New Jersey is mourning the loss of Lt. Gov. Sheila Oliver, a trailblazer and inspiration, who passed away at the age of 71. Oliver made history as the first Black woman to serve as Assembly speaker in the state and the second to lead a legislative chamber in the entire country.
The announcement of Oliver’s death came from her family in a statement, praising her dedication, service, and inspiration. Her commitment to the people of New Jersey and tireless efforts to uplift the community will be remembered with fondness and gratitude.
Though the cause of death was not disclosed, Oliver had been facing long-term health challenges, which she had kept private. In recent months, she appeared at few public events. On Monday, the governor’s office announced her hospitalization, leaving her unable to discharge the duties of Acting Governor. Senate President Nick Scutari took on the role of acting governor while Gov. Phil Murphy was on vacation in Italy.
Aside from being the lieutenant governor, Oliver also led the Department of Community Affairs, a significant state agency responsible for housing and community development.
Her journey in politics began in Newark, where she was born. Surrounded by politics early on, with her father involved in picketing against racial discrimination, Sheila Oliver grew up on the same block as the late U.S. Rep. Donald Payne.
Oliver’s impressive educational background included a bachelor’s degree from Lincoln University, a historically Black school in Pennsylvania, and a master’s in planning and administration from Columbia University. She started her political career on the East Orange School Board and later served as an Essex County freeholder and assistant county administrator.
Her political prominence soared in 2010 when she became the Assembly speaker, thanks to a regional power-sharing deal. Although she had a sometimes tumultuous relationship with other politicians, she achieved significant accomplishments during her tenure, including working on public worker pension and health benefits reform.
Her political future took an uncertain turn when she was ousted from the speakership, but she regained momentum in 2017 when Democratic gubernatorial nominee Phil Murphy chose her as his running mate for lieutenant governor. Her appointment as lieutenant governor made her just the second in the state’s history and the second Black woman in the country to lead a legislative house.
Sheila Oliver’s legacy as a trailblazer, barrier-breaker, and advocate for representation, diversity, and progress will never be forgotten. Her decades of public service have left an indelible mark on New Jersey’s political landscape. Plans for her memorial service are yet to be announced, and the state has 45 days for Gov. Phil Murphy to choose her successor as lieutenant governor. New Jersey bids farewell to a remarkable leader and role model.
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