NEWARK – The South American poet Pablo Neruda once said he was tired of being a man, which doesn’t seem to be the case with state Senator Ronald L. Rice (D-28), who at 73 apparently still delights in the condition, assailed over much of planet earth even as the veteran lawmaker from Newark attempts to define it as he sees fit, shouldering mortality with the exclamation point of his own inimitable voice – usually railing at something.
But then that’s Rice, an African American political name in this state that at one point became synonymous with stubborn unwillingness to compromise when power brokers tell him to yield, an elusive quality otherwise known as what it means to be a man. The skinny Richmond, Virginia native first showed up on Newark’s Southside in 1955 as a nine-year old in a yellow nylon shirt and Navy blue shorts, a year after the Supreme Court declared separate public schools for blacks and whites to be unconstitutional in Brown Versus the Board of Education.
His life followed a jagged but determined line of human history. He saw Dr. Martin Luther King while working as a waiter in a hotel in Washington, D.C. A year after the Voting Rights Act of 1965, he got drafted into the U.S. Marine Corps and went to Vietnam. He was recon over there, and found it spooky that the VC could see him when he couldn’t see them. They would blare messages in the jungle: “Black man, go home, this is not your fight.” The divide between the United States’ own domestic horrors at the time and the tragedy of Vietnam spilled over into race riots in the bush, he remembers, without giving a lot of detail, just that it was unspeakable.
In 1970, he stepped off a bus in a Newark crippled by trouble.
King was dead.
Malcolm X was long gone.
Wired from Nam, he found his way into a police uniform; a couple years on the beat before becoming a detective. He played basketball in the police athletic league. They called him Rabbit. He settled into a professional rhythm, which ultimately took him to city politics, pounding on the doors of sawdust floored taverns in the West Ward. There was an angry energy there back at the beginning, an ever-simmering sense of injustice tapped by that haul of history between Brown V. and the VC., and all these years later it hasn’t abated, as Rice remains the excitable loner who refuses to kowtow to power, the arc of his life still a spark of resistance to acquiescence.
Marijuana legalization is an example of how it never is as easy as a clap on the back for Rice.
When Governor Phil Murphy started talking about the issue, Rice engaged. As traditionally oppositional as he’s been to South Jersey – the nerve center of backroom political power in the state – he looked like a natural ally of Murphy, reviled by the Democratic establishment captained by George Norcross III. But Rice made no secret early of his irritation with Murphy over marijuana legalization. Murphy champions recreational legalization of the drug. Rice will only so far as backing the legalization of medical marijuana, while making a case for the decriminalization – but not full-blown recreational legalization – of pot.
He became an avid foil not only of the Governor but of state Senator Nick Scutari (D-22), who sponsors the bill Murphy backs.
“It’s not about social justice, it’s about money,” Rice told InsiderNJ in his Newark West Ward office at the intersection of South Orange and Sanford avenues.
“This new generation of black elected officials is not paying attention,” he said. “They’re not paying attention to the fact that black and brown people are being played. We have a greater responsibility. Why? Because we’re the folks who were promised 40 acres and a mule, which we still never got, see? We’re the group that’s underrepresented in politics when white folk – political power – people are in control. There’s an injustice taking place. The number of black folk in jail is three times greater than white folks. We’ve been trying to fix it. We think it’s a social justice question. The guys in jail on marijuana possession convictions say, if it’s about social justice, then turn me loose. And [Senate President Steve] Sweeney and the Governor are saying, “Well, I cant do that. You have to legalize recreational marijuana so my people can make a lot of money off of you.’ Look, that’s what’s going on, okay? We should shut this state down because it’s the most racist-intended thing since Jim Crow and some black leaders and clergy – under the auspices of social justice – are buying into that.”
Rice wants the legislature to move a social justice bill right now, which would free convicts incarcerated on nonviolent marijuana possession. “That would tell me you really are mature about social justice,” said Rice. “Then you can have your debate on recreation once you pass social justice. They play one off the other, these guys Why? They know the majority of my colleagues are never going to vote for recreational marijuana – they don’t want to vote recreation – without the social justice tease. They’re holding us hostage; hostage to the anticipated revenues from drugs.”
Rice wants separate social justice and decriminalization bills.
