Rest in Peace, Lieutenant Governor Sheila Oliver – and Thank You

Former Speaker from East Orange

Lieutenant Governor Sheila Oliver of Essex County, of East Orange, of Newark’s South Ward, of New Jersey, died today, and with her a certain dignity and grace and literacy barely prized in this gritty state – but an undeniable toughness that won out against tough odds.

Lieutenant Governor Oliver, 71, a former speaker of the General Assembly, was the kind of elected official who would quote John Steinbeck to a crowd of rowdies in Atlantic City.

Not to sound erudite.

But to sound a true commitment to working class priorities.

She was the poised public face of New Jersey when the COVID-19 pandemic struck the heart of the Garden State.

She was the emblem of North Jersey, placed in the chair of power to counterweight the rising South when Governor Chris Christie assumed the oath of office. She tried to work with Christie and then-Senate President Steve Sweeney, until they tried to work around her in defiance of Ms. Oliver’s constituency priorities.

Sheila Oliver was always going to prioritize that person out there who had to ride the bus to work.

That’s why she refused to get behind charter schools.

She refused to give up on public education, and bucked all designs that would undermine public access for all.

It put her at odds with the bosses who negotiated the deal to make her speaker.

Her time on that throne over with the shifting of power, she went out on her shield with a kamikaze, anti-establishment campaign for the U.S. Senate. “Somebody stop her.” That was an actual overhead phone conversation. They couldn’t stop her. And she had the last laugh, shouldering the Essex County power center for Phil Murphy, when Murphy needed Essex represented on the ticket in 2017, in defiance of the same smoldering brotherhood that needed her on charter schools when she wouldn’t budge.

But her time as LG proved more – far more – than merely the representation of Essex, as big a boon as that was in the statewide political scheme; and finally as great an impact as her defensive prowess when it came to public education.

She stepped up.

Let that never be forgotten.

When COVID hit.

Phil Murphy was in the hospital.

Sheila Oliver stood up for New Jersey.


With kindness.

And character.



Strong faith.

And in the public interest.

And yes, with a flair for the language that comes not from books alone, but from the living of the wisdom of the best books, on the streets of Sheila Oliver’s home, otherwise known as New Jersey, a version called Newark, and Essex County.

She fought a long and pitched battle against cancer.

Her suffering is over.

A legacy stands.

Proven policy wonk, impassioned public speaker and social worker by trade, Ms. Oliver ran for lieutenant governor on the Democratic ticket with gubernatorial candidate Phil Murphy, having first assumed her seat in the General Assembly in 2004, and serving as speaker from 2010 to 2014.

The choice by Murphy reflected the candidate’s decision to go with a seasoned veteran from Democratic Party voter-rich Essex County who had already run for statewide office as a 2013 U.S. Senate prospect.

The assemblywoman – an African American who grew up in the South Ward of Newark – beat Assemblywoman Marlene Caride (D-36), Assemblywoman Shavonda Sumter (D-35), and others, for the position on the Murphy ticket.

The choice was also a victory for Essex County Democratic Chairman Leroy Jones, whose endorsement of Murphy proved a critical part of the candidate’s evolving alliance, who pushed hard for Ms. Oliver. Jones worked the phones avidly for Ms. Oliver. Among all 21 New Jersey counties, Essex produced the highest vote totals for Murphy in the Democratic Primary (35,779), compared to Hudson (32,084) and Bergen (21,236).

Her political history showed strong party organizational roots, with a relationship extending back to her childhood with the Payne family, and strongly developed ties to Essex County Executive Joe DiVincenzo and county government, but additionally for years she stood out as a locally revered leader in East Orange with a strong and independent voice. Her 2013 run for senate, for example, flew in the face of the county party organization, as did her 2014 endorsement of Newark Mayor Ras Baraka.

Throughout the process for LG, a question lingered: would Murphy be ready to get saddled with someone who could potentially go off the reservation.

It proved a good fit.


From South Ward Councilman Pat Council:


“The South Ward is saddened by the loss of New Jersey Lt. Governor Sheila Oliver. We send our condolences to her family and staff, as well as Governor Murphy and those who worked closely with her. Lt. Governor Oliver, a proud graduate of Weequahic High School, fought courageously until the end. Her impact will certainly be remembered. This is a major loss for the South Ward and the State of New Jersey. We send an abundance of thoughts and prayers to her family.”

