Sheila Y. Oliver, the lieutenant governor of New Jersey and the state’s first Black woman elected to statewide office passed away on Tuesday after being taken to the hospital the previous day. She was 71 years old.
After more than 15 years in the Legislature, Ms. Oliver, a Democrat and lifelong resident of East Orange, New Jersey, was chosen as Gov. Philip D. Murphy’s running partner in 2017 and was elected lieutenant governor. She became the first Black woman to serve as the State Assembly’s president in 2010.
Since Mr. Murphy and his family left over the weekend for a vacation in Italy, where they own a house, Ms. Oliver has been acting as governor of New Jersey.
However, according to state officials who gave no further information, she was transported to the hospital on Monday morning; as required by the State Constitution, leadership duties then fell to the Senate president, Nick Scutari. According to a spokesperson, Mr. Murphy will return to New Jersey in the next few days.
In a public statement on Tuesday, Ms. Oliver’s family said she will be remembered for her “tireless efforts to uplift the community.” A cause of death was not given.
They remarked, “We will keep in mind her dedication to the people of New Jersey.” “May all who knew her find solace and courage in her memory.”
Soon, a chorus of condolences began to arrive.
Lieutenant Governor Oliver was already a pioneer in every way when I chose her to be my campaign mate in 2017, according to a statement from Mr. Murphy.
“I knew then that her decades of public service made her the ideal partner for me,” he said. “It was the best decision I have ever made.”
According to Britnee N. Timberlake, a previous program participant who took Ms. Oliver’s Assembly seat in 2018, Ms. Oliver was engaged in the state chapter of Emerge America. This national group recruits and prepares Democratic women to run for government.
“She put her money where her mouth was,” said Ms. Timberlake in an interview.
She said Ms. Oliver remained a vital mentor to her even when she became lieutenant governor.
“When you’re working for a power shift, it often requires a fight,” said Ms. Timberlake, who will run for State Senate in November. “She was always available to me. Providing direction. Assisting with strategy. She would stand in the gap and act as a shield when necessary.
Ms. Oliver was considered a possible successor to Mr. Murphy, a second-time Democrat prevented by term limitations from seeking re-election immediately. However, people close to her had known for months that she suffered from health issues and had been in public occasionally.
“I loved her,” she said.
Ms. Oliver delivered an emotional eulogy in February at the memorial ceremony for Eunice K. Dwumfour, 30, a killed councilwoman who was the first Black person elected in Sayreville, N.J., detailing how she had walked a similarly uncharted political route, sometimes alone.
“Don’t forget what she packed into those 30 years,” Ms. Oliver advised the audience.
Ms. Oliver was born in Newark and frequently spoke about her formative years as a public school student when she was exposed to “societal injustices and inequities.” Her graduation with honors from Lincoln University, a historically Black institution in Pennsylvania, made a former aide extra happy.
Gina Trish, Ms. Oliver’s former communications director in Trenton, remarked that she “was fearless.” She would only lecture ladies, telling them they needed to preserve the alligator hide and that politics wasn’t for the weak-willed, particularly in New Jersey.
She served on the East Orange school board and was elected to the Essex County, New Jersey, governing board before moving to Trenton. She ran for mayor of East Orange in 1997 but lost the Democratic primary by 51 votes.
In East Orange, where her mother, who is in her 90s, still resides, an elementary school bearing Ms. Oliver’s name was inaugurated a few years ago.
Ms. Oliver was well-known for skillfully guiding occasionally contentious legislation while serving in the Assembly, most notably a measure supported by the Republican governor Chris Christie that increased contributions from state workers to their pension and health benefits.
Ms. Oliver discussed the challenges female lawmakers in New Jersey faced in an interview with The Star-Ledger from 2010 in which she was quoted. According to the Center for American Women and Politics at Rutgers University, white males still retain the top three leadership positions in the Capitol more than ten years later, and the state, which leans liberal, is ranked 21st in the nation for the proportion of female lawmakers.
According to her, “many men historically have held a view that women can’t lead, that somehow they somehow don’t have the same level of intellect that men have,” she told The Star-Ledger. “I believe those terms could describe any tension if there is any.”
In a speech Tuesday at the New Jersey Institute of Technology in Newark, Senator Bob Menendez noted that Ms. Oliver brought her life experiences to bear “in a powerful way” in every position she occupied.
Mr. Menendez said, “If it was your problem, it was her problem — she took it to heart.”
Ms. Oliver’s friend Loretta Weinberg, who spent nearly three decades in Trenton, departed from the State Senate last year.
She said Ms. Oliver was a master of the political “art form” of cooperating “without always going along.”
She was someone I could always count on, said Ms. Weinberg, 88. For the issues that mattered to her, “she always knew how to advance the power.”
They frequently texted one another. Ms. Weinberg was concerned that her friend’s health had declined after sending Ms. Oliver a message around five days prior that remained unanswered.
Ms. Weinberg claimed to have read through their previous correspondence on Tuesday.
In one correspondence, Ms. Oliver stated, “We’ve got to prove that women are not only at the table but in the room and the fray.”
“She wasn’t ever afraid of the fray,” Ms. Weinberg remarked.