“Sweeney told the media my bill would never see the light of day because they wanted the financial piece to tax marijuana,” said Rice. “His bill would have to have union workers, too. We need to have a conversation because, remember, black folks don’t get a lot of union work in the trades. I want black elected officials and civil rights leaders to really analyze what the real message is here. This is the New Jersey version of Donald Trump in a ‘Make America Great Again’ baseball cap, do you follow me? This is a social justice cap that the rich can wear while they’re making money off black and brown people, see? We can pick up from Democrats that this is about social justice, but it’s really about economics for wealthy people. I’m always going to take that position.
“I support the legalization of medical; I support the fix under controlled conditions, but I don’t back the recreational piece,” the Newark senator added. “Of course, it will comedown to a deal. Always does. It will come back to Steve Sweeney telling his leadership people, ‘if you want to hold onto leadership, you need to vote for this.’ But politically too it’s stupid to move a bill because it’s an election year. Do you think the senate is going to care about the assembly people who are up this year? But I care about my assembly members, and if they put that legalization bill out there I would run an urban opposition campaign that the incumbents have sold our community out so they could be in bed with the senate president, speaker and governor.”
He’s equally offended by a Speaker Craig Coughlin-sponsored urban food market bill.
“The one where in order to get a food market you need liquor here, to induce them to come in here. So these guys want gummy bears and candy and marijuana sales and more liquor stores crammed into my neighborhood, follow me? I’d buck that, see. That would be my whole campaign- if I were a challenger running against an incumbent (I’m not saying I am or would support such an effort, but if I were!) – and I would whup their behinds.
“Off the line,” he said with a grin.
He’s been there.
“These guys, Sweeney and the South, say they are not going to raise taxes, but they’re advocating passing a marijuana bill that will require local governments to raise taxes, in the middle of a renaissance taking place here in Newark. We’re telling our kids not to take drugs but it’s ok to smoke marijuana and if you get addicted we’re going to give you treatment.
“Look,” he said. “Senator [Nia] Gill listens. Senator [Shirley] Turner listens. They’re old school. Do you follow me? The new generation is not listening to what the message is. The way the message is being framed is what’s locking them in, just like the people running around in ‘Make America Great Again’ hats.”
For a year, Rice dove into the public debate like a man half his age.
Holding press conferences.
Arguing with all comers.
Showing up at college forums and seizing the microphone for extended periods.
InsiderNJ watched him at an event we co-sponsored last year. He lugs around reams of legal notepads jammed with his own carefully ink-written notes. Supposedly that’s the old detective in him. He thrives on gathering a lot of material. At his Newark office he piles file cabinets to capacity with data points. When he wasn’t speaking at the forum, he was jotting down the key points of those who were, plugged into all aspects of others’ individual presentations.
It’s all his way of gearing up to go into battle.
“I’ve been at this 30-plus years, and I don’t have problems speaking out,” Rice said. “I’m not ever going to be silent, because Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. said our silence will be our demise.
“Sweeney wants to put on a black face and move the bill, the governor wants to put on a black face and move the bill, but this is not social justice. They want to put himself in the shoes of black folk. But if anything, it’s a way to take the cities back with gentrification,” he said.
BLACK LEADERSHIP AND BOOKER FOR PRESIDENT
The MLK quote prompted a question about the 1960s roots of African American leadership, and when asked how he ranks the influencers among the likes of King, Malcolm X and Stokely Carmichael, Rice said he sees little differentiation. He also objects to consigning King to merely a nonviolent message. “I think the common grounds were the fact that black folk in this country were being mistreated, and from that we needed to fix this. It can’t be this way. The question is which pathway do we take. We want economic justice and civil rights. Black folk want equal justice. Just our little piece. Dr. King said ‘be nonviolent,’ but if you look at what Dr. King did, he was violent. It was just that it was done in an indirect way, but he created situations that brought about violence, which forced people into uncomfortable and inevitably violent confrontations. Stokely and those guys were just much more direct. Their thing was, ‘You shoot me, I’m going to shoot you back.’ Malcolm, look, he changed after prison. He started on a different pathway from what Dr. King called nonviolence but at the end of the day he came around. There’s nothing too much different here. It’s ‘I’m not taking this anymore.’ I’ll say ‘yes, sir’ or ‘no, ma’am’ because I want to, not because I have to.”
Just as he does in the marijuana debate, Rice sees the old rivalries and maladies reanimated all the time in supposedly progressive New Jersey.
