Trailblazer, civil rights titan Sen. Ron Rice to retire at month’s end

Health woes lead Essex County Democrat to step down unexpectedly

By: - August 19, 2022 3:48 pm

Ron Rice, the former longtime chair of the Legislative Black Caucus, will step down from the Senate seat he’s held since 1986 on Aug. 31. (Courtesy of New Jersey Senate Democrats)

Sen. Ron Rice, a civil rights titan and one of the state’s longest-serving lawmakers, will leave the Legislature at the end of August following bouts with health issues that had kept the Essex County Democrat from the Statehouse for much of the last year.

Rice, the former longtime chair of the Legislative Black Caucus, will step down on Aug. 31 from the Senate seat he’s held for 36 years, his departure bringing down one of the few rank-and-file Senate Democrats who have regularly butted heads with legislative leaders and governors of their own party.

“It is a sad day for the Legislature because they’re losing a bold, a daring, and — and I say fondly — a different kind of legislator that comes along once in a lifetime,” said Democratic State Committee Chairman LeRoy Jones, who is also Essex County’s Democratic chair.

InsiderNJ was first to report Rice’s looming retirement.

A U.S. Marine Corps veteran who served in Vietnam, Rice entered the Legislature after winning a special election called in the wake of Sen. John P. Caufield’s death in 1986.

“I don’t think I’m the cure to all the problems, but I intend on being a very visible and open voice,” Rice said at his victory party that year.

Rice won reelection repeatedly, even without support from party organizations.

He sat on Newark’s City Council for 16 years and served as the city’s deputy mayor for four years, leaving the latter post in 2006, a year before New Jersey enacted its ban on dual office holding.

“For me, it’s hard. He’s been a good friend for a long, long time. Not only to me, but to my whole family. He’s always been there whenever we needed him. I’ve been there with him,” said Sen. Richard Codey (D-Essex), the only sitting senator with a longer tenure than Rice. “It’s good that we can talk about his great record but sad to know that he is, in fact, retiring.”

Rice’s status as an independent Democrat sometimes chafed at party leaders.

The former Newark police detective’s opposition to marijuana legalization — he favored decriminalization, saying he worried about the impact recreational marijuana would have on Black communities — complicated lawmakers’ efforts to pass the long sought-after reforms.

The conflicts were sometimes more direct. In 2019, he alleged Gov. Phil Murphy, Assembly Speaker Craig Coughlin (D-Middlesex), and then-Senate President Steve Sweeney were taking Black lawmakers for granted while slow-walking their legislative priorities, charging the top Democrats supported those policies only in pretense.

“As Senator Rice often says — and it’s true — if you as a politician don’t take the political hits, then your constituents will. If you had to be in the foxhole with somebody, there is nobody you would rather have watching your back than Senator Rice,” said Sen. Nia Gill (D-Essex). “I will miss his voice and fighting spirit in the Senate.”

The intraparty spats did little to taint the high regard Democratic leaders have for the Virginia native.

“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,” Murphy said in a statement. “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. “

As a lawmaker, Rice championed the building of recreational facilities in urban areas as a way to lift blighted communities. He backed clean energy for neighborhoods planted atop Superfund sites and was a torchbearer for boosting diversity in law enforcement amid national unrest over police killings of Black men.

“I will miss having Ron in the Senate. We didn’t always agree on all the issues, but we were always united in our efforts to protect the rights of others and to fight for the needs of the disadvantaged,” Sen. Teresa Ruiz (D-Essex), the body’s majority leader, said in a statement. “He is a consummate gentleman who was a valued ally in times of challenge.”

Some legislative colleagues said the senator was changed by the death of his wife, Shirley Rice, in August 2020.

“His wife was lovely, and I know he misses her dearly. And that has hurt him, unfortunately,” Codey said.

Rice’s departure will prompt a November special election to fill 13 months of his unexpired term. Essex County Democrats from the 28th District must hold a special convention to pick a temporary successor within 35 days of Rice’s Aug. 31 retirement. The district includes Bloomfield, Glen Ridge, Irvington, Nutley, and parts of Newark.

“He is going to be missed, and he is going to leave a void the size of a crater,” Jones said.

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Nikita Biryukov
Nikita Biryukov

Nikita Biryukov most recently covered state government and politics for the New Jersey Globe. His tenure there included revelatory stories on marijuana legalization, voting reform and Rep. Jeff Van Drew's decamp to the Republican Party. Earlier, he worked as a freelancer for The Home News Tribune and The Press of Atlantic City.