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Remembering the life and legacy of Lt. Gov. Sheila Oliver, dead at 71

Sheila Oliver was a trailblazing New Jersey politician, who served at every level of New Jersey government and left an indelible mark on the state.

Walt Kane

Aug 2, 2023, 2:27 AM

Updated 324 days ago

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Sheila Oliver was a trailblazing New Jersey politician, who served at every level of New Jersey government and left an indelible mark on the state.
Oliver’s commitment to New Jersey was never clearer than in the days after Superstorm Sandy, when she choked back tears while surveying the damage.
“As you travel down these side streets and you look at people’s personal belongings - their mattresses, their beds, their sofas, their fridges - people’s lives are in an upheaval in this part of the state," Oliver said in an interview in November 2012.
Oliver began her career as a member of the East Orange Board of Education, eventually rising to district president. From there, she was elected to the Essex County Board of Chosen Freeholders.
“She was a woman who was extremely committed, extremely intelligent, but knew how to disagree with people without necessarily being disagreeable,” says Essex County Prosecutor Theodore Stephens.
Essex County Executive Joseph DiVincenzo remembers Lt. Gov. Oliver
Oliver was elected to the New Jersey Assembly in 2003. It was there that she earned a reputation for championing issues like affordable housing and raising the minimum wage. She explained her passion for those issues during an interview on New Jersey Power and Politics, saying, “I always positioned myself as an articulate spokesperson for disadvantaged people and there is no more disadvantaged segment in our state than those that are minimum wage earners.”
Oliver became state Assembly speaker in 2010, the first Black woman to hold the position in New Jersey and only the second woman of color to run a state legislative body nationwide. A Democrat, Oliver displayed a willingness to stake out controversial positions, siding with then-Republican Gov. Chris Christie to reform pensions and benefits for state workers. Unions were outraged, as were some of Oliver’s fellow Democrats, but an effort to replace her as speaker failed.
Oliver broke barriers again in 2017 when she was Gov. Phil Murphy's choice as New Jersey's lieutenant governor. Once again, she was the first Black woman to hold the position.
“Sheila was an excellent public official, but she was a better person,” Stephens says. “And I think if that's what people are left to remember about Sheila Oliver, then that will be a legacy worth remembering.”


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