Pitted against each other by the political machine, Ronald L. Rice and Ralph Caputo found an enduring friendship born of a Newark age suffered and mutually shouldered.
Belleville’s Caputo occupied the organization’s LD28 slate in 2007, headed by D. Bilal Beasley, Caputo’s friend and fellow commissioner.
The job was to get rid of Rice.
Rice wouldn’t cooperate, beating Beasley 52-48% to retain his seat.
Caputo and Cleopatra Tucker defeated Rice running mates Craig Stanley and Oadline Truitt, however.
“There are always casualties,” Rice said at the time.
But shortly thereafter, he and Caputo surfaced at the same press conference in the Richard J Hughes Justice Complex, and Rice extended a hand.
“We’re going to be together,” the senator told Caputo.
It had been an especially ugly campaign, wounds of yesteryear re-salted.
Pricklier people would have kept their hands to themselves after that, or looked the other way to pretend they didn’t see, but Rice and Caputo were themselves old hands and the Belleville man reached out a hand in return.
They were friends.
Politics props people up in foxholes facing each other, but these two knew the score.
“We had in common political guys trying to get rid of us at one time or another,” Caputo recalled.
So it was a pretty easy fit.
The fact that both guys had navigated the perils of their home city in the era of the Newark troubles made the hard fought fit ultimately even easier that day at the Justice Department.
A North Ward Newark native, proudly Italian, Caputo started teaching fifth grade in the Quitman Street Community School in 1962.
By 1963, Sharpe James was the gym teacher.
They weathered the 1967 horrors, which the ever-justice conscious African American Rice – a combat Marine – doubly caught on the other side of Vietnam. The war veteran got on the police force, where he developed a reputation for crafting some of the most meticulous and detailed reports anyone had ever seen. Rice would end up securing a seat on the city council representing Newark’s West Ward, as a pioneering generation of black leaders came of age, which included James – and Councilman Donald Tucker. They all had a bit off a maverick streak, to put it mildly, which routinely put them into conflict with the burgeoning North Ward operation of Steve Adubato and organization acolyte Caputo.
“They definitely had a sense of being independent, which was a cultural and psychological difference from the organization guys of the time,” the assemblyman recalled.
Through the scars of racial injustice, they shared experience and history, sometimes on the same side, sometimes not, but finally having to borrow onto the same slate together. On the other side all those years later of a tough 2007 election season, another rope burn from yet one more rugged rodeo cut into them, but not enough to divide.
“We’re together,” Rice told InsiderNJ at the time, with a hand on Caputo’s shoulder.
“We went through the 1960’s,” the assemblyman said. “When things changed, we had to come back together.”
A next generation guy was coming up at that time under Beasley’s tutelage.
Tony Vauss won a school board seat within the auspices of the commissioner’s Irvington alliance.
Vauss learned the trade in nonpartisan elections, developing the know how of not depending on the party, and working his own popularity on top of the template forged by Beasley, who would die in 2014 – the same year Vauss became mayor of Irvington.
“Tony Vauss is self-educated, formally educated, and has great political instincts,” said Caputo. “He took the party organization he inherited, expanded it, and made it stronger.” Caputo and Vauss got along from the start, in part because Caputo and Beasley had sat next to each other on the Essex (then-Freeholder) Board. “Bilal opened the door for me to run in Irvington, because of our friendship,” said Caputo. “He adopted me. He was the godfather for Tony and me both.”
On Friday night of the same year he resoundingly won a third term as mayor, Vauss and his team of party delegates from Irvington secured the retired Rice’s senate seat for one of their own, stripping Newark of a senator and empowering Renee Burgess, the local council president and organization favorite.
Caputo was sitting with Tucker and Rice.
Rice had wanted Tucker for the seat.
But it wasn’t to be.
Ultimately, the rebel couldn’t prevail in a backroom establishment atmosphere.
Still, Essex County Democratic Committee Chairman LeRoy Jones insisted that committee members give Rice a standing ovation for his service to city, county, and country.
It was a moment.
And a few minutes later, Caputo would rise and also hear the roar of the crowd around him.
Caputo and Rice, the two old pals from LD28, with Newark roots, 15 years together in the same district, would be going their separate ways anyway. Redistricting had rerouted Caputo into the 34th District, away from Newark and into East Orange.
Now, with Rice retired, the LD28 ticket next year would be composed of Burgess, Tucker, soldiering on as the lone LD28 legislator from Newark, and Assemblywoman Mila Jasey of South Orange.
In a generation removed or once removed from Newark heavyweights like Donald Tucker, Wynona Lipman Rice, and James, Irvington had made history with its first LD28 senator, leaving neighboring behemoth Brick City with just one state senator (M. Teresa Ruiz in LD29) residing inside city limits.
Like Caputo, Ruiz came from the North Ward Democratic Organization, just as Burgess hailed from Irvington Strong.
They came of age as team players.
“The jury’s out on the next era,” said Caputo. “Losing a senator from Newark is pretty traumatic, when you think of the history – Wynona, Ron and Sharpe – it’s a big change. The challenge for Renee Burgess is going to be to represent the entire district – to expand beyond that organizational strength in Irvington to the whole. It’s going to be up to her to expand and undertake the same constituent response districtwide that people have in Irvington.”
Unemployment issues. Tax problems. Motor vehicle complaints. Insurance. Senior citizen funding. Educational issues. “The list goes on and on,” Caputo said. “Ninety percent of our job is getting through the bureaucracy to make it work for people. We don’t fool around.
“Renee Burgess comes out of Irvington, and she knows the problems of Newark as a veteran of the school board and the city council, because many of the problems confronting Irvington and Newark are similar,” the assemblyman added. “It’s a matter of expanding.”
On Saturday afternoon in the West Ward, Newark Councilman DoItAll Kelly presided at an event renaming Sanford Place after the retired Senator Rice.
“He’s combative, sure – but he also has a great sense of humor,” Caputo said of his friend and legislative colleague. “He’s devoted, loyal, ethical, and the best dressed man in Trenton. Certainly on social justice issues he’s second to none. No one worked harder, everyone knows that. With everything that he does, it’s 100%. You can better believe that he was a Marine in Vietnam, he gave it 100%. Everything is 100% with Ron, the ultimate grassroots guy. As a cop, it was 100%, and as a legislator, 100%. He had a unique perspective, as a cop and as a citizen. He could see those two sides, and like a kid on a playground, he would dive into a fight and never give up. He’ll take his lumps, and he won’t cry about it. He ‘s a man’s man, who always makes decisions in the best interests of the people, period.
“Ron Rice is the only politician I’ve known who’s been able to get away with being himself,” Caputo marveled.
Last month, Rice retired.
Next year, Caputo will occupy a new district, which removes him from Newark.
A beloved band was breaking up last night, a three chord progression trailed into the same night that dragged committee members to different Essex towns.
Newark begins anew, in political territory to a certain extent unknown.
But the ties of Newark friendship between Rice and Caputo remain, in an unbroken district called brotherhood.