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Long IslandColumnistsDan Janison

Kathleen Rice's surprise support of Trans-Pacific Partnership brings attention, backlash

Rep. Kathleen Rice speaks at Garden City's Memorial

Rep. Kathleen Rice speaks at Garden City's Memorial Day Ceremony on May 25, 2015. Credit: Newsday / Audrey C. Tiernan

Rep. Kathleen Rice's surprise reversal on a major trade measure has brought her the biggest dose of public attention yet in her first six months in Congress. That's a tough trick for a member of the House's minority party.

The 50-year-old Garden City Democrat now echoes key arguments by President Barack Obama -- made to her and other lawmakers on the phone and in person -- for giving him so-called fast-track authority to negotiate a Pacific trade pact.

In a twist, majority Republicans represent most of the Democratic president's supporters on this legislation. Opposition comes from a coalition of labor, environmental, food-safety, consumer and tea party advocates, who see the pact as a job-killing ripoff by multinational corporations.

By siding with the mainstream of the House GOP, Rice (who was a Republican before she was Nassau County district attorney) enraged some who'd backed her to succeed Democratic Rep. Carolyn McCarthy, a foe of previous fast-track legislation for trade agreements.

Rice's announcement over the weekend set off imaginative speculation among local politicos over what she may have been promised in exchange for her vote for the Trans-Pacific Partnership. A federal judgeship? Local project funding?

No, insisted her spokesman Coleman Lamb, absolutely no promises or trade-offs were made. She was convinced strictly on the merits after talking to all sides, he said.

Rice in January signed a letter that opposed giving Obama "almost unfettered power" to negotiate the kind of trade deal that "in too many instances has led to the exploitation of the American worker."

Rice now backs fast-track authority for Obama in part because, Lamb said, American labor and environmental goals would be protected, unlike in past pacts. He said she's willing to take the heat.

But Rice has company. Reps. Peter King (R-Seaford) and Greg Meeks (D-St. Albans) have declared support for TPP. In the Long Island delegation, only Rep. Steve Israel (D-Huntington) says he's opposed.

Rice's ditching of her prior stance fired up more than 200 anti-trade deal activists who rallied outside her Garden City office Monday -- some chanting "Rice-a-phony" and "Liar! Liar!" The condemnations of Rice echoed their previous railings against her fellow freshman Rep. Lee Zeldin (R-Shirley), who signed a letter in March supporting "swift action" on fast-track legislation.

The demonstrators gathered on short notice. Paul Tubito, recording secretary of Local 259 of the United Auto Workers, based in Hicksville, held a printed sign that had proclaimed "Hey Rep. Zeldin, support American jobs, not TPP." Zeldin's name was taped over, with Rice's written in.

"I pushed my local to vote for her, the guys in the district," Tubito said ruefully. "I said she was a great woman, she was a DA who helped get rid of the drug people, and I pushed my president to get everybody on board with her.

"Now I'm really embarrassed."

Last November Rice beat Republican Bruce Blakeman 53 to 47 percent in the 4th Congressional District, where Democrats outnumber Republicans. Three and a half percent of the total vote went to Rice on the Working Families Party line.

Aaron Abel of the WFP declared at Monday's rally: "For months she told New Yorkers she was opposed to fast-tracking but suddenly she's changed her mind . . . Kathleen Rice's flip-flop on TPP is a huge betrayal of working families."

Whether that resounds in next year's election -- and whether she gains in support from one side what she loses on the other -- remains to be seen.

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