We don’t perhaps adequately prepare for those days in the secular portion of our lives that come upon us and strike with sudden significance and sorrow. This is one of those days for the heartbreaking state we love and the people in it who seek a greater refinement of justice and fair play and value the presence of a people’s champion.
This is the day that state Senator Ronald L. Rice formally shared news of his retirement with his colleagues in the New Jersey State Senate and the Legislative Black Caucus.
August 31st marks the senator’s last day on the job he had for 35 years.
The state, along with its structures of power that purport to represent people, has lost its way; and in these times of such grievous departure from integrity and decency, Senator Rice has stood as that dependable and reliable man.
He saw much of this life of ours, experienced a great deal of it, and – with immense energy, intellect, and character – tried to do something to change it for the better.
It’s important to note that his public effort came at considerable cost. He served his country in combat as a United States Marine Corps Sergeant in Vietnam and fought racism in his own ranks even as he took on the Vietcong. He came home to Newark riven by troubles and violence. He worked on the streets of his hometown as a cop and as a detective. In his life as an elected official at the state level, he clashed often with those power structures that have done great damage to the public fabric of our lives here. He routinely put himself on the line, and in political arm’s way, in an attempt to maintain independent and just representation of his constituents, many of them the most underprivileged and ill-served.
We hail people in public life who make a stand on one occasion, or vote a certain way that maybe convinces us of their public value. In many instances we herald these individuals because the power structure has made them sufficiently soothing or socially acceptable, by its own contrived or compromised measure. But in Rice’s case, his whole public career contained the courage of one man prepared to go against everyone, if need be, to protect a principle, or – as his last letter to his colleagues makes clear – “one person at a time.” He displayed this drive most recently during the debate over marijuana legalization, where he undertook the public position of decriminalization and expungement and managed to secure part of what he sought on the social justice front.
During the Christie era, he opposed charter schools without a wholly transparent process.
“We start giving out applications for charters like they’re water,” said Rice, sitting on a subcommittee of the Joint Committee on the Public Schools. “Let’s slow this thing down. Even today when I move around urban communities people tell me ‘I’m going to open up a charter school.’ And they don’t have ten cents in their pocket. I say, ‘You are?’”
He stood by Sheila Oliver when she pursued a U.S. senate run in 2013 in defiance of the Democratic Party establishment. “The Joe D’s of the world and the George Norcross’s of the world can love us one day and then tell us our candidate can’t win,” he said.
Rice always came prepared, and he came prepared to fight.
He learned that fight as a poor African American kid coming from the south to Newark, and in the jungles of South East Asia, and on the West Ward streets of Newark, and in the hard-edged halls of Trenton, New Jersey. He learned that fight in the cruel school of privation, and in the military, and in elections hard fought with the Irish and with a county establishment that wanted to get rid of him as it sought to eradicate the last vestiges of an old guard to begin the Booker era of Newark.
He wouldn’t go away.
They couldn’t make him go away.
Most all of them tried.
But they couldn’t budge him.
Finally, the loss of his beloved wife Shirley in 2020 took a terrible toll on the Senator. In this public life of great demand and social volatility, Rice found great restorative power and motivation in the quiet arms of his family, and most specifically Shirley.
He successfully resisted a world of mobilized corruption that wanted him gone.
But losing his own love proved too hurtful.
“Remember to tell your family you love them,” said Rice, looking fatigued and heartbroken behind a COVID mask shortly after his wife’s death, as he made the rounds in a crowd of people at a public event in Irvington.
We won’t forget, Senator.
But as proud recipients of your service, your sacrifice, and your public goodwill in a square so often misappropriated, squandered and scandalized, we would also be remiss to let pass this occasion to say, in our best attempt at that lived-in voice of compassion gained through hardship and battles lost but mostly won, “We love you,” and thank you so very, very much for standing up in this life in this place made better by your presence called New Jersey.