Tragedy struck New Jersey politics today after the sudden passing of Lt. Governor Sheila Y. Oliver, the first Black woman elected in the state to serve as Speaker of the Assembly. She was 71.
Oliver, a Democrat, worked side-by-side with Governor Phil Murphy since their election in 2017 and was often described lovingly as Murphy's “rocking” lieutenant. Before her passing, Oliver served to the utmost of her capacity as acting governor in Murphy’s stead when he was out of state and, also, administering the Department of Community Affairs which coordinates state aid to towns and cities and overseas code enforcement.
On July 31, the Governor’s office disclosed that Oliver had been hospitalized while filling in for Murphy, who was away in Italy on a family vacation. It was then reported that she was admitted to Cooperman Barnabas Medical Center in Livingston with an undisclosed medical condition.
In a statement released through Murphy’s office, Oliver’s family addressed the devastating news of her passing.
“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” they said.
After the news of her passing, Governor Murphy released a statement asking for thoughts and prayers for the family and paying tribute to Oliver whom he called an “incredibly genuine and kind person whose friendship and partnership will be irreplaceable.”
Oliver was born and raised in Newark and graduated from Lincoln University with a sociology degree. She served on the Essex County board of chosen freeholders from 1996 to 1999 before winning election to the state Assembly in 2004.
Her astonishing legacy includes being the first Black woman elected to serve as Speaker of the Assembly in 2010 and being Governor Murphy’s running mate in 2017, which made her the second New Jersey lieutenant governor since the position was created under former Republican Gov. Chris Christie.
During Governor Murphy’s time away this summer, Oliver rushed to sign a 2021 measure into effect that established a pilot program to overhaul the state’s juvenile justice system emphasizing young people to reintegrate back into their communities.
It is unclear who will succeed Oliver in the role of lieutenant governor, however, it is provided by New Jersey’s Constitution that the Senate President would serve as acting Governor if both the governor and lieutenant governor are out of state or incapacitated.
The loss of Sheila Oliver is a sorrowful day for New Jersey as the state loses a remarkable individual who’s actions touched the lives of many citizens and her allies in the government.