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Former State Sen. Ron Rice, ‘African-American hero,’ dies at 77

POLITICO 3/15/2023 By Matt Friedman and Dustin Racioppi
Former state Sen. Ronald Rice was also noted for his criticism of New Jersey’s political boss system and often tangled with New Jersey’s most powerful Democrats. © Julio Cortez/AP Photo Former state Sen. Ronald Rice was also noted for his criticism of New Jersey’s political boss system and often tangled with New Jersey’s most powerful Democrats.

Former state Sen. Ronald Rice, a fiercely independent Democrat who represented Newark for decades and was the longest-serving African-American in the Legislature, has died at 77.

“He was a fighter. He was the epitome of fairness. He was our African-American hero,” Essex County Democratic Chair LeRoy Jones said.

A Vietnam veteran in the Marine Corps and former Newark police officer, Rice served in the Senate from 1986 until he retired in August due to ill health. He was a founder and the longtime chair of the Legislative Black Caucus and focused on racial and social justice issues throughout his career.

Rice was also noted for his criticism of New Jersey’s political boss system and often tangled with New Jersey’s most powerful Democrats.

When Newark Mayor Cory Booker won the Democratic nomination for the U.S. Senate in 2013, all but assuring his victory, Rice, who lost the mayor's race to Booker years earlier, didn't hide his emotion.

“We’re glad he’s gone, or at least I am,” Rice told POLITICO. “God bless him. Thank God he’s out of Newark.”

In one of his more recent heated debates with fellow lawmakers, Rice got into a shouting match with and had to be separated from Sen. Nick Scutari (D-Union) in a closed-room meeting over marijuana legalization in 2020. And in a floor speech, Rice named Scutari and then-Senate President Steve Sweeney (D-Gloucester) as obstacles to decriminalizing marijuana, which he preferred to legalization.

“I’m not going to be held hostage anymore because of another senator,” Rice said at the time.

It was one of many examples of Rice's willingness to voice his conscience, even if it meant alienating his party allies. But that is what made him unique and, according to his son Ronald C. Rice, "a standard for the world."

"He was a simple guy who meant what he said and said what he meant," he said in an interview.

Born in the Jim Crow-era south, Rice became a monumental figure in Newark, the state's largest city. He won a city council seat in 1982 and was reelected in 1986, 1990 and 1994, according to his biography. He was appointed deputy mayor of Newark in 2002.

Rice's public service began long before politics, though. He served in the Marine Corps from 1966 to 1970, spending about half that time in Vietnam.

He earned several degrees in criminal justice and joined the Newark Police Department in 1972, becoming a detective in 1974, according to his biography. He started working for the Public Service Electric & Gas Company in 1980 until his election to the Senate.

Earlier this year his alma mater Rutgers University announced an endowed scholarship in Rice's name to support students in its criminal justice program. The university cited Rice's advocacy on racial justice, including sponsoring a bill that would allow municipalities to create civilian review boards and for demanding a study on racial bias in the state's criminal justice system.

Tributes to Rice poured in Thursday, and Gov. Phil Murphy said he planned to lower state flags in Rice's honor.

"His legacy and example will continue to inspire this administration and all of New Jersey’s leaders to work toward racial equity and expand opportunity for underserved communities," Murphy said in a statement.

Booker, Rice's formal rival who's held that U.S. Senate seat ever since winning the nomination in 2013, called Rice "a true champion" who fought for the people of Newark.

"I will always treasure the many lessons I learned from him. So many of us are better leaders and citizens because of his service and his example," Booker said in a statement. "Few Newark leaders leave a legacy in public service as profound as his."

State Sen. Richard Codey (D-Essex), upon hearing the news of Rice's death, called Rice his “best friend in the Legislature.”

“I loved the man to death. He always had my back, each and every time,” Codey said.

In addition to his son, Rice is survived another child, Yuki Rice, and a grandchild, Mia, according to his biography.

Ronald C. Rice, who also served on the Newark council, said his father not only set the standard, but expected him to live up to it in public life.

"He used to tell me all the time when I first got into public office ‘I’m not going to have a lot of money to give to you, no riches. All I can give you is my name, and I worked my whole life to make sure my name meant something and had integrity to it, and I need you to uphold it,'" he said.

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