NEWARK – Two big charter buses idle outside of headquarters off South Orange Avenue and state Sen. Ronald Rice (D-Newark)is just about ready to givethe signal for the two of them to get going.
"Our people always march at night," he says in the face of the darkening streetscape. "They hit the doors between 4 and 8 p.m."
Onboard are 109 canvassers for Gov. Jon Corzine,with instructions toblanket the West Ward with door hangers and campaign literature for the incumbent Democratic governor two days in front of President Barack Obama's 11th hour Corzine rally inNewark followed by the election itself next Tuesday.
No one seems to know at this point exactly who's going to win: Corzine or his Republican opponent, Chris Christie; but the campaign wants to squeeze 40,000 votes out of Newark, and Rice has a goal to help get the governor 8,000 votes in the West Ward, a long-shot, he admits.
Four years ago, then-candidate Doug Forrester's campaign tore through the streets with a lot of hoopla and once theoperatives herehad recoveredafter being doubled over with laughter, they hit back with a vengeance against the interloper from the GOP and delivered nearly 9,000 votes for the Democrat.
But Christie, Rice admits, "has been smarter" with the way he has played in Newark, using stealth and telephone contacts more than sound and gimmickry.
Addressing a youngcampaign coordinatorfrom the countywith a sentence punctuated by the words "communication," "coordination," the senator, a Vietnamcombat veteran and veteran of untold street campaigns, including a storied 2007 victory against every imaginable political machine aligned against him,a moment later whirls around and comes face to face with Victoria Scott.
"She was class president of Barringer High School and is now studying at William Paterson University," ally Jeffrey Dykes tells the senator.
"And she wants to be the first woman mayor of Newark," adds Victoria's mother.
"Let's start by getting rid of the one we have in there now," huffs Rice.
He can't resist.
He's out here trying to get Corzine re-elected and can't refrain from twistinganinsult in the direction of his old tormentor, Booker, who pulverized the senator in the 2006 mayoral race.
Rice softens the blow by bringing a smile to the young woman's face.
"We'll get him outta there, and that will clear the way for you," he says. Then adds, "The important thing is your heart has to be here, not in Hollywood. You follow me? I don't need no Hollywood clowns running around me."
Bewildered again, the young woman nods in assent.
Rice's road troops are ready to pull out. In the meantime, he reasserts his opinion that the Corzine campaign has been a ground game disaster.
"They're running these attack ads againstChristie week after week and there are no mechanics on the ground," he says. "I'm wondering if it's too late.
"In any case, we're doing what we have too," he adds. "I'm independently dependent. My wife makes dinner for me every day for 20 years and says I depend on her, but if I have to go and make my own dinner, don't think I can't. Follow me?"
A woman limps up to him at the corner of South Orange Avenue and Fairmount.
Her eyes well with tears.
In a recent shooting, she was grazed in the legwhile her sister took a direct hit in the leg and Rice, pouring out love, suddenly straightens, brow furrowed, and asks if she's gone to City Hall for help.
She shakes her head.
"I did, but they didn't help," she says.
"Rufus," Rice barks over an ambulance that screams past.
"Yes, sir," says Freeholder Rufus Johnson.
"Coordinate with City Hall to gether some help,"says the senator, shaking his head and adding to the woman, "You know I love you, baby.
"We've got a mayor who thinks that tweeting is the answer to crime in Newark," he adds.
Another woman approaches, hugs him, and asks, "Senator, can you get me a picture with Obama?"
"I… don't… think… I'm going to be there," says Rice of the Prudential Center event in the Central Ward on Sunday where the national, state and local triumverate of Obama, Corzine and none other thanBooker will be onstage.
**** UPDATED: Sen. Ronald Rice's staff today told PolitickerNJ.com that Rice will not attend the Obama rally tomorrow because his mother is gravely ill.
"We're out in the street here – this is what I love," he announces.
Dykes gives a wave of his hand to the senator that the buses are ready to leave, and Rice – moments before giving the ok- fields the question: Why does he want Corzine re-elected?
"I've got to make sure there's an open door to the governor's office so I don't have to kick in doors, because I would," he says. "The Republicans, most of them, criticize the urban areas because of the resources we receive from the state. But people don't want entitlements, they want a job. I need someone in the governor's chair who understands that, and we have educated Jon Corzine enough directly within this community to give him a greater understanding of it. We don't have a lot of choices, but Gov. Corzine understands that those who have the least have to be helped, whether people like it or not.
"He honestly cares," Rice adds. "I believe that. I think he cares."
He asks to sign off on the mission and an aide quickly presents a pen.
"Pink?"Rice booms. "A pink pen?"
"Breast cancer awareness month, senator," is the explanation.
"Oh," says Rice, "that's ok."
He gives the thumbs up.
The buses roll.