A New Jersey political legend transitioned from the earth today. Former State Senator Ronald L.
Rice of Newark, never cynical, never timid, never canned, who pulled long range recon for our collective history as Americans, in times when our political culture frequently insists on occupying a space even outside the echo of history, who determinedly advocated people power in a machine politics state, and specifically emphasized the power of lawmakers in a strong governor state, has died.
Vietnam combat veteran, Newark police officer and detective, trailblazing Newark City Councilman, deputy mayor and community organizer, Legislative Black Caucus Chairman, a fighter to his core and a fiercely proud and outspoken lawmaker who often held the state budget hostage until he extracted social justice measures for New Jersey’s impoverished and working-class people, former Senator Rice succumbed at the age of 77 after a battle with cancer.
“When I took over as chair of the Legislative Black Caucus, I said, ‘We’re not where we need be because we’re not organized. Our people need help. They’re crying to us from the streets. Corporate America, the schoolhouses, the correctional facilities, and even the churches – they were not there for them, because in each case, they may only see one, three or four [Black representatives in those institutions],” Senator Rice said in December of 2022.
But he made the purpose of his life clear as he urged his colleagues to move forward with vigor.
“You have power you do not recognize,” Senator Rice said. “I don’t care what the president says. The only people who can make policy are the legislators.
“Black is beautiful,” the senator added. “It is also powerful.”
Reinforced by those in attendance at his retirement gala late last year, his life’s work – underscored by self-sacrifice, Marine Corps (1966-1970) public interest dedication, real-world groundedness on the streets of America, and a legislator’s sharp elbowed understanding of the system – Rice stood in stark contrast to many present day political figures, 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.
Legislative lion Rice, who represented Newark’s 28th District, based in the West Ward, in ill health and not the same since the 2020 death of his beloved wife Shirley, shared with his senate colleagues news of his retirement, effective August 31st.
The retirement of the unbought, unbossed, accessible and publicly accountable Rice – from the seat he held as an independent Democratic Party voice since 1986, and retained with an off-the-line campaign against the party machine in 2007 – represented a major political event in New Jersey, a state governed by machine politics. At a gathering of Essex County Democrats last year, the senator’s longtime friend, political ally and colleague former Governor Richard Codey, identified him as “the most ethical” elected official in New Jersey. The ailing Essex County Senator this past summer sent letters to the Senate Majority Office and to his colleagues in the Legislative Black Caucus; and a personalized letter to each of his fellow senators.
“As I announce my retirement this is a heart-wrenching letter to compose,” Senator Rice wrote to the Legislative Black Caucus. “Together we have been etching compassion and equality into our society, one issue, and sometimes one person, at a time.”
To his fellow senators, the senator said he tendered his resignation “with a full heart,” describing his service as a New Jersey State Senator as the honor of his life. “I am proud of the many ways we have worked together to improve life in every community in our state, across every demographic. I am especially heartened by our desperately needed accomplishments toward racial equality and social justice.”
The senator shared both his gratitude and his sense of the value of friendships forged in Trenton, both past and present. “I’m thankful for how you sharpened my focus, defined by aspirations and brought out the best in me for the sake of my constituents,” Rice wrote.
The news today deeply impacted the New Jersey community.
“I am so saddened by Senator Rice’s passing,” said U.S. Rep. Bonnie Watson Coleman (D-12). “He was a true friend and warrior. He always referred to us as Nubian Queens reinforcing in us our nobility and worth. I can honestly say that I loved him. Rest in peace, dear man.”
Assemblyman Ralph Caputo (D-28) mourned.
“He is one of the most remarkable people I have met in life,” Caputo told InsiderNJ. “His loyalty and his ability to represent people – second to none. Everything he did was for his constituents and his colleagues. I’m going to miss Senator Ronald Rice, and I am going to miss my true friend.”
Irvington Mayor Tony Vauss grieved when he learned of the senator’s death.
“So sad to hear about the loss of a great leader and please know that my thoughts are with friends and family,” said the mayor. “My deepest sympathies go out to the family of a fantastic role model. May God give them the peace that they seek.
Last year, on the news of Senator Rice’s retirement, goodwill poured forth from New Jersey’s political leaders.
“Everybody respects him,” said Essex County Democratic Party Chairman LeRoy Jones, a former state assemblyman who also serves as the Democratic State Party Chair. “I have the ultimate respect for him. He’s my former colleague. He has a stellar legacy of service.”
“Ron Rice will leave the state Senate as one of its most transformational members, a true maverick whose legacy of legislative successes will stand clearly on its own,” said Governor Phil Murphy. “He understood that public office is not about doing what’s best for individual politics or promotion but what’s right for the people we serve. He forced his fellow legislators – and to be sure, governors – to confront uncomfortable truths and wasn’t afraid to be a lone voice of dissent if he believed such dissent shined a light on injustice. In doing so, he made us all better at our jobs. While I have no doubt Ron will continue to advocate forcefully for social justice and the betterment of every community of color so long as he is able, his resignation leaves a huge void in the Legislature that will be hard to fill. I will always be proud to have called him my partner but even prouder to call him my friend.”
Said South Ward Newark Councilman Pat Council, “Senator Rice is a consistent fighter for the state, his community and his people. The 28th District will miss not just the voice but the fight.”
“It is with a spirit of gratitude that I pen this letter,” said Assemblywoman Shavonda Sumter (D-35), chair of the Legislative Black Caucus. “Senator Ronald L. Rice, I thank you for your decades of exemplary leadership. You have served not only for the people of the 28th District, but the entire state of New Jersey well. Your fearlessness, no non-sense outlook, and humor has been a staple for much of the progress our state has experienced. You have opened doors for so many people of color to hold executive positions, secure judicial appointments and serve as elected leaders. Your commitment to our community and our youth is unmatched. Thank you for being a champion for those who need it most.
“Throughout time, you have stood in the gap to be a voice for those who have historically been underserved, shedding light on the harms of inequities, disparities, and lack of fairness. Your investigative acumen, ability to determine the root cause of issues, and create specific policy changes are a testament to your brilliance and pure heart. The strong connection you have to the people throughout the community and your gift to unify has allowed us to achieve historic gains at every level for our children and the most vulnerable populations.”
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 – guerilla style – improbably won off the line.
“I hope when the time comes, they give me my just do,” said Rice, a grandfather. “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.
As a senator, Rice – the leading statewide voice on decriminalization of marijuana and
expungement, housing and police reform – founded and led the Legislative Black Caucus and fearlessly fought the Democratic power structure of Trenton and never become one of its obsequious enablers. He clashed openly with the South Jersey Democratic Party machine and its northern enablers and allies. The black caucus contributed those specific elements of the marijuana legalization legislation, without which there would be next to no social justice component.
“This is political warfare,” Rice told InsiderNJ in 2019. “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 [in the 1960’s], 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.”
The senator helped his son, Ronald C. Rice, into the bruising New Jersey political arena, and the pair ran on opposing tickets in 2006, when the elder Rice ran for mayor against Cory Booker, allied with the younger Rice. For eight years, the two Rices together represented the West Ward, on the local and legislative fronts, a political alliance formed of blood and equal commitment to substance and public service. After his son lost an anti-establishment bid for the 10th District Congressional seat in 2012 and did not pursue reelection to the council in 2014, Rice soldiered on alone in public life.
“It’s like this,” Rice told InsiderNJ. “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.”
A legend – New Jersey style, Newark style – died today.
So departed a man.