Photo: Office of the Governor
Photo: Office of the Governor

New Jersey lieutenant governor and Black trailblazer Sheila Oliver, dies at 71

The former leader of the state Assembly had been serving as acting governor while Gov. Phil Murphy was on an overseas vacation.


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Pioneer Black leader and New Jersey Lt. Gov. Sheila Oliver died Tuesday after a sudden illness at the age of 71. 

The cause of death was not disclosed, but the former leader of the state Assembly had long-term health problems that she had kept private. She’d only appeared at a few public events in recent months.  

According to the governor’s office on Monday, Oliver, one of the state’s leading advocates for revitalizing cities and against gun violence, was hospitalized at Cooperman Barnabas Medical Center in Livingston and “unable to discharge the duties of Acting Governor.” 

Her family’s statement remembered Oliver as “our cherished daughter, sister, aunt, friend, and hero.”

Gov. Murphy spokesperson Mahen Gunaratna said he’d be “returning soon.” He was set to return Aug. 13.

Oliver, who rose to become one of the state’s leading advocates for revitalizing cities and against gun violence, had been serving as acting governor as Gov. Phil Murphy is on vacation in Italy but with the tragedy, Senate President Nick Scutari will take over. 

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.

Murphy said he and his family are distraught at the news. He said naming Oliver as his lieutenant governor was “the best decision I ever made.” 

“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 a statement Tuesday. “Beyond all of that, she was an incredibly genuine and kind person whose friendship and partnership will be irreplaceable.”

Oliver was the first Black woman to hold statewide elected office in New Jersey, winning the vote alongside Murphy twice in 2017 and 2021. She was a prominent figure in state government, and in 2010 made history by becoming the first Black woman to lead the state Assembly. 

She also oversaw the Department of Community Affairs, which coordinates state aid to towns and cities and supervises code enforcement. 

Oliver was recognized for regularly standing at Murphy’s side, as well as signing several bills into law during her time as acting governor in contrast to her predecessor, who did not do so alongside former Gov. Chris Christie. 

She was known for being an exceptional public speaker and frequent attendee at Gov. Murphy’s bill signings and other events, where he often introduced her as his “rocking” lieutenant governor.

Her sudden passing shocked many officials.

“This is devastating news. I am shocked at the passing of Lieutenant Governor Oliver. Sheila is a pathbreaker and has been one of the foremost leaders of our great state for decades. I am still processing this,” Rep. Bill Pascrell Jr. said in a statement.

Republican nominee for President, Gov. Christie, worked with Oliver during his first term when she was Assembly speaker and remembered her as “a great person and partner” and said in a tweet that her passing was a loss for him personally as well as the state.

It’s uncertain who’d succeed Oliver but New Jersey’s constitution calls for Senate President Nicholas Scutari to serve as acting governor if the governor and lieutenant governor are out of state or incapacitated. 

According to the constitution, it’s required that Murphy appoint Oliver’s successor within 45 days.


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