Civil rights

Civil rights pioneer and titan Senator Ron Rice will retire at the end of the month

Sen. Ron Rice, a civil rights titan and one of the state’s longest-serving lawmakers, will step down from the Legislature at the end of August following health issues that kept the Democrat out of office. Essex County from the Statehouse for much of the past year.

Rice, the longtime former chairman of the Legislative Black Caucus, will step down on August 31 from the Senate seat he has held for 36 years, his departure bringing down one of the few rank-and-file Senate Democrats who has regularly bumped into each other. head with legislative leaders and governors of their own party.

“It is a sad day for the Legislative Assembly because it is losing a bold, daring and – and I say lovingly – another type of legislator who only comes once in a lifetime,” said the Democratic State Committee Chairman LeRoy Jones, who is also the Democratic Chairman of Essex County.

InsiderNJ was the first to report Rice’s impending retirement.

A U.S. Marine Corps veteran who served in Vietnam, Rice entered the Legislature after winning a special election triggered by the death of Senator John P. Caufield in 1986.

“I don’t think I’m the panacea for all problems, but I intend to be a very visible and open voice,” Rice said at her victory party that year.

Rice was re-elected several times, even without the support of party organizations.

He served on the Newark 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 dual-term ban.

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

Rice’s status as an independent Democrat has sometimes irritated party leaders.

The former Newark police detective’s opposition to the legalization of marijuana – he favored decriminalization, saying he was worried about the impact recreational marijuana would have on black communities – has complicated the efforts of legislators to push through much-needed reforms.

Conflicts were sometimes more direct. In 2019, he alleged that Governor Phil Murphy, Assembly Speaker Craig Coughlin (D-Middlesex) and then-Senate Speaker Steve Sweeney took black lawmakers for granted while slowing down their legislative priorities. , accusing top Democrats of supporting these policies only on the pretext.

“As Senator Rice often says — and it’s true — if you, as a politician, don’t take the political hit, your constituents will. If you were to be in the foxhole with someone, there’s no one you’d rather have watching your back than Senator Rice,” said Senator Nia Gill (D-Essex). “I will miss his voice and his fighting spirit in the Senate.”

The intraparty squabbles have done 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 transformative members, a true maverick whose legacy of legislative success will clearly stand on its own,” Murphy said in a statement. “He understood that public service is not about doing what is best for politics or individual advancement, but what is good for the people we serve. “

As a lawmaker, Rice has championed the construction of recreational facilities in urban areas as a way to uplift devastated communities. He supported 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 Ron’s presence in the Senate. We didn’t always agree on every issue, but we were always united in our efforts to protect the rights of others and fight for the needs of the disadvantaged,” said Sen. Teresa Ruiz (D-Essex), the body’s Majority Leader, said in a statement, “He is a consummate gentleman who has been a valuable ally in difficult times.”

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 a lot. And it hurt her, unfortunately,” Codey said.

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

“He’s going to be missed and he’s going to leave a crater-sized void,” Jones said.

Get morning headlines delivered to your inbox