Champion for the cause: An appreciation of Ron Rice

His efforts to start and sustain the N.J. Redevelopment Authority will serve as lasting legacy for longtime state senator from Newark

Former state Sen. Ron Rice’s legacy can be summed up in one phrase: He was someone who never thought about his legacy.

So said Leslie Anderson, the longtime CEO of the New Jersey Redevelopment Authority — an organization Rice helped create by sponsoring legislation for the NJRA more than 25 years ago.

The NJRA, which serves as a funding mechanism — often the first funding mechanism — for development in urban areas, has had an incredible impact on the state. It has directly invested more than $400 million, which has helped leverage an additional $3.8 billion for projects that previously would have never been funded.

“Sen. Rice, because of his belief in urban communities, communities of color and people of color, fought consistently for the purpose and the value of the NJRA in the landscape of entities providing financing to improve the quality of life throughout the state of New Jersey, but particularly in his beloved Essex County and Newark,” Anderson said. “He was a true champion for our urban centers.”

Leslie Anderson. (File photos)

Rice, 77, died Wednesday after a battle with cancer.

Rice was remembered fondly by politicians of both parties for being a civil rights icon — one who always shot straight and fought the good fight.

Those who knew him best remembered him for his personality — a sense of loyalty for truth and justice and just good in people, over anything else.

Tara Dowdell, the founder and CEO of the Tara Dowdell Group, first met Rice when she was just 25 and serving as appointments director for Gov. Jim McGreevey.

A tough job in any administration, McGreevey’s desire to ensure that more people of color were given an opportunity put Dowdell in the line of fire of many elected officials who were used to having their requests pushed through.

“Imagine being in that position when you were 25 years old, having to tell some pretty prominent people that they couldn’t serve on a board or the person they recommended weren’t going to move forward,” she said. “That didn’t go over well.

“But he was one of the people that I knew I could count on to support me.”

And to support and champion people of underserved communities.

“He was a champion for DEI before we called it diversity, equity & inclusion,” Dowdell said. “He was an ardent champion of ensuring that that Black people — or anyone from a marginalized community — had a seat at the table and had access to power and an opportunity.”

Tara Dowdell.

A man ahead of his time? Anderson remembers him that way, too. After all, it was the basis of the NJRA.

“There is a whole conversation right now about developers of color gaining access to capital,” she said. “We were created 25 years ago to address that issue — to give them access to capital.”

The NJRA, when it began in 1997, received an initial allocation of $9 million.

Rice kept pushing for more — and he kept pushing Anderson to do more.

“Knowing that he was advocating for us meant all the difference,” she said. “It allowed us the freedom to undertake the efforts and the projects that needed to be done. They weren’t sexy, they weren’t popular. And, oftentimes, they were not huge.

“But, what we were able to complete — even if it were just a single house — made a tremendous difference in people’s lives and people’s neighborhoods.”

Rice’s support has enabled the NJRA to become a national model.

“We go in first,” Anderson said. “We go into some of New Jersey’s most distressed communities and take the greatest risk to jumpstart development to attract other investment.”

In addition to serving his community, he served others. Both Anderson and Dowdell cited Rice as a major mentor of their careers.

When Dowdell joined the private sector, starting her own strategic marketing and consulting firm in 2006, Rice continued to be a big supporter — often giving Dowdell’s team a chance to present their services when opportunities arose.

Anderson said Rice’s support is a key reason she has been given the opportunity to do the great work she does — regardless of which party is serving as governor.

They both know there are hundreds more who can tell the same stories.

“He was a servant leader,” she said. “It was never about him. It was always about the people that he served. He willingly shared power. He wanted people to be engaged. And he gave opportunities for others to serve.”

That is the essence of Ron Rice: always giving to his community and his constituents.

“He was courageous and fearless and committed, because, no matter what was going on around him, he was going to stick to his principles,” Anderson said. “And you could not shake him. Not a lot of people have that.”

Newark and Essex County and the state of New Jersey are better off because he did. That’s a legacy.