Pick an identity.
Vietnam War soldier.
Undercover police detective.
Brick City politician.
Senator Ronald Rice (D-28) has managed to shoulder all those occupations on his wiry frame at one time or another, spending the most time in the third iteration of self, assuming his senate seat back in 1986 and letting the sideburns go gun metal blue with time and the repeated stare down of ornery opposition.
Heading into 2017 he may be facing his toughest, and most thorny, political test.
Having staved off the Essex County Democratic Organization’s most motivated attempt to get rid of him in 2007 as part of its eradication of the Sharpe James epoch in Newark, Rice subsequently avoided having to repeatedly run with the bulls by making an uneasy peace with the organization. That peace went along basically without incident for awhile until 2016, when Rice backed Ras Baraka for mayor, bucking a statewide Democratic effort helmed by Essex County Executive Joe DiVincenzo and South Jersey life force George Norcross III.
Now Baraka appears in position to back Jersey City Mayor Steven Fulop for governor nextyear against the organization line, if need be – and it looks like it will need be, as the powerful DiVincenzo and Norcross continue to dismiss Fulop’s candidacy as the premature perambulations of a Jersey City green horn.
No problem for the Baraka-loving, Norcross-detesting Rice, right?
The trouble is Rice does not like Fulop, and won’t support his gubernatorial candidacy.
“I support Ras 100%,” Newark’s senior senator told PolitickerNJ. “I’ve got his back, and I would hope he has my back. But I would never support Fulop. If I supported him I would welcome the opposition of Gerry Balmir, Charles Mainor, and Sandy Cunningham, and I won’t do that. I don’t think Fulop’s ready, and I think he would be bad for New Jersey. I think he lies and I think his money is questionable; how he hides stuff. And he doesn’t understand the African-American community.”
Baraka doesn’t agree. Newark’s mayor has repeatedly made known his avid and enthusiastic support for the Jersey City mayor, and on Friday he sat down with his North Jersey ally to chart a way forward in Essex in the likely event that Fulop runs off the line.
Rice’s slate mate, Assemblywoman Cleo Tucker (D-28), has strong ties to Baraka. Her son was one of the political minders present last Friday at Fulop’s close-quarters political pow wow with the Newark mayor.
The other third of the LD28 equation?
While not committing to any one gubernatorial candidate, Assemblyman Ralph Caputo (D-28) told PolitickerNJ that he’s certain Rice, Tucker and himself will run together next year.
Like Rice and Tucker and Fulop, Caputo was an early Baraka backer in 2014.
Will the ties hold or inevitably pull apart?
For his part, Rice undoubtedly appears best positioned to support former Goldman Sachs Executive and former U.S. Ambassador to Germany Phil Murphy, a hard-charging retail politician and staunch ally of former Governor (and 27th District Senator) Dick Codey. But the West Newark senator won’t put that on the record yet when asked, noting the presence of other likely gubernatorial contestants, including state Senator Ray Lesniak (D-20), Assemblyman John Wisniewski (D-19), and Assemblywoman Shavonda Sumter (D-35).
It should be noted that Murphy is aligned politically locally in Newark with none other than Sharpe James. Moreover, the vitriol of his past duels with Norcross suggest that Rice’s support for Senate President Steve Sweeney (D-3) would lag behind the fresher faced Murphy, who’s running as an outsider, an easy tag for Rice to call his own.
But he’s not going there – yet.
“I’ll deal with that when the time comes,” he said of the 2017 Democratic Primary. “I’m still constituency-based. We need to get back to the presidential elections. That’s what I’m focused on right now. I just don’t support Fulop, but I stand by the mayor. I hope we can continue to move Newark forward under his leadership. I just worry about some of the people around the mayor, and Fulop is one of those people.”
Facing such a tough test, tugged westward by Codey and Murphy and pulled southward and toward the gold dome of city hall by Baraka, and yet utterly resistant to Fulop, a civil warpaint-wearing Rice may find himself in position – as at no other time – to enact all three versions of himself simultaneously in order to survive politically.