The back-to-back collapse of Sharpe James and Wayne Bryant left Ronald L. Rice the last standing black state senator in New Jersey, where he served for a decade as the lone African American upper chamber male, and least likely lawmaker to be cowed from standing up at a microphone and saying whatever the hell was on his mind at any given time.
Now the senate candidacy of Assemblyman Troy Singleton (D-7) means Rice’s tenure as the only black man in the state senate will likely come to an end next year, as insiders see Singleton as very nearly a lock to replace retiring state Senator Diane Allen (R-7).
While Rice and Singleton occupy decidedly different and sometimes oppositional regional parapets in the Democratic Party, the men have a longstanding friendship and strong alliance.
“He’s not a regional antagonist to me,” Rice told InsiderNJ, referring to Singleton. “He’s one of our younger members, a very bright man, and a damn good legislator. Troy cares about people, and I see a good future for him.”
“My respect for Senator Rice goes back to my days when I worked with the state party,” Singleton said. “I’ve known him for almost 20 years, and he has always provided me with guidance and mentorship. If I’m fortunate enough to get to the senate, I look forward to working with him, and I don’t see any regional divide there.
“We both are committed to shared prosperity in the economy regardless of race,” Singleton added. “Senator Rice is one of those people who are my elders, who I hold in a great deal of deference, and he and I are focused on the things we agree on.”
But while many of their policy views, and their membership in the New Jersey Black Elected Officials Alliance unites them, they have sharpy divergent views on the behind-the-scenes influence of South Jersey Democratic Boss George Norcross III, whose ally Senate President Steve Sweeney (D-3) rules the senate.
“We differ on our opinions of George, there’s no secret to that,”‘ Singleton acknowledged. “And he and I have been able to work together anyway.”
“We disagree on George,” Rice agreed. “He works with the guy because that’s his region. I have different opinions, but we’re bonded. We’re family. Black elected officials understand a history of struggle that goes beyond anything, that transcends politics. We didn’t get there because of bosses or because of academics necessarily or jobs or anything else. Deep down, we got there because black people compelled opportunities for us.
“And we both know that,” Rice added.
A leader in the Carpenters Union, Singleton enthusiastically backs Sweeney as senate president, while Rice counts himself among just five senators in the Democratic Caucus who don’t support re-upping Sweeney.
But Rice supports Singleton.
“We as leaders, whether we like it or whites like it, we have to remember that as blacks we are the collective voices inside of government of a community that depends on us, and Troy understands that and represents that,” Rice said. “We spend too much time worried about the politics, about whether you align with Joe D. or George. I have opinions on those things, sure. But ultimately I care about your commitment – and I look to those common issues that impact voters – and that impact African American voters. That’s what Troy represents. He pays attention to governing, to bringing about fairness.
“I’m looking forward to having Troy over there,” the veteran senator added. “Troy is a person I look to for advice, and those are the kinds of conversations you want. We always have had a good relationship. Sure, my relationship with Steve Sweeney is not bad, but different. Steve Sweeney knows that I’m going to hold him accountable.”
Rice said Singleton’s ascent is long overdue, noting the dwindling of six African American senators down to four, and blaming South Jersey for passing over Assemblyman Whip Wilson, whom Rice said should have received a senate promotion.
“It’s time to rectify,” Rice said. “Troy is a fine lawmaker. When there were African American men in the senate, we were strong African American men, and we were pushed back on leadership. We led the charge many times. Troy is strong. He pushes back. I don’t want to see Troy hurt. They are so vindictive in the south, and Troy’s a strong warrior.
“I want him to know, that I’ve got his back in the legislature,” the senator added.