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Former state Sen. Ron Rice, longest-serving Black lawmaker in N.J. history, dies at 77 3/15/2023 Brent Johnson, Ted Sherman,
Ron Rice at a campus protest at Kean University. © Jessica Remo/ Ron Rice at a campus protest at Kean University.

He was one of New Jersey’s most outspoken lawmakers and advocates for social justice.

Often a thorn in the side of governors and mayors over issues he felt passionate about, former state Sen. Ron Rice spent 35 years in the New Jersey Legislature, 18 of them as a founder and chairman of the state Legislative Black Caucus. That makes him the longest-serving Black lawmaker in Garden State history.

He was also once a police officer and councilman in Newark, the state’s largest city.

Rice, a maverick Essex County Democrat who retired from the Senate in August in the wake of an illness that had kept him from attending legislative sessions in Trenton for months, died Wednesday. He was 77.

“He was a trailblazer and icon who never compromised his ideals or principles,” Essex County Executive Joseph DiVincenzo Jr. said.

Newark Mayor Ras Baraka said Rice — whose legislative district included parts of the city — was both “a warrior and diplomat“ in Trenton, fervent in his fight for the needs of the city’s residents and their quality of life.

“He was unwavering in his conviction that America will attain its highest ideals of liberty and justice and his sights were laser-focused on the long game of racial equality,” Baraka said.

Gov. Phil Murphy, one of the many officials Rice sometimes defied, said in a statement he will sign an executive order directing government flags to fly at half-staff in the legislator’s honor. Murphy called him “a fearless and passionate advocate for his constituents and a powerful champion for social justice” with a record of transformational legislative successes.

“Born in the Jim Crow-era South, Senator Rice never hesitated to speak out when he saw injustice, nor did he back down from a challenge,” Murphy, a fellow Democrat, added. “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.”

On the floor of the Senate, Rice was known for his candid demeanor and his often lengthy and sometimes impassioned speeches he would deliver in support, or defiance, of proposed legislation. Fellow Essex County Democratic Sen. Richard Codey would say that he would get calls all the time about his colleague. How do you talk to him, some would ask.

“When he starts talking, don’t interrupt,” Codey would respond. “If you wait, he’s a complete gentleman. He’s just a wonderful and joyful human being.”

In fact, Rice — who had no problem challenging leaders of his own party — would delight in the perception that he was crazy.

“Yeah, I’m the craziest guy down there,” Rice said in a 2006 interview with The Star-Ledger. “But I’ll tell you this: I’m the sixth-most senior of the 40 senators. Maybe they should be more crazy for the people they represent.”

For many years, Rice would bring the legislative apparatus to a halt during budget negotiations. He knew it was his chance to demand changes for his constituents.

“Everybody wants Rice,” he told one reporter with a chuckle.

In one memorable battle, he single-handedly held up the confirmation of Chris Cerf, the choice of Republican Gov. Chris Christie to become state education commissioner for months by invoking senatorial courtesy — a practice gives legislators free rein to stop without giving a reason gubernatorial appointments of those who live in their districts. Cerf then owned a home in Montclair in Rice’s district.

Rice said he sought to block the confirmation after learning a consulting firm founded by Cerf had been paid $500,000 to make recommendations about which Newark schools could be closed or consolidated based on declining enrollment or poor academic performance. Cerf cut ties with the firm before assuming his public role and did not profit from the contract, but remained “acting commissioner” until he changed his legal address to an apartment in another county.

Following the move to Somerset County and away from Rice’s district, he acknowledged Cerf wouldn’t be called “acting” anymore.

“But he will have the same paycheck and the same authority to destroy urban education and keep us in Newark from having a say about what happens to the kids in our district,” he complained.

Rice was also an outspoken opponent of legalizing cannabis in New Jersey. While favoring decriminalization, he believed recreational marijuana would devastate the quality of life in urban communities, flooding African American and Latino communities with destructive drugs.

“I think this whole legalization stuff needs to slow down,” Rice said at a news conference at the Statehouse in Trenton, calling it a money bill what would create a windfall for wealthy and white Wall Street investors.

“I don’t want to be any part of that,” he said.

Born in Richmond, Virginia, Rice found his way to Newark when he was 9 in the wake of his parents’ divorce, after a judge sent him north to New Jersey to be with his father. He remembered tough economic times for his dad, Bennie Rice, who worked as a barber.

“There were many days when he didn’t cut a head of hair,” Rice recalled.

He graduated South Side High in 1964 and went on to Howard University. But facing the draft over issues he said in the processing of his student deferment, Rice enlisted in the Marines in 1966 and was sent to the U.S. military base at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba.

In his 2006 interview with The Star-Ledger, Rice recalled a memorable leave during the summer of 1967, when his ride dropped him off at Broad and Market streets in Newark, as the infamous riots were raking the city.

The following year, he was granted another leave for the birth of his son, Ronald C.

Two weeks later, Rice was shipped to Vietnam.

Some 40 years later, Rice still would not discuss the war or what he did there.

“We don’t talk about Vietnam,” he said, who rose to the rank of sergeant. “You spend one day there, you spend 100, it’s all the same.”

