Portrait of Ronald L. Rice


Ronald L. Rice, a former Newark police officer, became the first African-American Rutgers graduate to be elected to the state senate, a seat he won in 1986 and still holds.

Benoit Cortet

The posters started appearing in Newark’s West Ward as the city council election neared in 1978. “Draft Ron Rice,” they proclaimed. “I said, ‘Oh, no. This ain’t gonna work.’ So I took some of them down, but they put some more up, and some ladies came to my house again to ask me to run,” says state senator Ronald L. Rice, who represents New Jersey’s 28th district. “I actually ran to get them off my back.”

Rice SCJ’86 was a police officer who had earned much local goodwill by organizing block associations at a time when more African Americans were moving into the neighborhood, which had been predominantly Italian and Irish and had always been represented in city hall by a white council member. He lost by a slim enough margin that, suspicious of vote fraud, he started examining the election books. “I found over 650 signatures forged, with the naked eye,” he says. The result stood, but he vowed to run again in the next election.

“That’s what made me say, ‘OK, let me look at this whole system because I got fraud over here, I’m chasing people over here, injustice over here. I want to look at this whole criminal justice system, from the courts to the police on the streets to the prosecutors and the defense attorneys. I had to know the politics of it, and that’s what made me wind up doing what I do,” says Rice, a Marine veteran of the Vietnam War. “I think, in hindsight, it was a good thing for me because I like to think I made some changes in some people’s lives and in institutions.”

He won that West Ward council election in 1982 and has been in public office ever since. In 1986, he became the first African-American Rutgers graduate elected to the state senate, a seat he still holds. Last fall, he returned to Rutgers to speak at the inaugural edition of an annual event that has been established in his honor: the Ron Rice Lecture Series on Criminal Justice and Public Policy. “I was surprised and honored by it,” he says. “That’s more important than someone putting a plaque on the wall.”

He gave the kind of discursive and passionate speech he is known for in the New Jersey State House, weaving what he learned from Emile Durkheim and the other theorists he studied in graduate school with what he learned patrolling the streets of Newark back in an era when homicides were an occasional aberration, not a weekly routine.

“I challenged them to have the school go back and take a look at some of the theories that people are still operating on, because I believe that some of those theories are conflicting now,” he says. And he spoke from experience few could match. “I’m talking from my perspective of living in the real world.”