On paper, Democratic Rep. Kathleen Rice appears to have the edge heading into her re-election contest in Nassau’s 4th Congressional District against Republican David Gurfein.
Rice (D-Garden City) is seeking a second term in a presidential election year — historically a strong bellwether for Nassau Democrats — after winning an open seat in 2014. She has wide name recognition, runs in one of Long Island’s most Democratic districts and has raised three times more money than Gurfein, a first-time political candidate.
But Gurfein, a retired U.S. Marine lieutenant colonel who served in Iraq and Afghanistan and goes by the nickname “Bull,” is seeking an upset by relying on his national security credentials and portraying himself as a political outsider.
On the campaign trail, the candidates have largely avoided personal attacks and focused on policy issues.
Rice, 51, of Garden City, wants to spearhead legislation that would ease tuition debt for college students. She supports a $15 federal mandatory minimum wage and comprehensive gun control legislation — the top issue of her predecessor, former Rep. Carolyn McCarthy.
“I don’t buy that these are intractable issues” said Rice, a former Nassau County district attorney. “We just need to put our heads down and get the job done.”
Gurfein, 51, of Manhasset, has focused primarily on foreign policy and combating terrorism at home and abroad. He says that to defeat ISIS, the U.S. must improve its intelligence capability, build a broader international coalition and better utilize local law enforcement to detect homegrown threats.
“It’s not about putting partisan politics above what’s best for our country,” Gurfein told the Long Island Chapter of the National Coalition of 100 Black Women during a candidate’s night in Uniondale mid-October. “It’s putting our nation first.”
Rice, who has traveled to the Middle East and Africa as a member of the House Homeland Security Committee, says Gurfein has “unique perspective.” But Rice said military service is not the only prerequisite for becoming an effective lawmaker on national security issues.
The 4th District encompasses 110 square miles in central and southern Nassau County, including Elmont, Long Beach and Westbury. The district has 212,876 registered Democrats, 172,537 Republicans and 117,126 voters not aligned either major party, according to the state Board of Elections.
Rice, who served as Nassau district attorney from 2006 through 2014 and ran unsuccessfully for state attorney general in 2010, raised $1.3 million through Sept. 30 and has more than $807,000 available for the campaign’s final weeks, according to Federal Election Commission.
Gurfein has raised $425,000 since announcing his candidacy in March and has $136,000 on hand, FEC data show.
Lawrence Levy, executive dean of the National Center or Suburban Studies at Hofstra University, said Rice should benefit from Democratic presidential nominee Hillary Clinton’s popularity in the district while GOP nominee Donald Trump could be a drag on Gurfein.
“The district is one of the more Democratic on Long Island and Rice is a well-known incumbent who has shown an ability to attract crossover voters, especially women, from the Republican Party,” Levy said. “It’s a very tough district and year for a first time GOP candidate, even with an appealing resume, to pull an upset.”
Rice, who defeated Republican Bruce Blakeman for Congress in 2014, has been endorsed by three GOP Nassau mayors, Legis. Denise Ford (R-Long Beach) and several public and private sector labor unions.
But Rice also angered some union leaders after she voted to give President Barack Obama the authority to negotiate the Trans Pacific Partnership deal. Rice, who had previously signed a letter opposing the trade deal, said she believes TPP would open up new markets for American workers without sacrificing environmental standards.
Labor unions responded by picketing Rice’s office, and the AFL-CIO, which has 11 million members nationwide, ran a TV ad that asked: “Should we ever trust Kathleen again?” The union did not make and endorsement in Rice’s race.
Gurfein, who has been endorsed by Rep. Peter King (R-Seaford) and Nassau law enforcement unions, enlisted in the Marines while in high school and left active duty in 1998 to earn a Master of Business Administration degree from Harvard Business School. He went to work for Goldman Sachs but returned to active duty after the Sept. 11, 2001 Terrorist attacks. He retired from the Marines in 2007 and is president of a Virginia gymnasium and health food store and a board member of a Calverton firm that manufacturers light aircraft.
Gurfein appeared in the 1992 film “A Few Good Men” in a courtroom scene where, as a military officer, he prevented Col. Nathan R. Jessup, played by Jack Nicholson, from assaulting Lt. Daniel Kaffee, played by Tom Cruise. Gurfein also appeared in the Netflix political thriller “House of Cards.”
Gurfein originally had wanted to run for the open seat in the 3rd Congressional District but the Nassau Republican Party backed State Sen. Jack Martins for the seat. The GOP then offered Gurfein the nomination in the 4th District. Gurfein does not live in the district, and would have one year to move if he won.
During the Uniondale event, Gurfein told the largely minority audience that as a junior at Great Neck South High School, he discovered the racial connotations of his school mascot, a Confederate soldier, and of the Confederate Battle Flag, which flew at rallies, games and parades. Gurfein, then quarterback of the football team, collected petitions signed by students and teachers and convinced officials to change the flag and mascot to an image of a Revolutionary War soldier.
“The lesson I learned at a young age is one man can make a difference,” he said.
Audience member Velma Ward, of Lynbrook, seemed impressed.
“He has business experience, is well educated and can relate to all us,” said Ward, who declined to say whom she is voting for.
At the Mineola Long Island Rail Road station in mid-October, Rice distributed literature to commuters and discussed the “gridlock” in Congress. “It’s frustrating but we are trying to break through,” Rice said.
James Van Hanswyck, 55, a Democrat from Franklin Square, said he was voting for Rice, citing her work as DA and her fiscal and economic polices.
“She’s done a lot of great things, both in Nassau County and in Washington,” Hanswyck said.