TRENTON, New Jersey (WABC) — New Jersey Lt. Gov. Sheila Oliver, who was serving as acting governor while Democratic Gov. Phil Murphy was out of the state, has died at the age of 71.
Oliver, who made history as the first Black woman to serve as speaker of the state Assembly died Tuesday following her hospitalization for an undisclosed medical issue Monday.
She was taken to Cooperman Barnabas Medical Center in Livingston and was unable to carry out the duties of acting governor. Under the state constitution, Democratic Senate President Nicholas Scutari was serving as acting governor.
Oliver’s family released the following statement on Tuesday with the news of 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.”
Murphy, who will come back from vacation in Italy soon, released a statement saying he and his family are incredibly saddened and distraught to learn of Oliver’s passing:
“When I selected her to be my running mate in 2017, Lieutenant Governor Oliver was already a trailblazer in every sense of the word. She had already made history as the first Black woman to serve as Speaker of the General Assembly, and just the second Black woman in the nation’s history to lead a house of a state legislature. I knew then that her decades of public service made her the ideal partner for me to lead the State of New Jersey. It was the best decision I ever made.”
Murphy went on to say that Oliver served as an inspiration to millions of women and girls everywhere — especially young women of color.
Scutari, who was still acting as governor on Tuesday, said Oliver’s death was a heartbreaking loss for all.
“This is a heartbreaking loss for all of us who knew and admired Sheila Oliver. She touched the lives of countless people as a dedicated public official who worked tirelessly to improve opportunities for others. She has a record of accomplishment that is unmatched. I was fortunate to work closely with Sheila when she served in the Assembly and as Lieutenant Governor, where I gained even greater respect for her leadership skills and appreciation for her selfless human qualities. Sheila was a trailblazer who broke through glass ceilings to become the first woman of color to serve as Assembly Speaker and as Lieutenant Governor. I believe she will continue to be an inspiration for generations of young people.”
Oliver, a Democrat, had served as the state’s second lieutenant governor since 2018. She concurrently served as the head of the Department of Community Affairs, which coordinates state aid to towns and cities and oversees code enforcement.
In 2010, she became the first African-American woman to serve as speaker of the state Assembly in the state’s history. She had served in the Assembly since 2004 and served on the Essex County board of chosen freeholders from 1996 to 1999.
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.”
Sen. Cory Booker called Oliver a dedicated public servant in a statement after her death:
“Lt. Governor Oliver’s legacy of service and devotion to the people of New Jersey will never be forgotten. She spent 27 years in public office, where she fought tirelessly for social justice, affordable housing, and economic opportunity for New Jerseyans, and especially for communities too often left out and left without a voice. I was fortunate enough to have benefited from Sheila’s leadership and advocacy throughout my career as Mayor of Newark, where she was born and raised, and again as U.S. Senator. I will miss her and her inspiring leadership and yet her legacy will live on for countless generations to come.”
Sen. Bob Menendez said he was devastated by Oliver’s death.
“Lieutenant Governor Sheila Y. Oliver was a relentless voice for the voiceless, a passionate advocate for the disadvantaged, and a champion for the most important issues facing the Garden State,” he said in a statement. “From her earliest victories in public service when she saved affordable housing for low-income residents in Newark to her trailblazing service as the first African American woman to lead the General Assembly as Speaker, Lieutenant Governor Oliver was an inspiration to all of us who dream of an equal and prosperous future.
New York Gov. Kathy Hochul called Oliver a trailblazer:
“Heartbroken by the passing of New Jersey Lieutenant Governor and my friend, Sheila Oliver. Sheila was a trailblazer who embodied the meaning of public service, and a fierce advocate for the people of New Jersey. My prayers are with her loved ones during this difficult time.”
And New York City Mayor Eric Adams also released a statement about how she knocked down barriers:
“Sheila Oliver was a trailblazer. She knocked down barriers for women of color in government, climbing the ranks to the highest levels. On behalf of New York City, I offer our condolences to her friends, family and the people of New Jersey who she so dutifully served.”
(The Associated Press contributed to this report.)
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