She Became Acting Governor Friday, Died Days Later

Sheila Oliver was seen as a 'political trailblazer' in New Jersey
By Newser Editors and Wire Services
Posted Aug 1, 2023 1:18 PM CDT
'Political Trailblazer' in New Jersey Dies at 71
New Jersey Lt. Gov. Sheila Oliver speaks during a news conference in 2018 announcing pollution lawsuits filed by the state.   (AP Photo/Julio Cortez, File)

New Jersey Lt. Gov. Sheila Oliver, who made history as the first Black woman to serve as speaker of the state Assembly, died Tuesday at age 71. No cause of death was given, according to Politico, which calls Oliver a "trailblazing political leader." Oliver had begun serving as acting governor on Friday with Democratic Gov. Phil Murphy on vacation overseas. In a statement, Murphy said he and his family were distraught at the news, per the AP. Naming Oliver as his lieutenant governor was, he said, "the best decision I ever made." The governor's office announced on Sunday that Oliver had been hospitalized for an unspecified medical condition. Murphy spokesperson Mahen Gunaratna said the governor will be "returning soon" from Italy. He had been set to return Aug. 13.

In 2010, Oliver became the first Black woman to serve as Assembly speaker, before losing the position to Assemblyman Vincent Prieto in 2013. She served in the Assembly since 2004 and was on the Essex County board of chosen freeholders from 1996 to 1999. She was born and raised in Newark and has a sociology degree from Pennsylvania's Lincoln University. 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.

"She brought a unique and invaluable perspective to our public policy discourse and served as an inspiration to millions of women and girls everywhere, especially young women of color, Murphy said in his statement Tuesday. "Beyond all of that, she was an incredibly genuine and kind person whose friendship and partnership will be irreplaceable." In 2021, while unveiling tighter gun legislation alongside Murphy, Oliver's voice cracked as she lamented what she called 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."

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Oliver was twice elected lieutenant governor alongside Murphy, in 2017 and again in 2021. She was just the second person to hold the post of lieutenant governor, a newer state government position that began under previous Gov. Chris Christie. The state constitution calls for the state Senate president to serve as acting governor if the governor and lieutenant governor are out of state or incapacitated, and Nick Scutari had done so on Monday, per NJ101.5. The constitution requires Murphy to appoint Oliver's successor within 45 days.

(More obituary stories.)

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