N.J. black leaders patronized by Murphy officials, top African-American Democrat says

Posted Oct 07, 2019

New Jersey’s leading black state lawmaker sent a sharply worded letter to Gov. Phil Murphy last week saying the Democrat’s administration and other top state officials patronize black leaders and haven’t done enough to address their concerns.

State Sen. Ronald Rice, a fellow Democrat, wrote that the state’s black elected officials, as well as civil rights and faith leaders, “continue to be taken for granted in a manner not dissimilar to the way black voters and brown and black people in general, are often dismissed on a daily basis.”

Murphy said Monday he “vehemently” disagrees with Rice’s letter, which was first reported by NJ Globe.

The governor, an avowed progressive whose cabinet is the most diverse in state history, argued that his administration has done more to reform criminal and social justice than “any state in America” the last two years.

Rice, who leads the state’s Legislative Black Caucus, told NJ Advance Media on Monday that he wasn’t referring to the governor himself. He said Murphy has done a better job “in terms of working with minority communities” in the state than any governor since Tom Kean in the 1980s.

The lawmaker said the problem is often with officials in Murphy’s administration and other staff members in state government. He said he sent the letter to “alert the governor” that black leaders frequently feel ignored.

“I still have the governor’s back on his issues,” Rice, D-Essex, said. “And we are gonna disagree. But I’m not the governor’s or anyone else’s subordinate.”

In his letter, Rice — a former Newark councilman who has served in the state Senate since 1986 — told Murphy it’s “possible that you are oblivious" to the way he and other black leaders are treated.

The senator wrote that whenever they meet with white officials to discuss discuss reforming social justice, criminal justice, and equal employment in New Jersey, “we are met with patronizing conversations, a smile, the pretense of understanding and empty promises for cooperation.”

Rice reminded Murphy that minority leaders, voters, and taxpayers “placed hope and faith in you for justice, believing that the days of modern day bondage in New Jersey would end for people of color."

But, he said, they have been “frustrated and impatient with what appears to be procrastination by your administration” to work on legislation to decriminalize marijuana in New Jersey, as well as other social and criminal justice reforms.

“I can assure you it is not simply face time that we seek,” Rice added. “We want action”

Murphy has long pushed to legalize recreational marijuana in New Jersey — a plan that has so far stalled in the Democratic-controlled state Legislature. He said one reason he wants to legalize marijuana is because minority residents are three times more likely to be arrested for pot offenses.

But Rice is strongly opposed to legal weed. Instead, he wants to decriminalize the drug. Murphy and other Democratic leaders have been leery of that idea, saying it doesn’t get rid of street dealers.

During an unrelated news conference in Bergenfield on Monday, Murphy acknowledged he knows of Rice’s letter but hasn’t read it yet.

“I will do that today,” the governor said. “I have enormous respect for Senator Rice. We have done a lot together.”

But Murphy pointed to his efforts to strengthen the state’s gun control laws, battle the opioid epidemic, increase the expungement of residents’ records, and other initiatives as proof that he has fought for minority residents.

"I would say with great respect the list is as long in the area as criminal and social justice as any state in America over the past 24 months,” Murphy added. “Is it perfect? No. Do we still have a road to travel? You bet. But I’ll put our record up against anybody’s.”

Murphy also said he looks forward to meeting with Rice about his concerns.

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