Rice announces retirement after more than 3 decades in office representing Essex County residents

State Sen. Ronald L. Rice

ESSEX COUNTY, NJ — State Sen. Ronald L. Rice, a former Newark West Ward councilman, announced Friday, Aug. 19, that he will retire from the State Senate at the end of August. Rice, whose retirement was first reported by Insider NJ, has reportedly been dealing with health issues; he is 76 years old. Rice has served in public office for more than three decades.  

Rice represents New Jersey’s 28th Legislative District, which includes parts of Newark, as well as Bloomfield, Glen Ridge, Irvington and Nutley. Rice, an outspoken advocate for social justice, is New Jersey’s longest-serving black legislator. 

According to Insider NJ, Rice sent letters, which he described as “heart-wrenching” to write, to the Senate Majority Office and his colleagues detailing his resignation.

“I am proud of the many ways we have worked together to improve life in every community in our state, across every demographic,” Rice wrote. “I am especially heartened by our desperately needed accomplishments toward racial equality and social justice.”

Rice chaired the New Jersey Legislative Black Caucus for 18 years.

“Working with the New Jersey Legislative Black Caucus has been the most rewarding and meaningful endeavor of my professional life,” Rice wrote. “It has been the highest privilege and one that I’ve considered sacred — to sculpt our corner of America into something that more closely resembles ‘liberty and justice for all.’ Together, we have been etching compassion and equality into our society, one issue, and sometimes one person, at a time.”

Rice entered politics in 1981, when he was elected to the Newark City Council as West Ward councilman; he was reelected three times. He also served deputy mayor of Newark from 2002 to 2006 under then-Mayor Sharpe James.

“For 36 years, Ron Rice has represented Newark’s residents in the State Senate proudly, with honor and a true commitment to a better future for us all. With equal rights and social justice at the forefront of his life and an incredible body of legislative work, he authored bold, landmark bills that strengthened our economy, empowered education, and improved the quality of life for our city and our residents. He is a staple in Newark and across the state and is always there to fight for us all,” Newark Mayor Ras J. Baraka said in an Aug. 22 statement. “He has always been there for me in my role as mayor and I have immense respect and gratitude for him, as well as his leadership and guidance throughout the years. He is the quintessential public servant and always shows up and fights for us all when we need him. Newark’s next state senator will have immense shoes to fill.

“Ron Rice achieved considerable recognition throughout his life — as a Vietnam veteran, Newark police detective, first African-American to hold a West Ward council seat, deputy mayor, and first African-American to hold elected office in both state and local government — and represents why we are Newark and proud of it,” Baraka continued. “As Ron Rice enters a new phase of his life, we wish him all the best and thank him for his great service to our city and its people.”

Gov. Phil Murphy similarly lauded Rice for his dedication to supporting his constituents and his ability to get things done.

“Ron Rice will leave the State Senate as one of its most transformational members, a true maverick whose legacy of legislative successes will stand clearly on its own,” Murphy said in an Aug. 19 statement. “He understood that public office is not about doing what’s best for individual politics or promotion, but what’s right for the people we serve. He forced his fellow legislators — and to be sure, governors — to confront uncomfortable truths and wasn’t afraid to be a lone voice of dissent if he believed such dissent shined a light on injustice. In doing so, he made us all better at our jobs. While I have no doubt Ron will continue to advocate forcefully for social justice and the betterment of every community of color so long as he is able, his resignation leaves a huge void in the Legislature that will be hard to fill. I will always be proud to have called him my partner but even prouder to call him my friend.”

According to Insider NJ reporting, Essex Counties sources close to the senator have indicated that Rice’s longtime ally and fellow Newarker Assemblywoman Cleopatra Tucker, also of the 28th Legislative District, will succeed Rice. In the meantime, as plans for the seat are hammered out, many New Jersey officials weighed in on Rice’s retirement, expressing gratitude for his years of service.

“It’s a sad day for me and my family; he is probably my closest friend in the Legislature. We’ve shared many good times and many tough times. In my house, I have a big picture of myself, my wife and Ron from after I won the race in a new district, which could have tilted either way. We won handily and Ron was there every step of the way. I had a good long conversation with him recently where we reminisced about decades of memories and laughed a lot. I look forward to seeing him again soon as he enters this new chapter,” state Sen. Richard J. Codey, a former N.J. governor, said in an Aug. 29 statement. “I look forward to working with whoever fills his seat — they will certainly have very big shoes to fill.”

Senate Majority Leader M. Teresa Ruiz said on Aug. 19 that she will miss serving with Rice.

“Sen. Ronald L. Rice lived his commitment to public service over a lifetime of hard work, sacrifice and dedication to the residents of Newark, his legislative district and the state of New Jersey. He was a trailblazer in so many ways, from his days as a Newark police officer, to his role in Newark City government and his leadership of the Legislative Black Caucus. His service helped open doors of opportunity for others, like myself, and his record of accomplishments will provide lasting benefits for succeeding generations,” Ruiz said. “I will miss having Ron in the Senate. We didn’t always agree on all the issues but we were always united in our efforts to protect the rights of others and to fight for the needs of the disadvantaged. He is a consummate gentleman who was a valued ally in times of challenge. Ron is a man of principle who leaves a legacy of achievement that deserves our respect and appreciation. People will call him a noble public servant, a trailblazer and a fierce advocate but, at the end of the day, I call Ron a friend.”

Assemblywoman Mila Jasey fondly recalled working with Rice and the time when Rice was her senator.

“I had the pleasure of working with Sen. Ronald Rice on a daily basis while representing the West Ward years ago, and for a decade he was my own senator,” Jasey said in an Aug. 19 statement. “Ron’s first priority has always been serving the people he represents. Essex County and all of New Jersey is much better off thanks to his lifetime of public service. Ron is leaving behind a lasting legacy in the halls of the Statehouse in Trenton. His accomplishments, his vast knowledge of issues facing our communities, and his grit to keep getting into ‘good trouble’ make him an institution in New Jersey politics. We are unlikely to see another public servant like him. You will be missed in Trenton, my friend.”

Essex County Executive Joseph N. DiVincenzo Jr. announced on Aug. 22 an initiative to name the athletic complex under construction in Vailsburg Park as the “Ronald L. Rice Athletic Complex.” 

“As a Marine veteran, Newark councilman and state senator, Ron Rice always fought for what he believed. I’ve known Ron for over 50 years and two things have been consistent: He’s always been a staunch advocate for his constituents and the city he loves, and you always knew where he stood on an issue,” DiVincenzo said in an Aug. 19 statement. “From working together on recreation programs when we were both younger to tackling issues throughout the years that affected Newark and Essex County, I always have appreciated his candor, energy and insight. Ron is a unique individual and the void created by his retirement will be difficult to fill.

“As county executive, I have named buildings and fields after people who made a positive difference in our community and Ron Rice definitely is one of those people,” DiVincenzo continued. “Naming the athletic complex after Ron is a fitting way to recognize his numerous contributions and keep his legacy alive for future generations,” DiVincenzo said on Aug. 22.

Vailsburg Park is located in Newark’s West Ward, which is the heart of District 28. Currently under construction in the park is a new athletic complex that includes a football/soccer field, baseball field and softball field — all with synthetic grass surfaces — and a rubberized running track. The facilities will be available to the community and will become the home base for student athletic programs at the county vocational schools. It is scheduled to be completed in December 2022.