TRENTON, N.J. (AP) — New Jersey Lt. Gov. Sheila Oliver, who made history as the first Black woman to serve as speaker of the state Assembly, died Tuesday, Aug. 1. She was 71.
Oliver served as Democratic Gov. Phil Murphy’s top deputy, stepping in for him while the governor was out of state and also overseeing the Department of Community Affairs (DCA), which coordinates state aid to towns and cities and supervises code enforcement.
Oliver’s coordination of the DCA was a major profile win in her political career: it’s what may help cement her political legacy, political insiders told the Amsterdam News.
As head of the DCA, Oliver oversaw one of the largest agencies in the state, an agency that deals with housing issues for communities throughout New Jersey.
Rev. Derrick L. Green, a former senior advisor to Phil Murphy during his gubernatorial campaign, knew Sheila Oliver for a period of over 30 years. Oliver had worked as a social worker and throughout her political trajectory, she made strong connections with individuals and organizations who helped further political causes she was aligned with, he said.
Oliver’s role as lieutenant governor was not only emblematic, it was also necessary. Murphy deliberately picked her to serve as the state’s lieutenant governor, Rev. Green says: “There are very few people who know the state of New Jersey as far as the politics, the legislature, the community, the diversity, the businesses, the educational system, than Sheila Oliver. I don’t know, I can’t speak of anyone in New Jersey that knows all of those things like Sheila Oliver. There’s no place in New Jersey that this woman from Newark hasn’t been exposed to.
“She’ll know a certain thing. She’ll know something about that community that nobody else knows because she has been around so long, and she cares about people, and it just comes across in her policy decisions, in the way she deals with people.”
Oliver first made her mark working in Newark, says Joyce Ann Morgan, the former Democratic chair and auditor of Pennsylvania’s Lehman Township (and, full disclosure, Morgan is also a family relative of this article’s author). “Sheila came from the Ken Gibson movement,” Morgan said, explaining that when she was out with her young daughter knocking on doors and registering people to vote, a young Sheila Oliver was also out doing voter registration work. Oliver played a part in helping Newark elect its first African American mayor.
Oliver’s political ascent following her work with the movement to elect Ken Gibson was steady. “She had risen, and she became very powerful because she was real. You walked the streets; she knew the people––she talked with the people. She was a person of the people. I can say that clearly: Sheila Oliver was a leader in the Black community, and not only the Black community. She was a champion for the people who needed a champion, who didn’t have a voice.”
No cause of death was initially given for Sheila Oliver’s passing, but she had been suffering occasional health crises the past few months.
As acting governor, she signed a handful of bills, including a 2021 measure that established a pilot program to overhaul the state’s juvenile justice system in four cities,which aimed to reintegrate young people into their communities.
Murphy’s office announced July 31 that Oliver was hospitalized while filling in for Murphy, who was in Italy on a family vacation. She was admitted to Cooperman Barnabas Medical Center in Livingston with an undisclosed medical condition, the governor’s office said, declining to elaborate.
In 2010, Oliver became the first Black woman to serve as assembly speaker, before losing the position to Assembly Member Vincent Prieto in 2013.
She served in the Assembly since 2004 and was on the Essex County board of chosen freeholders from 1996 to 1999. She was born and raised in Newark and has a sociology degree from Pennsylvania’s Lincoln University.
Oliver was a compelling public speaker and frequent attendee at Murphy’s bill signings and other events, where he typically introduced her as his “rocking” lieutenant governor.
In 2021 while unveiling tighter gun legislation alongside Murphy, Oliver’s voice cracked as she lamented the gun violence that disproportionately affected cities in the state. Speaking in her native Newark, Oliver lamented what she suggested was runaway gun violence.
“We are tired of funerals and memorials,” Oliver said. “Growing up in Newark, I tell young people I could go to any section of this city by myself or with my friends. Our young people cannot do that today.”
She was twice elected lieutenant governor alongside Murphy, beginning in 2017 and again in 2021. Oliver was just the second person to hold the post of lieutenant governor, a newer state government position that began under previous Gov. Chris Christie.
It was unclear who would immediately succeed her. The state constitution calls for the state Senate president to serve as acting governor if the governor and lieutenant governor are out of state or incapacitated.
Oliver’s family released the following statement when they announced her death:
“It is with incredible sadness and a heavy heart that we announce the passing of the Honorable Sheila Y. Oliver, Lieutenant Governor of the State of New Jersey. She was not only a distinguished public servant but also our cherished daughter, sister, aunt, friend, and hero. As we come to terms with this profound loss, we kindly request that you respect the privacy of the Oliver family during this difficult time as they grieve their beloved Sheila. Sheila Y. Oliver leaves behind a legacy of dedication, service, and inspiration. We will remember her commitment to the people of New Jersey and her tireless efforts to uplift the community. Further information and details regarding memorial arrangements will be provided in due course. Until then, we appreciate your understanding and support. May her memory be a source of comfort and strength to all who knew her.”