NEWARK – New Jerseyans came here from all corners of the state on Saturday to honor retired state Senator Ronald L. Rice (D-28) as an uncompromising, often lone voice champion of the poor and dispossessed.
“This is such a wonderful tribute to someone who deserves it,” U.S. Rep. Bonnie Watson Coleman (D-12) told the packed oversized room downtown in Rutgers University’s Ruth Bader Ginsberg Hall. “First, let me say good afternoon to all those who love and respect Senator Ron Rice.”
Watson Coleman, a former Democratic State Party chair and assemblywoman, worked with Rice as a member of the Legislative Black Caucus. “Nobody scrutinized the budget like Ron Rice did,” the congresswoman recalled.
The veteran senator would show up to the caucus meeting with 20 pages evaluating how the budget impacted communities of need. The rest of the members stood while Rice read every page. “He is authentically the north star when it comes to equality, opportunity, accountability, and fairness. He wanted to make sure resources coming out of state government were used [to alleviate the trials and suffering of the most vulnerable].
“He [often] stood alone,” Watson Coleman added. “We as a black caucus recognized he had the back of every New Jerseyan whose needs had not been thoroughly addressed.
“You made us better as a legislature, Ron,” the congresswoman told her friend and colleague, who sat down front at a table flanked by his son (former West Ward Councilman Ronald C. Rice) and daughter.
Many people honored Rice at the event, among them Democratic State Party Chairman LeRoy Jones, Legislative Black Caucus Chair Assemblywoman Shavonda Sumter (pictured, below), former Governor James McGreevey, former state Senate President Steve Sweeney, NAACP NJ President Richard T. Smith, Rutgers Chancellor Nancy Cantor, Assemblyman Herb Conaway, Assemblyman Tom Giblin, Assemblywoman Angela McKnight, Assemblywoman Mila Jasey, Assemblywoman Linda Carter, Assemblywoman Verlina Reynolds-Jackson, Essex County Commission President Wayne Richardson, Camden County Sheriff Whip Wilson, Passaic County Commissioner T.J. Best, Union County Commissioner Angela Garretson, Logan Mayor Frank Minor, At-Large Newark Councilman Larry Crump, East Orange Council President Chris James, Atlantic City Councilman Kaleem Shabazz, John Harmon, CEO of the African American Chamber of Commerce of NJ, former Central Ward Councilman Darrin Sharif (pictured below with Assemblywoman Jasey) veteran lobbyist Jeannine LaRue, the senator’s trusted confidant Lionel Leach, former Assemblyman Jamel Holley, and his longtime running mates Assemblyman Ralph Caputo and Assemblywoman Cleopatra Tucker.
Many more also attended, and many others spoke, offering an outpouring of affection and gratitude to the longtime leader.
Governor Phil Murphy, sitting Senate President Nick Scutari, and Speaker Craig Coughlin all offered recorded tributes.
“He’s the guy you want in your foxhole,” said the Governor.
Combat themes always abound with the senator.
A Vietnam veteran, Newark police officer and detective, trailblazing Newark City Councilman, deputy mayor and community organizer, Rice in retirement continues to inspire those familiar with his story, as one who ran his particularly tough and challenging leg of the American journey, with a wise, mentoring understanding of what went before, and a fearless forward-seeking devotion to shifting power to disadvantaged populations.
Reinforced by those in attendance at his gala, his life’s work – filled with self-sacrifice, mean, lean Marine Corps public interest dedication, real-world groundedness on the streets of America, and a legislator’s sharp elbowed understanding of the system – stands in stark contrast to political figures of our present day, who strike Caligula-like self-idolizing poses in their resistance to the country’s history, to battles won and shifts of power gained, and a surreal, seemingly slavish dedication to pre-Civil War era anarchist nativism.
Newark Mayor Ras Baraka brought those in attendance to their feet.
“I was just a kid, and I grew up under a lot of titans, watching them fight each other, benefiting from them going at it for our benefit,” Baraka told the crowd.
“Senator Rice was one of those titans,” the mayor noted.
Baraka thanked the senator for the wisdom he received from him, and information from watching him fight, often alone. He referred to his own father, the late poet Amiri Baraka, who spoke with fiery urgency about unity and struggle in the black community. “We like to struggle; we just forget about the unity part,” Mayor Baraka said.
He didn’t always agree with Rice.
“We had different perspectives on marijuana,” he acknowledged. “I have a younger perspective, in my mind. Ultimately we have to survive. Thank you for speaking up for black people in this state who don’t have a voice all the time.
“I love you,” Baraka told Rice.
It was a common and recurring sentiment.
Ultimately, the unity sought both by the Barakas and Rice slate mate Assemblyman Caputo blazes forth as the political legacy of the fiercely “combative” retired Senator Ronald L. Rice, to borrow Caputo’s word used to best describe his beloved colleague and friend.