New Jersey Lt. Gov. Sheila Oliver, who made history as the first Black woman to hold statewide-elected office in the Garden State, has died, her family said. She was 71.
A cause of death was not immediately disclosed.
“She was not only a distinguished public servant but also our cherished daughter, sister, aunt, friend, and hero,” the Oliver family said in a statement on Tuesday. “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.”
On Monday, New Jersey Gov. Phil Murphy’s office said Oliver was receiving medical care and was unable to serve as acting governor while he was on vacation. New Jersey State Senate President Nicholas Scutari assumed the duties of acting governor as of Monday morning, Murphy’s office said.
Oliver, a Democrat who had served as New Jersey’s lieutenant governor since January 2018, was the first woman of color to serve in a statewide elected office in the history of New Jersey, according to her official government biography. She was also the first Black woman to serve as speaker of the state general assembly, to which she was first elected in 2003.
Speaking at a Columbia University commencement in 2019, Oliver said she never set out to be a politician.
“A friend (who) was running for state Senate needed to round out his ticket, and he asked me to run on his ticket with him. Now I was just, you know, window dressing to help with the campaign. The night of the election, he lost and I won. And that began my career as a state legislator,” she recalled. “When I came to the legislature in ’04, the speaker at the time asked me what I wanted to specialize in. He said everyone tends to take up an area of specialization. I responded to the speaker, ‘I don’t want to specialize in one thing. I want to be involved in everything in the state legislature.’ And lo and behold, six years later, I became the speaker of the New Jersey General Assembly.”
Oliver attended Lincoln University for her undergraduate degree and obtained a Master of Science Degree in Community Organization, Planning and Administration from Columbia University, according to her biography.
Murphy said he and his family are “incredibly saddened and distraught” to learn of Oliver’s passing.
“When I selected her to be my running mate in 2017, Lieutenant Governor Oliver was already a trailblazer in every sense of the word,” Murphy said in a statement. “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. It was the best decision I ever made.”
This story has been updated with additional details and reaction.