“When you were in the presence of the late New Jersey Lt. Governor, Sheila Oliver, you were seen,” says long-time friend and colleague, Jeannine Frisby LaRue. “She would make you feel like you were the only one in the room.”
That seems like an amazing feat for Oliver, a little girl who was born and raised in Newark. She graduated from Weequahic High School in 1970, graduated cum laude with a B.A. in sociology from Lincoln University in 1974, and received an MSW from Columbia University in community organization, planning and administration in 1976. She worked as the executive director of The Leaguers, Inc., a northern New Jersey non-profit social services organization, and went on to become Chair of the Freeholder Board, Speaker of the Assembly, Commissioner of the Department of Community Affairs, Lt. Governor and, at the time of her death, Acting Governor of the State of New Jersey.
Ms. LaRue wasn’t the only one to get that “only one in the room” vibe from Lt. Governor Oliver. Others here at the shore who knew her, remember her ability to really connect with a person. Neptune Township resident, Gail Oliver, met her in 2008 when then-President Barack Obama was running for reelection and then Speaker Oliver was part of a contingent of state and local politicians who attended a rally at the Westside Community Center. When Gail was able to get a few minutes with Speaker Oliver, she pointed out their mutual last name and wondered if they might be cousins.
The two Oliver women had a laugh about it, but they weren’t able to come up with a quick answer. Alas, the answer never materialized and to this day Gail Oliver doesn’t know if she developed a connection with a distant cousin or a woman who became a friend. When the Lt. Governor was honored by a local organization at Bell Works in Holmdel, it was Gail Oliver who presented her with flowers. She is happy to have the bond they developed, because that is not about blood. It is about the woman who Sheila Oliver was.
Kim Guadagno, Executive Director of the Mercy Center, in Asbury Park, shared a very special relationship with the late Lieutenant Governor. “She was the kind of leader who inspired loyalty as evidenced by her dedicated staff,” Guadagno said. “Sheila Oliver and I shared a unique bond as the only Lt. Governors in the State of New Jersey.” Guadagno and Oliver were more than colleagues, “We were friends,” Guadagno said. “We shared insights into the role and a commitment to public service.” Guadagno went on to say that Oliver was a well-respected public servant. “Her tenure as Assembly Speaker overlapped with my time as Lt. Governor. Sheila and I shared a unique bond. This is a huge loss for the state of New Jersey and for me personally. I lost a valued colleague.”
Jeannine Frisby LaRue, long-time lobbyist who served as Deputy Chief of Staff for Governor Jon Corzine, spoke at Lt. Governor Oliver’s funeral and praised the humility of her late friend.
“I admired Sheila’s common touch, how humbled she remained as Lt. Governor. She wasn’t impressed by the title for title’s sake. She believed she could and did impact more lives of the voiceless across our great state. It was never about her,” Ms. LaRue said.
Asbury Park’s Felicia Simmons knew that about Sheila Oliver too. She met the then Speaker in 2018. Ms. Simmons received an award from the National Action Network that night. Madam Speaker was the keynote for the evening. Later on, Ms. Simmons remembers spending time talking about not only state politics but going “deep” about Asbury Park. She remembers hearing Speaker Oliver talking about the Westside and the late Assemblyman Tommy Smith and the Westside Community Center.
Ms. Simmons remained in touch with Oliver as she rose through the ranks in State government, and she is still grateful and humbled at what she learned over time. Perhaps the most important thing was that you always have to be ready. “When she was at the table, she was always there for us, Black people and particularly Black women.” Ms. Simmons says. “Sheila knew about many young women and pushed them forward. She came and created a place for herself so she could help move someone else. But what are we gonna do now? Who’s gonna look out for us?” she laments.
One of the last things that the Lt. Governor did for this part of Monmouth County was to sign off on a Department of Community Affairs Grant of $156,672 in July, for Red Bank’s Lunch Break, a non-profit organization that offers “food, clothing, life skills and fellowship” to those in need. Executive Director, Gwen Love, never met Lt. Governor Oliver, and is saddened by her passing.
“Lunch Break feels very blessed and honored that with the help of this grant,” says Ms. Love. “We have the opportunity to expand our services to those seeking permanent housing solutions,” The purpose of the DASH grant is to help provide funds to organizations, who support individuals and families waiting for a housing choice voucher.
Sheila Oliver was the speaker of the New Jersey General Assembly from January 12, 2010 to January 14, 2014. She was the first Black woman to serve as speaker of the General Assembly and the second Black woman in the history of the United States to lead a state legislative body. She ran for U.S. Senate in the 2013 special election, finishing fourth in a Democratic primary that was won by Cory Booker. She was the first Black woman to serve as Lieutenant (Lt.) Governor of New Jersey and the first woman of color elected to statewide office in New Jersey. During her tenure as Lt. Governor, Oliver also served as the Commissioner of the New Jersey Department of Community Affairs.
The Speaker of the Assembly is the highest-ranking officer of the New Jersey General Assembly, the lower house of the New Jersey Legislature. The Speaker is elected by the members of the Assembly at the beginning of each two-year legislative session. The Speaker presides over the Assembly sessions, appoints committee chairs and members, sets the agenda and rules for the Assembly, and serves as the leader of the majority party.
Speaker Oliver was a progressive champion and an ideal public servant who ushered in several key legislation during her tenure in the NJ legislature. Some of the notable bills that she sponsored or supported include:
- A marriage equality law that would have allowed same-sex couples to marry in New Jersey. The bill passed both houses of the legislature in 2012 but was vetoed by Governor Christie. The law was later enacted by a court ruling in 2013.
- An increase in the minimum wage from $7.25 to $8.25 per hour, with annual adjustments based on the Consumer Price Index. The bill was also vetoed by Governor Christie but was approved by the voters as a constitutional amendment in 2013.
- A restoration of funding for Planned Parenthood and other family planning services that were cut by Governor Christie. The bill was repeatedly vetoed by Governor Christie but was finally signed into law by Governor Murphy in 2018.
- A wage theft protection act that would have imposed penalties on employers who fail to pay their workers the wages they are owed. The bill passed the Assembly in 2013 but stalled in the Senate. It was later reintroduced and signed into law by Governor Murphy in 2019.
- A deaf student’s bill of rights that established standards and guidelines for the education of deaf and hard-of-hearing students in New Jersey. The bill also created a working group on deaf education to monitor and evaluate the implementation of the law. The bill was signed into law by Acting Governor Oliver herself in 2019.
Yes, the Lt. Governor has left the building and, as Ms. LaRue said in her closing remarks at the funeral, “She has been promoted to a higher calling, an ancestor, an angel. May she rest in peace and power.”