Legislative lion Ronald L. Rice, the state senator representing Newark’s 28th District, today shared with his senate colleagues news of his retirement, effective August 31st. The 76-year old Senator Rice has been in ill health this year, and not the same since the 2020 death of his beloved wife Shirley, but only until recent weeks no less combative on his prized issues.
The coming retirement of the unbought, unbossed, accessible and publicly accountable Rice – from the seat he has held as an independent Democratic Party voice since 1986 – represents a major political event in New Jersey, a state governed by machine politics. At a recent gathering of Essex County Democrats, 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 week sent letters (printed below) 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 35-year 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.
In a sign of the esteem and respect the senator holds in Trenton, during the last budget session and his notable absence, no one else occupied his parking space.
Essex sources close to the senator tell InsiderNJ that his long time ally, fellow Newarker and ally Assemblywoman Cleopatra Tucker (D-28) will
succeed Senator Rice.
“Senator Rice has been our legislative leader in the 28th District for the past 16 years,” said his slate mate since 2008, Assemblyman Ralph Caputo (D-28). “I’ve known him for 50 years. There is no other more authentic, loyal, or devoted public servant. I am going to miss my colleague, but he always remains my friend.”
“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.
“Senator Rice, we are giving you your flowers now! You will remain a pillar within the halls of Trenton, forever reminding us that we are there for the people. We will always carry in our hearts the duty that we must elevate the consciousness to ensure the arc of the moral universe bends toward justice. Thank you for speaking truth to power and holding us all accountable. Your leadership will forever be unmatched. We will continue to do the work, striving to be servant leaders connected to the people.”
Senator Rice’s 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. While he was in Vietnam, the National Guard was in Newark.
In 1970, he stepped off a bus in a city crippled by trouble.
King was dead.
Malcolm X was long gone.
He found his way into a Newark Police uniform in 1972; and made detective. He played basketball in the police athletic league, where his bouncy playing style earned him the nickname “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.
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 do,” 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.
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.
“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 appointments and titles to folks.”
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.”Rice to Scutari and Senate 8_18_22
Rice to NJLBC 8_18_22 (1)