Ronald Rice, a former state senator, and fiercely independent Democrat who served as the longest-serving African-American in the Legislature and represented Newark for decades passed away at the age of 77.
“He was a fighter. He was the epitome of fairness. He was our African-American hero,”Essex County Democratic Chair LeRoy Jones said.
Rice served in the Senate from 1986 until he retired in August owing to poor health. He was a Vietnam War veteran of the Marine Corps and a former Newark police officer. Throughout his tenure, he worked on racial and social justice issues and served as the Legislative Black Caucus’ founding and lengthy chair.
The political boss system in New Jersey was another topic of Rice’s notoriety, and he frequently sparred with the state’s most influential Democrats.
Rice, who had previously lost the mayor’s contest to Booker, didn’t hold back his emotion when Booker, the mayor of Newark, secured the Democratic nomination for the U.S. Senate in 2013. This all but guaranteed Booker’s victory.
“We’re glad he’s gone, or at least I am,” Rice told POLITICO. “God bless him. Thank God he’s out of Newark.”
Rice, who was raised in the Jim Crow South, rose to prominence in Newark, the state’s largest city. According to his biography, he was elected to the city council in 1982 and thereafter gained reelection in 1986, 1990, and 1994. In 2002, he was made deputy mayor of Newark.
But before entering politics, Rice started serving the public. He was a Marine from 1966 to 1970, serving almost half of that time in Vietnam.
According to his biography, he obtained various degrees in criminal justice, joined the Newark Police Department in 1972, and was promoted to detective in 1974. From 1980 until his election to the Senate, he was employed with the Public Service Electric & Gas Company.
Rice’s alma mater Rutgers University announced the creation of an endowed fund in his honor to aid students enrolled in the school’s criminal justice program. Rice’s support for legislation allowing municipalities to form civilian review boards and his demand for a study on racial unfairness in the state’s criminal justice system were noted by the university as examples of his fight for racial justice.
He was elected to the state Senate in 1986 and served in the Legislature and on city council simultaneously. From 2002 to 2006, Rice also served as Newark’s deputy mayor.
Rice spent his latter years caring for his wife, Shirley, his mother, Mary Sue
He was a man of many talents, serving in the state Senate and on the city council simultaneously, while also taking on the role of Newark’s deputy mayor from 2002 to 2006.
In his later years, Rice’s focus shifted towards caring for his loved ones, particularly his wife, Shirley, and his mother and stepmother, Mary Sue, and Essie Mae, respectively. Staff confirmed that all three women passed away during the previous two years.
Garofalo, Rice’s longtime friend, and advisor spoke of Rice’s dedication to caring for his stepmother, even in the face of her bedridden state.
“He saw each of them for what they gave to him and what they taught him,” “I don’t think a lot of people know that, on the weekend, he would drive up to the Poconos … caring for his bedridden [step]mother.”Garofalo said.
Ronald Rice’s wife Shirley Rice
Ronald and Shirley Rice’s relationship lasted for more than 50 years. Their paths first crossed while Shirley was working as an administrator at the University of California-Berkeley, where Ronald was studying at the time.
As Ronald began his career in public service, Shirley always showed herself to be his dedicated and supporting wife. Unfortunately, Shirley’s passing death in 2020 dealt the Rice family a terrible blow.
The neighborhood was shocked to learn of her abrupt death, and Ronald was forced to deal with the loss of his devoted wife. He felt a huge gap in his life after she passed away, but he took comfort in the love and memories they had for one another.
Sadly, Ronald has now followed Shirley’s path and died in 2023. Even though his demise has left his family, friends and the entire community feeling deeply saddened, his legacy will continue to motivate future generations.
Tributes pour in for the late Ron Rice
As news of Senator Ronald L. Rice’s passing spreads, a profound sense of loss permeates through the hearts of all who knew him. His unwavering dedication to social justice and advocacy for marginalized communities of color has left an indelible mark on New Jersey’s political landscape.
The 77-year-old Rice was a fervent supporter of social justice and a pioneer on topics like police reform and socioeconomic injustices that mostly affected communities of color. In addition, the New Jersey Legislative Black Caucus was created and led by the Essex County Democrat.
On Wednesday afternoon, condolences poured in for the deceased statesman.
“My heart is heavy today having learned of the passing of Senator Ronald L. Rice. He will be greatly missed,” said Assemblywoman Shavonda Sumter, D-Passaic, Rice’s successor as chair of the NJLBC. “The guidance and support Senator Rice offered during his lifetime to his friends and fellow legislators was immeasurable. His advocacy to uplift women in politics as well as his unwavering mission to fight for our communities will always be remembered.”
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A Democratic governor serving his second term, Gov. Phil Murphy, declared he would sign an executive order mandating that flags fly at half-staff in memory of Rice.
“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. 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, who left his position in September of last year, was recalled as a straight shooter who was unbossed and unbought. Both Democrats and Republicans who worked with him respected him.