In Brief

Longtime senator and civil rights icon Ron Rice dead at 77

By: - March 15, 2023 2:42 pm

Ronald L. Rice, a famously independent Democrat who served 36 years in the state Senate, died after an extended battle with cancer.

Former state Sen. Ron Rice, a civil rights titan and maverick Newark Democrat, has died at 77.

Rice, a Virginia native, served in government at various levels for 40 years, including 36 years in the Senate that made Rice one of the state’s longest-serving legislators before he resigned the position last August amid mounting health issues that frequently kept him from the Statehouse.

“Senator Rice always spoke his mind, fought for the principles he believed in, and refused to back down,” said LeRoy Jones, the Democratic State Committee chairman. “But at the same time he was 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.”

In the Legislature, Rice’s positions usually aligned with those held by his caucus, though he split with Democrats on marijuana legalization and initially opposed the legalization of same-sex marriage (he voted in favor of a bill that codified those marriage protections last year).

His independence sometimes chafed at party leaders, as in 2019, when he accused Gov. Phil Murphy, Assembly Speaker Craig Coughlin, and then-Senate President Steve Sweeney of feigning support for Black lawmakers’ priorities to secure their votes on other legislation.

“Whenever we meet with white elected state officials and staff to effect positive change in the areas of social justice reform, criminal justice reform, equal employment opportunity and the quality of life for people of color, we are met with patronizing conversations, a smile, the pretense of understanding, and empty promises for cooperation,” Rice wrote in a letter to Murphy then.

In a statement, Murphy said Rice “never hesitated to speak out when he saw injustice, nor did he back down from a challenge.”

“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.

Rice’s career in public office began on the Newark City Council in 1982. He would represent the city’s West Ward for 16 years before giving up the position to become Newark’s deputy mayor in 2002, and he gave up the latter job to mount an unsuccessful campaign for Newark mayor four years later.

Rice entered the Legislature in 1986 after winning a special election called in the wake of the death of Sen. John Caufield that August.

A former U.S. Marine Corps sergeant, Rice would go on to serve in the Senate for decades, surviving multiple competitive challenges, including a 1997 campaign that found Rice running for reelection off-the-line — or without party support — against former Newark police officer Laurence Brown Sr.

Rice’s 2022 resignation came two years after the death of his wife, Shirley, in August 2020. Senate colleagues and others who knew Rice well said the senator was changed by her death. The two were married for 35 years.

“It’s a comfort in knowing he was a servant through and through and has transitioned on his own time to be with those he lost and loved, and he’s at peace and rest,” said Assemblywoman Shavonda Sumter, who succeeded Rice as chair of the Legislative Black Caucus.

Rice is survived by his two children, Yuki Rice Faison and former Newark City Councilman Ronald C. Rice.

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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.