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National profile precedes Rice's state-wide campaign

By Peter McDermott

Jdimytai Damour's death at a Black Friday sale at the Walmart in Valley Stream, N.Y., shocked a nation

But to Nassau County District Attorney Kathleen Rice, the trampling of the 6-foot-5 security guard on Nov. 28, 2008, was more than a headline. It happened in her bailiwick and she was determined to do something about it.

"Through the handling of that case we were able to achieve a complete overhaul of how Walmart does business from a safety perspective in all 92 of their stores across the state," Rice said. "And they've been implementing that safety plan across the country. That's real reform; that's real change."

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Nassau's Rice is bidding to extend her area of responsibility to New York's 61 other counties. But her influence has been felt already beyond Long Island, something that has given her edge over her four rivals for the Democratic Party nomination for attorney general.

Her "tough but smart" approach to a range of offenders -- drunk drivers, sexual predators, drug-users and white-collar criminals -- brought her to the attention of the producers of CBS's "60 Minutes" and "Prime Time" on ABC.

Rice pointed to her status as a "national spokesperson" on the issue of drunk driving as a good example of how she has handled problems. She said she has raised the level of awareness and debate about the epidemic across the state and the country

"That's one achievement that I'm very proud of," she said.

The Nassau County DA has also been to the forefront in combating internet predators. "It's one of the growing problems that we have all across the state," she said.

And her strategy on drug offenders, her supporters argue, has brought down crime significantly.

Rice said she is only one of the candidates who has run a law-enforcement agency. "That sets me apart from everyone else in this race," she said.

The New York State attorney general is boss to 600 lawyers. "It's a big office," she said. "It's the biggest law firm in the state."

Rice believes that -- helped by the experience gained managing an office with 150 lawyers -- many of her county initiatives can be replicated at the state level.

"Day after day, I've made the tough decisions: when to prosecute, when not to prosecute; when to go forward with a case, when to settle a case. No one has been before more juries than I have," she said.

New York State's top law officer, though, is usually also a high-profile politician. Rice said that the attorney general can play a major role in the reformation of state government and can extend his or her jurisdiction in the fight against public corruption.

"The number issue for voters across the state is fixing Albany," she said. "I'm not a product of Albany; I'm not a product of Wall Street."

Rice, who is 45, grew up in a family of 10 children in Garden City, Nassau County. Her Irish-American parents, Laurence and Christine Rice, were both from Forest Hills in Queens.

"My father's father came here in the late 1880s with $20 in his pocket," said the Nassau D.A. He then arranged for each of his large family of siblings to emigrate from County Monaghan.

In time, Rice's now 85-year-old father took over the family's construction business. Her mother, whose family roots were in Sligo and Roscommon, was a college graduate and she worked in advertising in New York City before her marriage.

"The biggest influence in my life was my mother. There is no question about it," she said of Christine Rice, who died in 2006. "She was an only child, and she went on to have 10 children. She was a fantastic mother. She instilled the same values in her six daughters that she did in her four sons. She was a wonderful, wonderful role model.

"He and my mother did a really great job," she said about her father. "Being a parent is the most important job that a person can have."

The Rices kept their children active at the beach and on the ski slopes, and the D.A. remains an avid runner. (She finished the Dublin Marathon in 2002).

Rice is unmarried and has no children. "I'm their favorite aunt," she said of her many nieces and nephews. "I spoil them rotten. I love them to death."

She mentioned the influence also of her uncle Charles Rice, a Notre Dame law professor who was long active in the Conservative Party in New York. "He's a wonderful example of an Irish American out there who's been fighting the good fight," she said.

But even with regard to her opting for a career in the courtroom, she reported that her mother, a big fan of television's "Matlock," played a role.

Rice herself is a devotee of "Law and Order," which she said has gotten as close as a TV show could to the reality of the legal process. She should know. She began her career as an assistant district attorney in New York City, handling domestic violence and gang cases. She then became a homicide prosecutor in Brooklyn and following that was appointed assistant United States attorney in the Department of Justice's Philadelphia office.

Rice's political career began with the successful 2005 campaign to unseat Republican Nassau D.A. Denis Dillon, who passed away on Sunday. She was easily reelected in 2009.

At her father's recommendation, the D.A. had registered as a Republican when first eligible to vote, she told media outlets recently. She became an independent in Philadelphia, but voted rarely prior to becoming a Democrat not long before running for elective office. That has been one of the few issues to attract attention in the relatively low-key race to succeed Andrew Cuomo. Another was her admission that she had dabbled with drugs a "handful" of times as a college student, although some of her rivals have made similar confessions.

"It was one of those stupid things that people do in their life and you regret and you move on," she was reported saying following her meeting with the News' editors.

Rice's paltry voting record has been used against her by sections of the Democratic base, but she has racked up an impressive array of endorsements from the party's elected officials, as well as one from iconic feminist writer and activist Gloria Steinem.

The D.A. has maintained a narrow lead in recent polls against her four male rivals, all of who make up for lack of name recognition with very impressive resumes. With four weeks to Primary Day, it appears the nomination is up for grabs. However, when pressed, experienced pros will say that Kathleen Rice is on her way to becoming the first woman New York State attorney general.

The Democratic Primary takes place on Sept. 14. The other candidates are Assemblyman Richard Brodsky, Sean Coffey, Eric Dinallo and State Senator Eric Schneiderman.