Home>Feature>The O’Toole Chronicles: Others Will Wear Ron Rice’s shoes, but Nobody Will Ever Fill Them

State Sen. Ronald L. Rice (D-Newark). (Photo: Office of Senator Rice.)

The O’Toole Chronicles: Others Will Wear Ron Rice’s shoes, but Nobody Will Ever Fill Them

By Kevin O'Toole, March 16 2023 12:01 am

It is with great sadness that I find myself writing this column. Today I take a moment to salute former Senator Ronald Rice, who recently passed away after an illness took him prematurely from this Garden State.

It struck me that in the years to come; countless others will use their seats in the legislature to continue Senator Rice’s lifelong pursuit of racial equality and his dogged and heartfelt advocacy of civil rights issues. But there will never again be someone who can speak out about those issues from Ron’s unique perspective – a man born in the South when Jim Crow laws discriminated against him and his family.

Senator Rice’s point of view was shaped from an early age as an eyewitness to a horrible part of our nation’s history. He experienced what it was like to attend segregated schools, use segregated bathrooms and water fountains, and be forced to sit in the back of the bus.

Our State’s future will undoubtedly see other effective leaders who will follow in Ron’s footsteps as the voice of those who oppose bigotry.  I hope they take the time to learn the story of Ron Rice and the doors he kicked open during a career of service to his community, state, and country.

I served in the State Senate with Senator Rice for two non-consecutive periods (10 months from 2001-2002 and 2008 to 2017). Senator Rice was astoundingly principled and incredibly resourceful.  Ron and I didn’t agree on many issues, but I truly respected the fight he brought to the floor and the passion and resiliency he captured.

He was a former United States Marine veteran who saw action in the Vietnam War and was decorated several times for his military bravery.

Remarkably, Ron served for over 40 years in elected office. He spent 16 years on the Newark City Council and 36 years in the State Senate. While in the Senate, I never heard Ron talk about his courageous service, but I did learn that he still fit in his military uniform some four decades later.

Senator Rice was passionate about Newark and the West Ward. He sponsored legislation dealing with tenant rights, health care, affordable housing, and the criminal justice system. We could all learn much from how Senator Rice carried himself and never allowed himself to be bullied or bulldozed by other political giants.

I saw first-hand in 1997 when Ron was given one of his most significant political challenges – political forces lined up and put a formidable opponent, Laurence Brown Jr., against him in a primary. Ron battled for his Senate life and barely won – 10,094 to 8,976.

Ron was never impressed by others’ rhetoric and always stood firm on his ideals. Senator Rice had a way about him when he spoke.  Whenever he took to speak on the Senate floor, he, much like Senator Nia Gill, I would always stop to listen to every word. Senator Rice’s speeches carried an authenticity and connection, regardless of which zip code you came from, you felt what he was saying.

Today I say thank you to Senator Rice for his service.

Let me say this about Senator Rice, which will forever separate him from others who will attempt to follow in his footsteps: people will wear his shoes, but never completely fill them.

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