Lt. Gov. Sheila Oliver speaks at Governor Murphy signing of bill to speed up construction permitting process and announces more than $19 Million in additional spending for nearly 80 affordable housing units on Thursday, January 5, 2023. Photo credit: Gov. Phil Murphy's Flickr

New Jersey politics rocked by sudden death of ‘trailblazer’ Lt. Gov. Sheila Oliver

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After a short stay in a New Jersey hospital, Lt. Gov. Sheila Y. Oliver was pronounced dead. She leaves a legacy of serving as the state’s highest-ranking Black female public official.

Just days into serving as New Jersey’s acting governor, Lt. Governor Sheila Oliver has died at the age of 71. Condolences and shock at her passing have been pouring in.

Gov. Phil Murphy, who had just left for summer vacation to his $7.3 million, 23-bedroom mansion in Parrano, Italy, said in a statement that his 2017 running mate “was an incredibly genuine and kind person whose friendship and partnership will be irreplaceable.”

Former New Jersey governor Chris Christie messaged that “It is a sad day for NJ and for me personally.”

Rep. Bonnie Watson (D-NJ), whose path crossed Lt. Gov. Oliver’s for decades, recalled to NJ Spotlight News that the respected leader was a “vibrant, authentic woman” who “was an advocate for all of New Jersey citizens, but particularly those whose lives needed to be lifted up.”

Sen. Cory Cooker (D-NJ) expressed that he ”benefited from [her] leadership and advocacy” as both mayor of Newark and now as a U.S. Senator.

The current Newark mayor, Ras Baraka is bereaving. He said “Newark is in mourning. We’ve lost a favorite daughter, cherished and revered.” 

Working for years on a number of initiatives with Lt. Gov. Oliver, Mayor Baraka emphasized that the self-described “Jersey Girl” was “probably the most knowledgeable elected official in the entire state” who also carried “a fierce dedication to diversity, equality, equity, and justice.”  

An East Orange resident for over four decades, Lt. Gov. Oliver was born in Newark where she spent her formative years. A graduate of Pennsylvania’s historical Black, Lincoln University, Lt. Gov. Oliver received a master’s degree in Community Organization, Planning and Administration from Columbia University.

Trailblazer has been an oft-used word others have used to define Lt. Gov. Oliver. Her career as a nonprofit professional and public official spans decades. As an elected politician, she served as the first Black woman to hold the seat as the General Assembly Speaker and Lieutenant Governor in New Jersey, and the second Black woman in the United States to lead a state legislature chamber.

“The people of New Jersey have lost a pioneering, irreplaceable figure in the history of the state,” lamented Debra Walsh, longtime director of the Center for Women in Politics at Rutgers University.

“She encouraged women to run for office up and down the ballot,” stated Emerge New Jersey, a candidate training program committed to increasing the number of Democratic women leaders from diverse backgrounds in public office through recruitment, training and networking. 

Lt. Gov. Oliver’s advocacy for all types of women to run for office is more underscored in a state where women in elected positions have stalled. Yet and still, those who did follow her lead, remember the grace she provided them. “Our Lt. Governor had a kind and welcoming spirit that is hard to find in politics,” recollected Jersey City Councilwoman Denise Ridley. 

Along with encouraging women to participate in electoral politics, Lt. Gov. Oliver worked on numerous initiatives geared towards affordable housing and economic opportunity in “distressed municipalities.” While her list of endorsing and advocating for programs that address economic wealth gaps, her most terse moments were efforts to transform low-income housing in Newark. Years ago, she backed the renovation of multi-unit housing facilities such as Garden Spires after residents and activist organizations filed hundreds of complaints against its owners for gross neglect in maintaining the properties. Even after the rehab, residents complained that the buildings were still not up to code.

Lt. Gov. Oliver also worked towards empowering youth. When she occupied the seat of the acting governor before, she signed legislation that focused on steering youth away from the juvenile justice system.

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Lt. Gov. Sheila Oliver participates in the “Grateful for the Shot” vaccination event in East Orange on Friday, May 14, 2021. Photo credit: OIT/ Gov. Phil Murphy’s Office/Flickr

The cause of Lt. Gov. Oliver’s death is unknown at press time, but she was admitted into Cooperman Barnabas Medical Center in Livingston. On July 31, the governor’s communications director revealed in an update that she was “unable to discharge the duties of Acting Governor” while in the hospital. For the first time in the state, Article V, Section I, paragraph 7 of the New Jersey Constitution was enacted, which says the following: 

“In the event of the failure of the Governor-elect to qualify, or of the absence from the State of a Governor in office or his inability to discharge the duties of his office, or his impeachment, the functions, powers, duties and emoluments of the office shall devolve upon the President of the Senate, for the time being . . .” 

Now, Acting Governor Nicholas Scutari, who took over leadership as a mandate from the state’s constitution, acknowledged that he “gained even greater respect for [Lt. Gov. Oliver’s] leadership skills and appreciation for her selfless human qualities” while working with her prior to her untimely passing.

Kaia Shivers covers news, features and the diaspora.

With an essential seat empty in the state, per the constitution, Gov. Murphy has 45 days upon Lt. Gov. Oliver’s death to appoint someone to fill her position. Everyone agrees that the person who succeeds might inherit the seat, but will never take her place. “New Jersey is a better place because of Lt. Governor Sheila Oliver’s service. Her legacy will be an inspiration for generations to come,” said Rep. Mikie Sherrill (D-NJ). 

Lt. Gov. Oliver had no spouse, but was known to care for her mother who is well into her 90s. In a statement by the family, memorial arrangements are forthcoming.

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