New Jersey Lt. Gov. Sheila Oliver, who served as the first Black woman Assembly speaker in state history and the second to lead a legislative chamber in the country, died Tuesday. She was 71.
Her death was announced by her family in a statement.
“Sheila Y. Oliver leaves behind a legacy of dedication, service, and inspiration,” the statement reads. “We will remember her commitment to the people of New Jersey and her tireless efforts to uplift the community.”
The cause of Olliver’s death was not disclosed. The East Orange resident who also served as the head of the Department of Community Affairs, had struggled with long-term health problems and appeared at very few public events in recent months. On Monday, the governor’s office announced that Oliver was hospitalized and was unable to discharge the duties of acting governor while Gov. Phil Murphy is on vacation in Italy. New Jersey Senate President Nick Scutari has been serving as acting governor.
State leaders issued statements on Tuesday afternoon expressing their appreciation for Oliver and mourning her death.
Murphy said when he selected Oliver to be his running mate in 2017, she 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,” Murphy said. “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.”
“She was more than a trusted colleague to me. Sheila was also a cherished friend, mentor, and role model to me and countless other African American women who have chosen a career in public service,” Secretary of State Tahesha Way said. “I will miss her dearly. I extend my heartfelt condolences to her family, friends, and all who loved and admired her.”
Attorney General Matthew Platkin called Oliver a hero and said she was brilliant, fearless, and kind.
“Her life was marked by service to her community, her county, her state, and her country. Millions of New Jerseyans live in a more just and equitable state thanks to her efforts,” Platkin said. “She showed young women, in particular, that truly anything is possible. But more than anything, she never forgot what this work was all about: the people. And she always believed things could get better – better for an individual, better for a community, better for a state.’
Kean University President Lamont Repollet, who worked with Oliver when he was the state commissioner of education, said she was a genuine person and never forgot her childhood in Newark. “She never wavered in her commitment to create a better future for our entire state, he said. “My prayers go out to her family and all those who knew and loved her.”
In a written statement, Senator Andrew Zwicker said Oliver was a tremendous and powerful leader. “When she rose to speak, rooms would become quiet, knowing that what she was about to say was persuasive and important,” Zwicker said. “On a personal note, she was always so kind to me, from the moment I first entered the Statehouse through her time as Lt. Governor. We would chat about family as much as we would policy. This is a tremendous loss for New Jersey, and I will miss her.”
Assemblyman Roy Freiman said Oliver loved her home state, both her home city of Newark and her home of more than for decades, East Orange.
“Her legacy will continue to be an inspiration to anyone who worked with her, who knew her, and the innumerable amount of people whose lives she has impacted,” Freiman said in a written statement. “Her dedicated work on women’s and children’s issues will affect New Jersey families in perpetuity. The work she did as chair of the Human Services Committee demonstrated the abundance of compassion and consideration she had for all of the citizens of our great state. She believed that neighborhoods are the center of our communities and should be strong and equitable. She was the type of woman who built people up and helped empower historic and traditional businesses on Main Streets across the state. She was indeed a voice for the voiceless.”