Former State Sen. Ronald Rice, whose boyhood in the South under Jim Crow laws shaped a lifelong mission as a fierce and unwavering advocate of social justice and racial equality, died today after a long illness. He was 77.
Rice served in the State Senate for nearly 36 years, becoming the longest-serving Black member of the New Jersey Legislature, before health issues forced him to resign his seat last summer.
With a remarkable maverick streak, Rice was unwavering in his advocacy of the underprivileged and extraordinarily unafraid of any political consequences that resulted in his unwillingness to compromise his principles.
“I couldn’t have asked for more of a friend. He always had my back,” said former Gov. Richard J. Codey, who served in the Senate during the entirety of Rice’s tenure. “There’ll never be anyone like him again, that’s for sure.”
A U.S. Marine Corps veteran who served in Vietnam and a former police officer, Rice entered politics in 1982, winning a Newark City Council seat to represent the West Ward. He was re-elected three times and spent sixteen years on the council.
He was elected to the State Senate in a 1986 special election following the death of John P. Caufield. He has been re-elected eleven times and served until his resignation for health reasons on August 31, 2022.
Assemblyman Michael Adubato (D-Newark), who has spent thirteen years in the legislature, wanted the seat. Sensing the need for greater minority representation in the Senate, North Ward Democratic leader Stephen Adubato told his brother that the seat would go to Rice.
He defeated independent Anthony Montanelli by a 74%-15% margin, with Republican Frederick Douglas Randolph, Jr. receiving 11%.
Rice has beat back several serious primary challenges, sometimes without the support of the Essex County Democratic Committee.
He gave up his council seat to run for mayor in 1998. James won a third term by a 56%-27% margin over Rice, with Mildred Crump finishing third with 17% of the vote.
From 2002 to 2006, Rice was the deputy mayor of Newark under James.
Following James’ retirement, Rice ran for mayor in 2006 but lost to Cory Booker by a 72%-23% margin in a four-candidate race.