Dana DiFilippo, New Jersey Monitor
New Jersey Lt. Gov. Sheila Y. Oliver, who made history as the first Black woman to lead the state Assembly, has died, her family announced Tuesday.
Oliver, 71, has been hospitalized since at least Monday. Her family did not disclose her cause of death or other details.
“She was not only a distinguished public servant but also our cherished daughter, sister, aunt, friend, and hero,” her family said in a 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.”
Senate President Nicholas Scutari has been serving as acting governor since Monday morning, with Gov. Phil Murphy and his family in Italy on a personal vacation since the weekend.
Assembly Speaker Craig Coughlin at an event in Princeton called Oliver “something special,” adding he had a front-row seat to watch her “break ceilings throughout her incredible career.”
“Nobody cared more for the people she served, for the state she loved, and for uplifting both of those than Sheila. She is a loss to all of us who knew her, all of us who had the privilege to serve with her, and to the state of New Jersey, who loses a truly great leader,” he said.
Oliver was a former New Jersey Assemblywoman who became the state’s second lieutenant governor in 2018.
She previously served on the East Orange school board and as an Essex County commissioner, when they were called freeholders. She was elected in 2003 to represent the 34th District in the Assembly, and in 2020, she became the Assembly speaker.
Oliver’s family asked for privacy and said they would release further details about her death and funeral arrangements “in due course.”
“Until then, we appreciate your understanding and support,” they wrote. “May her memory be a source of comfort and strength to all who knew her.”
Gov. Phil Murphy said in a statement that he and his family are “incredibly saddened and distraught” about Oliver’s death. He called Oliver “an incredibly genuine and kind person whose friendship and partnership will be irreplaceable” and asked for thoughts and prayers for her family and loved ones.
“When I selected her to be my running mate in 2017, Lt. Gov. Oliver was already a trailblazer in every sense of the word,” Murphy said. “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.”
Oliver led the state Department of Community Affairs, overseeing the state’s affordable housing obligations, homelessness prevention, and revitalization of cities.
“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.”
The state constitution gives the governor 45 days to appoint a new lieutenant governor.
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