From Essex County Clerk Chris Durkin:

“Today is a sad day for Essex County and New Jersey.  Shiela Oliver was a trailblazer who led


with incomparable courage, empathy, and intellect. I had the honor of working with Shiela while I was Essex County’s Director of Human Resources and she was the Director of Essex County’s Citizen Services. Shiela was a fierce advocate for all people in need. Her grace at all times made her an inspiration to the thousands of people she touched and her legacy will live on through her powerful fight for fairness and equality.”


Said former Governor Dick Codey of Essex County:

“Sheila Oliver was the embodiment of the New Jersey version of the American Dream and paved the way for future generations throughout the course of her history-making career. Her and I were great friends and were once teammates, having run off the line in a tightly contested race in the 1990s with LeRoy Jones. She always made us proud. My family and I send our deepest condolences to Sheila and her family.”

Senate Majority Leader M. Teresa Ruiz of Essex:

“Today, we bid farewell to a remarkable woman who was a trailblazer in this state, a friend to so


many, but to me, family. Lieutenant Governor Sheila Oliver embodied the spirit of a warrior, she was a fierce advocate for our communities and led with resilience and compassion. She was not only a fearless fighter for the voiceless, but she was also a pioneer who shattered glass ceilings and opened doors for so many women and especially women of color. Born and raised in Newark, she carried the essence of her diverse upbringing throughout her distinguished career in public service.

“Sheila Oliver’s legacy will forever be etched in New Jersey’s history as the first woman of color to hold a statewide elected office. Her passion for social justice, women’s equality, and education was unwavering, and she used her position to advocate for a fairer and more equitable society. As Commissioner of the Department of Community Affairs, she championed initiatives to provide fair and affordable housing, uplift distressed communities, and prevent homelessness.

“Her impact extended beyond legislation; she touched the lives of countless individuals through mentorship and friendship. Her dedication to public service was rooted in the belief that government should work for the people, and she lived by that principle every day.

“Today, we mourn the loss of a true shero, advocate, and friend. Let us honor her memory by continuing the work she started, striving for a better, more just society for all New Jersey residents. Lieutenant Governor Sheila Oliver, your light will forever shine in our hearts and we pray that you understood the profound impact your service has had to this State. Sammy, Silver and I are forever in your debt and we will profoundly miss you. Rest in power my sister.”

From Newark Mayor Ras Baraka:


“Newark is in mourning. We’ve lost a favorite daughter, cherished and revered. Long before she was Lieutenant Governor, Sheila Oliver mentored so many in our city – with wisdom, compassion, intelligence, and a fierce dedication to diversity, equality, equity, and justice.

“She loved us and we loved her back.

“Sheila was probably the most knowledgeable elected official in the entire state and an authoritative historian in her own right. Her biography is filled with many ‘firsts’ as a Black woman, but underlying her many accomplishments will always be the legacy and inspiration she leaves us with: to broaden our vision to see greater possibilities, to expand our embrace to include those on the fringes, and to deepen our commitment to democracy and liberty for all.

“We send our deepest condolences to her family and loved ones.”


And said Democratic State Party Chairman (and Essex County Democratic Chair) LeRoy Jones:

“I am absolutely heartbroken by the passing of one of New Jersey’s most accomplished and devoted public servants, an exemplary role model for Black women and girls throughout our state, and my very dear friend and fellow East Orange resident, Lt. Governor Sheila Oliver.

“Throughout her many years in elected office and government service, Sheila Oliver was a trailblazer and a true icon for representation, diversity and progress. As our state’s first Black woman to serve as Assembly Speaker and as Lt. Governor, Sheila leaves behind a legacy of breaking barriers that will never be forgotten.

“On behalf of the entire New Jersey Democratic State Committee, my wife Jackie and I offer our heartfelt condolences to Lt. Governor Oliver’s family and friends during this time of mourning, as well as to the many people she inspired throughout our state with the commitment she demonstrated to social justice, equality and making sure that working families were given the support they need to thrive. Rest in Peace Lt. Governor Sheila Oliver.”

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5 responses to “Rest in Peace, Lieutenant Governor Sheila Oliver – and Thank You”

  1. Earnest coursey Senior Atlantic county commissioner district 1 our prayers and thoughts go out today to the Oliver family Atlantic County Atlantic City has truly lost a trailblazer one who stood up for the residence of Atlantic City. When others were turning the backs on the residence Sheila Oliver stood against the state takeover of Atlantic City. we will be ever indebted to Sheila Oliver a role model for African-American women the first black lieutenant governor, the first speaker of the general assembly in the list goes on and on, she will live beyond the grave may she find rest beyond the River we have lost a dear friend

  2. God bless you and thank you for being a role model for many women of color who looked up to you.

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