if Andrew Cuomo, who currently holds the post, runs for governor, Phillips said, "She is not a candidate. Our state has a great attorney general, and the DA will remain focused on her job."

WHAT HAPPENS NEXT?

Nassau County District Attorney Kathleen Rice first must officially become a candidate. The way would be cleared if Attorney General Andrew Cuomo, who could seek re-election, runs for governor.

Rice, as a candidate for statewide office, would wage a primary campaign against any other Democratic candidates. If Rice won the Sept. 14 primary, she would face off against a Republican candidate and perhaps other candidates as well in the Nov. 2 general election.

If Rice won the general election, the newly elected governor would appoint someone to fill the Nassau County district attorney's seat for a year. A special election for Nassau district attorney would be held in November 2011.

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