Longtime New Jersey Democratic state senator Ron Rice has died. He was 77.
A giant in Newark, Rice was the state’s longest serving black senator and a passionate advocate for the African American community.
“He was a fighter. He was the epitome of fairness. He was our African American hero,” Essex County Democratic Chair LeRoy Jones said.
Over his 36 years in the state Senate, Rice became known as a straight talker who wasn’t afraid to ruffle feathers, even with his own party.
New Jersey Democrat dies
As Democrats embraced legalizing marijuana, Rice fought the growing movement as a profit-driven scheme that would hurt black people and benefit “rich white guys” on Wall Street. He favored decriminalizing the drug instead.
“Social justice is a big cover,” he said in 2019. “The only way they can sell it is with social justice. But if there is more pot on the streets, it’ll set us back.”
Before entering politics, Rice served in Vietnam as a Marine and worked as a police officer in Newark. The Virginia native also worked for the energy company PSE&G before winning election to the Senate.
Upon news of his death, Rice was honored by Democratic colleagues like Governor Phil Murphy, who praised his work to advance “equity.”
“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.
Praise from Republicans
Senate Minority Leader Steve Oroho, a Republican, also praised Rice as a “fierce advocate for his constituents and a colleague who was deeply respected on both sides of the aisle.”
“When he believed you were doing the right thing, he would forget about party and lend his support,” Oroho said. “I can’t think of anyone who was better at speaking from the heart on the Senate floor than Ron.”
U.S. Senator Cory Booker (D-Nj.), who defeated Rice to become mayor of Newark, called him “a true champion” with a “profound” legacy of public service.
“I will always treasure the many lessons I learned from him. So many of us are better leaders and citizens because of his service and his example,” Booker said in a statement.
Rice retired in August as his health failed. He is survived by two children and a grandchild.