Ron Rice, New Jersey’s longest-serving Black lawmaker, dies at 77

Rice was a staunch advocate for social justice. Gov. Phil Murphy announced he will sign an executive order requiring flags to fly at half-staff in Rice’s honor.

N.J. Sen. Ron Rice (NJ Spotlight)

N.J. Sen. Ron Rice (NJ Spotlight)

Former New Jersey state Sen. Ron Rice, the longest-serving Black lawmaker in state history, died Tuesday after a prolonged illness, one of Rice’s former staffers confirmed.

Rice, 77, was a staunch advocate for social justice and led the way on issues that largely impacted communities of color — including police reform and socioeconomic inequities. The Essex County Democrat also founded and chaired the New Jersey Legislative Black Caucus.

Tributes poured in for the late statesman Wednesday afternoon.

“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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Gov. Phil Murphy, a second-term Democrat, announced he will sign an executive order requiring flags to fly at half-staff in Rice’s honor.

“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 retired from his post last September, was remembered as a straight shooter who was unbossed and unbought. He was respected by colleagues on both sides of the aisle.

“Many people don’t know that Senator Rice and my late father were very close,” Sen. Anthony Bucco (R-Morris) said. “I learned from my dad that Ron was a gentleman and someone you could trust. He didn’t care if you were a Republican or a Democrat. If you were doing something good, he was always there to help. I learned that firsthand over and over again in our time working together in the Legislature. Ron was one of a kind, and he will be missed”

A former U.S. Marine Sergeant and Newark police officer, Rice began his political career in 1982, serving as a Newark city council member from 1982 to 1998.

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.

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Rice spent his latter years caring for his wife, Shirley; his mother, Mary Sue; and his stepmom, Essie Mae, all of whom died within the last three years, according to a former staffer.

Senator Renee Burgess, a Democrat from Irvington, replaced Rice in the Senate last fall.

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