Business community, political world mourn loss of Oliver

Lt. governor, 71, was first women of color to serve as Assembly speaker in trailblazing career in public service

A friend. A colleague. A trailblazer.

Reflections on the life of Lt. Gov. Sheila Oliver poured in following her passing Tuesday.

Oliver, 71, was taken to Cooperman Barnabas Medical Center in Livingston on Monday with an undisclosed medical condition. On Tuesday, her family announced she had passed away.

Oliver, a resident of East Orange for decades, has had a lifelong commitment to underserved communities in public and private life.

When she was first elected to serve the 34th Legislative District in the General Assembly in 2003, it marked the start of a trailblazing career in public service.

In 2010, she became the first African American woman in state history to serve as Assembly speaker, and just the second in the nation’s history to lead a state legislative house. When she was sworn in as lieutenant governor in 2018, she became the highest-ranking person of color in the history of state government in New Jersey.

In addition to being the lieutenant governor, Oliver also served as the commissioner of the Department of Community Affairs.

Reflections on her career — and notes of gratitude — came from all corners of the state.

Christina Renna, the CEO of the Chamber of Commerce Southern New Jersey, who has worked with Oliver for many years, said Oliver embodied everything it means to be a public servant.

“The CCSNJ had the privilege of recently working with Lt. Gov. Oliver on the Atlantic City Restart and Recovery Working Group, which she led, to help Atlantic City recover following the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic,” she said. “Her commitment to helping the Atlantic City community reemerge from the COVID-19 pandemic is a tremendous piece of the legacy she leaves behind.”

Michele Siekerka, the CEO of the New Jersey Business & Industry Association, called it a very sad day for the state. Siekerka noted her strong support for females in the business world.

“Lt. Gov. Oliver was long established as a trailblazer in Trenton before representing Gov. (Phil) Murphy,” she said. “Her dedication to underserved communities throughout her years of public service made a clear and lasting impact.

“Beyond being a loyal public servant to the state, especially in her leadership role with the Department of Community Affairs, Lt. Gov. Oliver was also a strong and inspirational advocate for women business owners over the years. We were always appreciative of her working with NJBIA in our collective pursuit of advancing women’s leadership in our great state.”

John Harmon, the head of the African American Chamber of Commerce of New Jersey, said Oliver always put others first.“She was a gracious woman with tremendous wisdom and intellect who always put her people and constituencies first,” he said. “This is a significant loss for our state and future mentorship of the next generation of leaders.”

Bob Garrett, the CEO of Hackensack Meridian Health, remembered Oliver’s efforts to improve health care outcomes.

“I witnessed firsthand her unwavering dedication and tireless efforts to advance the well-being of communities throughout our great state,” he said. “Lt. Gov. Oliver was a great partner in our efforts to expand access to high-quality health care for all New Jersey residents, a strategy that has benefited countless people.

“She was a strong advocate in the fight against cancer and supported the network’s John Theurer Cancer Center’s efforts to become part of the NCI-designated Georgetown Lombardi Comprehensive Cancer Center. At our historic announcement, she spoke passionately about this designation and finding a cure for cancer. She leaves a rich legacy of fighting for the voiceless and dedicating herself to public service.”

Kim Guadagno, the state’s first lieutenant governor, shared her thoughts on the loss of a close friend.

“Sheila Oliver and I shared a unique bond, as the only lieutenant governors in the state of New Jersey,” she said. “We were friends, we shared insights into the role and a commitment to public service. She was the kind of leader who inspired loyalty, as evidenced by her dedicated staff. This is a huge loss for the state of New Jersey and, for me personally, I lost a valued colleague.”

Craig Coughlin (D-Woodbridge), the current Assembly speaker, reflected on Oliver’s time in that role.

“I have known Sheila since my first day in the Legislature,” he said. “She was my first speaker. I had a front-row seat to see her break the glass ceiling and become New Jersey’s first Black woman speaker, and New Jersey’s first Black lieutenant governor. She was dedicated to serving the people of New Jersey.”

“Sheila was an extraordinary person. She was deeply committed to the people she served, and the state she loved.  We will miss her wisdom, leadership and passion. On a personal level, Tish and I will miss our friend, and I will cherish the 14 years we shared serving New Jersey together.”

U.S. Rep. Mikie Sherrill (D-11th Dist.) called Oliver a changemaker.

“As the first Black woman to serve as Assembly speaker, and the first woman of color to serve in statewide elected office, Sheila time and again made history and was an inspiration to young girls across New Jersey,” she said. “A tough as nails ‘Jersey girl,’ Sheila fought for a more equitable state and to revitalize our cities, improve public schools and to tackle the epidemic of gun violence. Throughout her time in public office, she made her native Essex County proud with her leadership, grace and effectiveness.

“New Jersey is a better place because of Sheila’s service. Her legacy will be an inspiration for generations to come.”

Murphy, in a statement from Italy, said Oliver was a true partner in leadership.

“In the five and a half years that we served together in office, in addition to her responsibilities as lieutenant governor, Sheila led the Department of Community Affairs, handling some of the most challenging issues facing our state, including the revitalization of our cities, affordable housing obligations and homelessness prevention,” he said.

Murphy said her lifelong commitment to those in underserved communities and to the advancement of women in all aspects of society, cannot be overstated.

“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,” he 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.

“Beyond all of that, she was an incredibly genuine and kind person whose friendship and partnership will be irreplaceable.”

When Oliver was admitted to the hospital on Monday, state Senate President Nick Scutari (D-Clark) — in accordance with the state constitution — took over as acting governor. Murphy, of course, will resume his role as governor upon his return to the state.