New Jersey Senator Ronald Rice (D-Essex) announced he would retire later this month.
He is the longest serving Black Senator in state history, according to his colleagues in the Legislature. Rice was elected to the state Senate in 1986.
A former Newark police officer, Rice, 76, led the way on issues of racial justice, sponsoring legislation that would allow municipalities to create civilian review boards with subpoena power and calling for a statewide study into racial bias in the criminal justice system.
His colleagues told WHYY News that he also made it a point, throughout his career, to amplify women’s voices, especially women of color.
Passing the baton
For 18 years, Rice chaired the New Jersey Legislative Black Caucus, whose mission is to “prioritize legislative and policy agendas to ensure that people of color, in particular, are treated equally, and justly when it comes to social justice, economic justice, and criminal justice reform.”
In 2021, the veteran lawmaker “personally tapped” Assemblywoman Shavonda Sumter (D-Passaic) to succeed him as chair, according to Sumter.
Sumter and one of Rice’s staffers confirmed that he felt strongly about passing the baton to a woman. He put forth a resolution, in January, that urged the Legislature to “support and protect African American women,” following the shooting death of Aieshia McFadden, a Black woman from Jersey City.
“Senator Rice considers Black women as Nubian queens, and he treats us as such — always has,” Sumter said. “He opened the doors for us, [he] respects our minds and our talents.”
Sumter recalled meeting Rice 30 years ago when she was a bright-eyed 19-year-old intern working for former Republican Assemblyman Frank Catania at the State House in Trenton.
She said, at the time, there weren’t many Black women working there, and that Rice swiftly took her “under his wing,” recognizing her potential from the outset of her career.
“He said [Catania] must have been an alright guy to bring [me] on,” Sumter said. “ If I was sitting in the gallery, he would come upstairs to the gallery and speak with me, which gave me credit, because everyone wanted to know, who is this young woman in the gallery that a senator would come up and speak to.”
Sumter and Rice developed an even closer working relationship after Sumter was elected to the General Assembly in 2011.
Together they collaborated on a measure that would create a commission to study the need for reparations in New Jersey. Rice led the charge, spearheading legislation in 2019, which Sumter re-introduced this year.
“I’m the great-granddaughter of sharecroppers,” Sumter said in 2019. “So for me, this legislation is not is not about a southern-rooted entity of slavery, but about the harms and the slavery codes that impacted New Jersey.”
The Garden State was the last state in the North to ratify the 13th amendment, which ended slavery in the U.S., according to Gov. Phil Murphy.
Amplifying social justice
Susan Garofalo, who started working as a member of Rice’s communication team in 2019, said Rice fervently advanced issues of racial equality.
Garofalo called Rice a straight shooter, who was honest, ethical, and respectful, even when he disagreed with colleagues.
“Senator Rice is a very complex man. He’s very intelligent. And he has a real clarity about what social justice looks like,” Garofalo said. “Senator Rice always has a sense: if it don’t feel like social justice, it ain’t.”
LeRoy Jones Jr., Essex County Democratic chairman and New Jersey state Democratic chairman, said Rice was an “avid supporter” of Jones’ successful campaign for a seat on the Essex County Board of Freeholders in 1988. Jones also served as a member of the General Assembly from 1994 to 2002.
“Senator Rice was always a champion for the voiceless,” Jones said.
Rice came up during a time of racial unrest, “kind of no different than they are today,” Jones added.
The Civil Rights Movement and Newark race riots (or “rebellion,” as some remember it) of the 1960s occurred during Rice’s early years.
“African Americans and people of color oftentimes were left out of the conversation,” Jones said. “Senator Rice was one that kept African Americans and people of color in the conversation.”
Rice’s later years in the Senate
According to multiple reports, Rice has been battling health issues, though his colleagues did not confirm how severe, out of respect for the elder statesman.
Rice had not been present at Senate voting sessions this year, either.
In addition to dealing with his own health concerns, he devoted much of his latter tenure to caring for the three most important women in his life, his wife, Shirley; his mother, Mary Sue; and his stepmom, Essie Mae, according to Garofalo.
All three women died within the last two years, staff confirmed.
“He saw each of them for what they gave to him and what they taught him,” Garofalo said. “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.”
The future of Rice’s Senate seat remains unclear.
According to a recent New Jersey Globe report, a decision may rest strongly in Jones’ hands, though Jones denied to confirm the Globe’s assessment.
“There’s a process that will take place … by law,” Jones said. “Members of the 28th Legislative District, those individuals that are county committee people will be assembled at a meeting..they will select the Democratic nominee.”