State officials and loved ones reminisce on her life, and mourn her sudden death
Lt. Gov. Sheila Y. Oliver, a distinguished Democratic New Jersey leader and passionate anti-gun violence advocate, died suddenly on Tuesday, Aug. 1. She was 71 years old.
Oliver was the first Black woman to hold statewide elected office in New Jersey, after winning the majority vote alongside Governor Phil Murphy in both 2017 and once again in 2021. Throughout her many years in office, Lt. Gov. Oliver pressed for legislation aimed at unifying communities across the Garden State.
“She was not only a distinguished public servant but also our cherished daughter, sister, aunt, friend, and hero,” the Oliver family said in a public statement. “Sheila Y. Oliver leaves behind a legacy of dedication, service, and inspiration. We will remember her commitment to the people of New Jersey and her tireless efforts to uplift the community.”
There has not yet been an identified cause of death. However, NJ.com reports that she had been suffering from an undisclosed, long-term illness for some time prior to her passing.
Lt. Gov. Oliver was serving as acting governor at the time of her death, while Gov. Murphy was away on vacation in Italy. Her unexpected death pushed Gov. Murphy to end his trip early and return to the state in the wake of her passing.
In an official press release, Gov. Murphy said he and his family are both “saddened” and “distraught” after learning of the passing of Lt. Gov. Oliver.
“When I selected her to be my running mate in 2017, Lieutenant Governor Oliver 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. I knew then that her decades of public service made her the ideal partner for me to lead the State of New Jersey,” Murphy said. “It was the best decision I ever made.”
In his statement, Gov. Murphy went on to praise all of the accomplishments and achievements Lt. Gov. Oliver made, both as his colleague and as the leader of the Department of Community Affairs (NJDCA).
As NJDCA leader, Murphy said Oliver handled some of the most challenging issues facing the state of New Jersey, including affordable housing, homelessness prevention, and city revitalization. And according to Murphy, as a proud Essex County New Jerseyan, Lt. Gov. Oliver not only understood the heart of these issues, but lived in proximity to them.
“As someone who was born and raised in Newark, and who has called East Orange home for more than 40 years, Sheila did not view these issues in the abstract because she lived with them every day of her life,” Murphy said. “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.”
In the wake of her passing, public officials who’ve worked alongside Oliver have stressed how influential her life and career was, especially, as Gov. Murphy said, for young women of color.
“Lieutenant Governor Sheila Oliver embodied the spirit of a warrior, she was a fierce advocate for our communities and led with resilience and compassion,” Senate Majority Leader M. Teresa Ruiz of Essex said. “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.”
Ruiz continued, “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.”
Seven years ago, prior to her appointment of lieutenant governor, the then Assembly Spokesperson Oliver sat down with NJ Spotlight News to discuss her views on the need for diversity in policy making. Some may say her words foreshadowed her legacy.
“People who are in historical ‘minority’ groups are becoming…very vocal and assertive about the diversity that is required in policy making, decision making, at all levels in every sector,” Oliver said. “There’s a long way to go, but I think that…everyone is realizing that the best society is a diverse society.”
Beginning Friday, Aug. 4 through the end of the month, flags will be flown at half-staff in honor of Lieutenant Governor Sheila Oliver. Oliver’s remains were laid in state in the Capitol rotunda on Thursday. A similar honor in her home county’s courthouse will be held on Aug. 11, and a funeral is set for the following day, on Aug. 12, in Newark’s Basilica of the Sacred Heart.