Senator Ronald Rice (D-28) and Senator Nick Scutari (D-22) had to be separated in the caucus room on Thursday after the two men intensified their public spat over marijuana decriminalization.
Scutari apparently believes decriminalization interferes with his goal – legalization – while Rice maintains that Scutari is denying justice for people on the street right now in favor of personally reaping legal benefits as a consequence of legalization.
Senator Troy Singleton (D-7) pulled Rice away from Scutari after the two men went nose-to-nose.
The senators exchanged words at close range.
They amounted to the following:
“Why do you continue to hold the bill down?” the senator from Newark wanted to know.
Rice’s bill was interfering with what Scutari is trying to accomplish, the Union County senator shot back.
There’s bad blood there, and Scutari reminded Rice of that fact.
In a Sept. 4th letter to Senate President Steve Sweeney, Rice suggested that the Senate Judiciary Committee chair be replaced by a member willing to advance marijuana decriminalization bill S-2535 to immediately correct blatant social injustice in New Jersey.
Rice, who noted that he has fought for more than two and a half years to protect Blacks and people of color from being arrested and incarcerated at three to four times the rate of whites for the same marijuana offense, requested that the bill be voted on or reassigned to another committee. Having received no response to his appeal for a meeting with Sweeney and Judiciary Committee Chair Scutari, Rice called for a change in leadership.
“Justice delayed is justice denied for the 100 New Jersey residents, mostly young, poor and minority, arrested every day for small amount marijuana offenses,” Rice said. “It was bad enough when we started this fight, but in today’s environment, if offenders survive the arrest without being shot on the street, they are at peril of being incarcerated in crowded prisons during the coronavirus pandemic.” He concluded, “Enough. Is. Enough.”
So during their confrontation, Scutari mentioned the letter.
“You called for my resignation,” he told Rice.
“I texted and called and you wouldn’t respond.” So Rice went to Sweeney.
Scutari evidently said the senate president doesn’t tell him what to do.
“Fine. Post the bill.”
“I’m not posting.”
“This is not just about the bill, but about you being the chair.”
Rice proceeded to talk about a double standard in the caucus. Sweeney removed Senator Nia Gill (D-34)
as chair of the Senate Comerce Committee, supposedly because she wouldn’t move some bills. Now Rice wants to Scutari to move a bill, Scutari won’t do it, and yet he remains chair of judiciary.
“I dont know about Senator Gill,” Scutari supposedly said.
There are different standards, Rice said; one for an African-American senator when white lobbyists want her to move a bill, and one for Scutari, when a black veteran senator and Vietnam combat veteran wants him to move a bill.
Scutari made a particularly offensive comment, something about his having done more for the black community than his fellow senator.
Rice moved forward and supposedly Scutari came out of his jacket.
Singleton intervened, wrapped up Rice and escorted him from the room.
Called for comment, Rice said, “People are getting shot left and right out there [for marijuana possession]. You can’t keep being white and saying black lives matter and deny decriminalization.”