“White male senators who supported [ejected former Senate President Dick] Codey became vice chairs of other committees, but not African Americans,” Rice griped. “There are five black senators and just two black committee chairs. We had more before. I’m not happy about it. I will chain myself to the senate president’s door, but my caucus is holding me down.
“The younger generation don’t know what that means,” he added. “We’re going to have a talk with the trades unions. I tell my [Black Legislative] caucus members we need to have a tough conversation with Sweeney. Yeah, yeah, to his credit, he listens. He attends. He just doesn’t change it. I tell him, ‘We can’t keep rebuilding cities like this and the workers don’t reflect the diversity of the city.’ It’s not fair. See, I lived real life. I don’t how many of these young people have. The one thing the military teaches you is there are going to be casualties. You try to minimize the casualties, but they’re going to be there.
“This is political warfare,” Rice said. “Now, oftentimes my troops are like George Washington’s army, you follow me? They’re a little raggedy. Maybe they’re not as disciplined as the Redcoats and South Jersey. But listen, the black migration is one of the most important pieces of our history. And it’s hard to express that to a generation on social media that doesn’t know how to reach out and touch real things. You have to touch. What’s hurting us is back then there was always a national leadership voice for black people, and as part of that you had people like Jesse Jackson, Dr. King, and Malcolm. But we don’t have a national voice anymore and we haven’t prepared one, and that hurts us. The national voice helped build the soldiers and leadership at the state levels so that when someone like Dr. King came, he would have lieutenants and ground troops keyed into the now.
“We don’t have a state leader,” he lamented. “I try as best as I can to represent that to some degree in terms of just bringing people together, but it’s hard because people in power divide our community by giving jobs or board appintments and titles to folks. Look at South Jersey. I had a conversation with Sweeney when he took Gill off as chair of consumer affairs. We had a tough conversation. I explained to the senate president our history, and what our history dictates. Assemblyman Adam Taliaferro was there, and I have to give him credit. He said, and you know he comes from Sweeney’s district, he said, ‘I wouldn’t be here but for Sweeney, but I’m black first. That made me feel good because I tell these guys, when they say they’re there because of a boss, ‘You know why you’re here?’ You’re here because white and black folk got beat up, jailed, hit with hoses and dogs and lynched and killed. Of course. But the reason you’re here is because the black caucus pressured the senate president and he selected you because of your history. Sweeney turned a little red when Taliaferro said that but he understood.”
Rice said there is one person whom he thinks would be a good national level spokesperson for African Americans.
He says the name without hesitation.
U.S. Rep. Bonnie Watson Coleman (D-12)
“If she was younger, I guarantee you Bonnie could pick it up and run with it,” Rice said.
“Because she has real courage,” he explained.
What about U.S. Senator Cory Booker (D-NJ)?
Rice gave a half squirm in his chair.
It’s an uncomfortable name to bring up around him.
Has been for years.
Ever since at least 2006 when Booker defeated Rice for the mayoralty of Newark.
Inevitably the question gets to what Rice thinks of Booker for President.
“I’m not sure if he’s making a mistake,” said the senator. “Based on opposition research, he may not want to answer the kinds of questions they’re going to be throwing at him. My point is I think it’s going to be how he messages. He’s going to have to change some of his personality. He’s articulate, yet he’s up against some women who are really going to hold their own. And they’re already sending some flares up; the kind of flares that let you know that they know where you’re hiding. Do you follow me? He got rich as mayor of Newark with all his speaking engagements. Does he really want to juggle that question again. We all know he’s better on policy than administration. Now he’s there and doing that. I somewhat think he’s making a mistake by not staying there on that frequency.”
THE CURRIE V. JONES BATTLE
The battle for state party chair is merely another manifestation of white angst played out on the backs of blacks, Rice maintained. Governor Murphy favors the continuing service of State Party Chairman John Currie, who is black. The South Jersey Democratic Party Machine and its allies prefer Essex County Democratic Committee Chairman Leroy Jones, who is also black.
“White people cant get their way so they pit blacks against blacks,” Rice said, by way of summing up the
conflict. “These two guys – before South Jersey horned in there – they were always friends. All this comes down to is they’re playing blacks against blacks. You ask Leroy – and I like Leroy, I protect Leroy. I don’t know if he’d protect me. But you ask him about the party chairmanship. He says ‘Why would I pass up an opportunity?’ Well, look, I pass up opportunities for a lot of reasons. Number one on principle.
