New Jersey Lt. Gov. Sheila Oliver, who made history as the first Black woman to serve as speaker of the state Assembly, died Tuesday. She was 71
Oliver served as Democratic Gov. Phil Murphy’s top deputy, stepping in for him while the governor was out of state and also overseeing the Department of Community Affairs, which coordinates state aid to towns and cities and supervises code enforcement.
No cause of death was given, Murphy’s office said in a statement from the Oliver family.
As acting governor, she signed a handful of bills, including a 2021 measure that established a pilot program to overhaul the state’s juvenile justice system in four cities and which aimed to reintegrate young people into their communities.
Murphy’s office announced July 31 that Oliver was hospitalized while filling in for Murphy, who was in Italy on a family vacation. She was admitted to Cooperman Barnabas Medical Center in Livingston with an undisclosed medical condition, the governor’s office said, declining to elaborate.
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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.
In 2021 while unveiling tighter gun legislation alongside Murphy, Oliver’s voice cracked as she lamented the gun violence that disproportionately affected cities in the state. Speaking in her native Newark, Oliver lamented what she suggested was 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."
She was twice elected lieutenant governor alongside Murphy beginning in 2017 and again in 2021. Oliver was just the second person to hold the post of lieutenant governor, a newer state government position that began under previous Gov. Chris Christie.
It was unclear who would immediately succeed her. 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.
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