Honorably discharged from the Marines in 1970, Rice soon decided to join the Newark Police Department after hearing Kenneth Gibson, the city’s first Africa-American mayor, call for more minorities to seek jobs on the police force. It turned into a fight Rice had not anticipated.

Then 24, he had passed the written exam to become a Newark cop, but was denied a job because he wore glasses. Firing off a furious series of letters, he demanded to know how a man who had served his country honorably in Vietnam be denied the chance to serve his hometown.

Sharpe James, the city’s future long-serving mayor who at the time was a young South Ward councilman, promised to lobby Gibson for a change in the city policy regarding vision correction in the police department, Rice recalled in his interview with The Star-Ledger.

“The next thing I knew, I was receiving a letter from the civil service saying, ‘Congratulations, you’ve qualified to be a police officer,’” Rice remembered.

His relationship with James would turn stormy at times in his long political career and he would be crushed in an effort to challenge the mayor at the polls. But later James appointed him as deputy mayor and endorsed him in an unsuccessful effort to succeed him in a race that Cory Booker, now a U.S. senator, ultimately won.

While working as a police detective, Rice earned an associates’ degree in police science from Essex County College, a bachelor’s from John Jay College of Criminal Justice and a master’s in criminal justice at Rutgers-Newark.

Soon, he set out to run for public office, campaigning for a Newark City Council seat in 1978. He lost. But four years later, he ran again for the West Ward seat again and he won. And in 1986, he won a special election for state Senate to fill the unexpired term of the late Sen. John Caufield.

Still rail-thin and a self-described workaholic, Rice in his letter of resignation last August said that “despite the fervor of my commitment to the office and the depth of my dedication to my constituents and the people of New Jersey, circumstances beyond my control now force my retirement from this distinguished body.”

He called working as an elected official “the honor of my life.”

“Every move I made was to elevate others, to benefit my community and my constituents. I was never bought, and I was never bossed. I engaged in political scuffles and heated campaigns,” he wrote. “Still, after the Senate vote or election day, we put our differences behind us and went on to work together to accomplish great things.”

Those who served with Rice on both sides of the aisle praised him for his independence and passion for issues that were important to him.

LeRoy Jones, chairman of the state Democratic Party and a former member of the state Assembly, said Rice “always spoke his mind, fought for the principles he believed in, and refused to back down” but was also a “gentleman who, regardless of whether or not he disagreed on a public policy issue, always maintained friendships and cordial relationships with everyone he encountered.”

Booker called Rice “a man who prided himself on his Newark roots” and lived life in accordance with his values of fairness, equality, justice, and redemption.

“So many of us are better leaders and citizens because of his service and his example,” he said. “Few Newark leaders leave a legacy in public service as profound as his.”

Codey said Rice “went above and beyond to represent those he served by giving a thousand percent to fight for social justice and racial equality.”

State Senate President Nick Scutari, D-Union, called Rice an “accomplished and respected man who dedicated his life to the service of others” and “left his mark in meaningful and lasting ways.”

Senate Majority Leader Teresa Ruiz, D-Essex, said the state “lost a giant, a man who lived his commitment to public service over a lifetime of hard work, sacrifice and dedication.”

Former Senate President Stephen Sweeney, D-Gloucester, called Rice a “titan for civil rights” and a “true public servant” who was “fearless and relentless in his advocacy for his community, his district and the underserved people of New Jersey.”

Assembly Speaker Craig Coughlin, D-Middlesex, said Rice’s “decades of service to his country and community were unparalleled in the Legislature” and “we will all cherish the lessons we have learned from our time with him.”

Assemblyman Ralph Caputo, D-Essex, Rice’s longtime district mate, called him “one of the most remarkable people I ever met — his energy, his inelligence, his intergrity, compromising but never selling out.”

Former Assemblyman Jamel Holley, D-Union, said Rice was “the epitome of real leadership.”

Senate Minority Leader Steve Oroho, R-Sussex, called Rice a “fierce advocate for his constituents and a colleague who was deeply respected on both sides of the aisle.”

Essex County Sheriff Armando Fontoura, who worked with Rice in the Newark Police Department, said he was a “no-nonsense, straight-shooting, great street cop” who became a tireless advocate for those he served as an elected official.

U.S. Robert Menendez, D-N.J., said “few Americans have been able bend the moral arc of the universe towards justice,” but “as evidenced by his numerous accomplishments, former New Jersey State Senator Ronald Rice was one of those Americans.”

Funeral arrangements are not yet available. Rice’s wife, Shirley Rice, died in 2020. He is survived by his children, former Newark Councilman Ronald Rice and his sister, Yuki Rice.

“Anyone who knew Dad knew that he meant every word he said and that his every action and decision was considered and deliberate,” his children said. “His confidence often took the form of fiery defiance and provocative challenges — but as his kids, we know without exception, there was nothing about Ronald L. Rice that wasn’t rooted in love.”

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Brent Johnson may be reached at Follow him at @johnsb01.

Ted Sherman may be reached at Follow him on Twitter @TedShermanSL

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