“It’s like this,” said Rice. “Don’t be afraid to tell the political bosses you’re not going to deal with that. But here’s the problem. When you’re doing business or working for different people, you have to make a decision about whether you’re going to control your own destiny or are you going to let people control it. If you’re going to be a lobbyist or you’re going to work for a corporation – I used to work for PSE&G, so I know this, see – you have to understand, you are going to be controlled to some degree. You have to make your mind up. And it’s like this. When you don’t take the hits for self preservation, it means the people you purport to represent take the hits. They, we, get harmed in the process. That’s why I have these differences with Sweeney and Norcross.
“I think the senate president is a good guy to go have a drink with, but I dont like him telling me George doent influence some of the decisions in his life,” Rice added. “Leroy – again, I like him, and partly because he was an assemblyman and he respects people in that office and doesn’t try to tell them what to do, he listens – but if someone says, ‘I’m the chairman of Essex County, you’ve also got to be prepared to say, ‘You’re not going to mess with Senator Gill.’ You follow me? You will never let me come down there and mess with your senator. So why do we have these guys from South Jersey over here messing with ours? The point is why is George up here?”
But Currie himself isn’t without blame, the senator said.
“Currie is a black state chair and he’s called the party together, but if I was the black state chair, I would call blacks together, and he has never called blacks together,” Rice said. “I’m not saying blacks exclusively, but as part of strengthening and empowering the party, he has never called blacks together. I think it’s a mistake. Look, here’s the trouble. Everyone has their own in-house deal going, whether it’s for a friend who wants a judgeship, a deal for a person who wants this or that, or maybe the individual himself put in for something. In any event, I don’t know what it is, but I know this. We’re not included. This is not a political organization it’s a policy organization.”
If Rice prizes independence and candor and the freedom to judge issues on the merits, how does he regard the legislature at this particular point in time, compared to past years on that score.
“The all-time worst,” the senator said.
“It’s the all-time worst since I’ve been in office, and that is sad because what happens, of course, is they allow two people to control the whole thing, and that’s George and [Essex County Executive] Joe D. [DiVincenzo]. I don’t dislike anybody, but what I insist on is a conversation. That’s all. The reality is I have to have a conversation. This attitude of ‘I own you.’ That’s where it breaks down for me.”
He doesn’t mind openly criticizing the Democratic Party, but concedes Republicans are worse.
No blacks in the legislature.
“I think Tom Kean’s good leader, but he’s losing his caucus,” said the senator. “He needs an improvement. They need to diversify the party. And what Democrats have going for themselves right now is some strong women; some very strong women, particularly the black and brown women. A few of them are really sharp. And the thing about women in government I’ve noticed. If you leave them alone, they do the work – public interest work. Guys just want to be about their own business. It’s a problem.”
He acknowledges the struggle of Governor Murphy to make an impact and a sustained mark when he has the Norcross-controlled legislature chop-blocking him at every turn. But Rice said he doesn’t necessarily favor Murphy-backed primary candidates to change the legislature. “Look whether it’s Murphy or George or Joe D., I don’t want people to rubber stamp,” he noted. “If you make a change, I’m not sure what it will mean. There will still be wars. Some of those people, they keep ducking bullets for a reason. They’re a bunch of crooks. They’re dirty. The governor has a lot of red ink. He needs to use it. He’s taking a lot of hits and he doesn’t even have his people in place. The governor needs to talk more to the legislature. He just hit the beach and they’re throwing everything at him and they have him pinned down. It’s not enough for him to thump his chest on minimum wage. Sweeney takes as much credit for minimum wage as the governor. Remember, we’ve been at this for so long. He’s okay now, Murphy, but he’s got to start putting an agenda out there. They should be doing town halls too; that’s what the senate president’s doing.
“I like him because I think in his heart he’s a good person,” Rice added of the governor. “Like a lot of us, he doesn’t like two people in New Jersey controlling things for the rest of New Jersey.”
Rice is agile and fast-moving for a man in his seventies.
He says he doesn’t have a regular workout routine.
He stopped smoking six years ago and plays a little golf occasionally.
But his main workout is activity, he says; and he’s never been a big eater.
He started on his journey in elected office as a cop from the South Ward who moved to the west in 1974 to occupy a new home.
He’s told the story before.
“‘I’m so glad you came,'” he remembered a neighbor telling him when he moved in with his family. ”You’re a cop, aren’t you? I want to wish you good luck.'”
He asked her what she was talking about.
“‘Well, these kids out here are nothing but a bunch of criminals. They play ball in the middle of the street, they hit the ball and break your window, and when you come out, they cuss you out.'”
When she said that, Rice said he felt like he was going to do fine in the West Ward.
“Where I come from they’re stealing hubcaps,” he said with a laugh.
He organized the local kids, took them to the park and did structural recreational. He also became a cub scout leader. His son, future West Ward Councilman Ronald C. Rice, was a child at the time, and so it was a natural fit. Rice organized Christmas carols and had lines of children walking, military style, around the neighborhood.
Sooner or later, Rice got the attention of West Ward Councilman Michael Bottone.
Someone said Bottone wanted to see Rice in his office.
“So I went up there,” Rice recalled, with an edge in his voice.
The councilman wanted to know why he was organizing people.
“No one forms a block association without my permission,” Bottone told him.
Rice said he walked out of there knowing he and Bottone were not going to be friends.
By 1977, a group of ladies in the neighborhood told him he needed to be the councilman.
“I’m not a councilman, I’m a cop,” he told them.
“No, you need to be the councilman,” they said.
Alice D. White gathered some of the local women together and leaned on him.
When they were together they looked like a scene in an old movie of marchers in the women’s suffrage movement.
“We know you can beat Bottone,” Alice White told Rice.
He ran in the 1978 election, and won on the machines.
Then the absentee ballots poured in and he lost.
Person after person went to Rice and told him, “Somebody forged my name in the book.”
Rice said he went down to City Hall with hundreds of forged signature violations.
In the end, the clerk determined it wasn’t enough to beat Bottone.
Rice maintains he did beat him.
Fair and square.
But they wouldn’t give it to him.
“I went out and told the people I really appreciate what you did for me, but this is personal now. You
don’t have to draft me. You go back and tell Bottone if I can whip him once I can whip him twice.”
So he beat him in 1982 in the rematch.
In 1986, Senator John Caufield, who served as the Newark Fire director, died.
He and Rice shared an office on South Orange Avenue, and they shared a conference table, which Rice still has in his office. “We had a good relationship, and he had told me, ‘If something happens to me, you should be the senator.'”
Sharpe James assumed the oath of office in 1986 after defeating incumbent Mayor Ken Gibson.
Rice had helped James.
When Senator Caufield died, James backed Rice for the senate seat.
So did the senator’s widow.
Rice had to fight North Ward Power Broker Steve Adubato, Sr. for the seat.
Adubato wanted his brother, the late Assemblyman Mike Adubato.
Rice told the emphatic Adubato, “I’m going to run on or off the line.”
He gives the late Democratic State Committee Chairman Ray Durkin for ultimately backing him for the senate seat.
Rice served as both councilman and senator in that epoch when elected officials could occupy dual offices.
“I didn’t see it as a conflict of interest at all,” he said. “The real conflict of interest is people who work for someone else. I was getting things done because I was the councilman, and I didn’t have to go through anybody.”
He ran unsuccessfully for mayor in 1998 (losing to James) and 2006 (losing to Booker).
Booker and Adubato aligned to dislodge him from the senate seat in 2007 but Rice won off the line.
“I hope when the time comes they give me my just due,” said Rice, a grandfather now. “You can’t find anyone that got a job in government from me.
“I didn’t come here for my friends or to get the money,” he added.
This month, they buried Alice D. White, who once prevailed on Rice to run for the council seat, which led him to the senate, which led him from Newark to Trenton, back to Newark – continually back to Newark, the city he came to from the American South, where he arrived home from Vietnam, his enduring corner of street level history, combat turned to politics, riddled with casualties and survivors, voices, and a persistent and insistent voice.
- Adam Taliaferro
- Alice White
- Bonnie Watson Coleman
- Cory Booker
- Craig Coughlin
- Dick Codey
- Donald Trump
- Essex County
- Essex County Democrats
- George Norcross
- Joe DiVincenzo
- John Caulfield
- John Currie
- Ken Gibson
- Leroy Jones
- Malcolm X
- Martin Luther King
- Michael Bottone
- Mike Adubato
- Nia Gill
- Phil Murphy
- Ron Rice
- Sharpe James
- Shirley Turner
- Steve Adubato
- Steve Sweeney
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