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Sheila Oliver, New Jersey’s Trailblazing Lieutenant Governor, Has Died

Sheila Y. Oliver, New Jersey’s lieutenant governor and the first Black woman to hold statewide elected office there, died on Tuesday after being rushed to the hospital the day before. She was 71.

Ms. Oliver, a Democrat and longtime resident of East Orange, N.J., was elected lieutenant governor in 2017 as Gov. Philip D. Murphy’s running mate after serving for more than 15 years in the Legislature. In 2010, she became the first Black woman to lead the predominantly male State Assembly.

Ms. Oliver had been serving as acting governor of New Jersey since Mr. Murphy and his family left over the weekend for a vacation in Italy, where they own a home.

But she was taken to the hospital on Monday morning, according to state officials who provided no additional details; leadership responsibilities then shifted to the Senate president, Nick Scutari, as dictated by the State Constitution. Mr. Murphy will return to New Jersey within the next few days, a spokesman said.

Ms. Oliver’s family, in a statement released on Tuesday, said that she would be remembered for her “tireless efforts to uplift the community.” They did not provide a cause of death.

“We will remember her commitment to the people of New Jersey,” they said. “May her memory be a source of comfort and strength to all who knew her.”

A chorus of condolences soon flooded in.

“When I selected her to be my running mate in 2017, Lieutenant Governor Oliver was already a trailblazer in every sense of the word,” Mr. Murphy said in a statement.

“I knew then that her decades of public service made her the ideal partner for me,” he added. “It was the best decision I ever made.”

Ms. Oliver was active in the state chapter of Emerge America, a national organization that recruits and trains Democratic women to run for office, said Britnee N. Timberlake, a former program participant who took Ms. Oliver’s seat in the Assembly in 2018.

“She put her money where her mouth was,” Ms. Timberlake said in an interview.

Even after becoming lieutenant governor, Ms. Oliver remained a key mentor, she said.

“When you’re working for a shift in power, it often requires a fight,” said Ms. Timberlake, who in November will compete for a seat in the State Senate. “She was always there for me. Offering guidance. Helping with strategy. She would stand in the gap and serve as a shield if she needed to at times.

“I loved her,” she said.

Ms. Oliver had been seen as a potential successor to Mr. Murphy, a second-term Democrat barred by term limits from immediately running for re-election. But for months those close to her were aware that she was facing health problems, and she had appeared infrequently in public.

In February, at a memorial service for Eunice K. Dwumfour, 30, a slain councilwoman who was the first Black person elected in Sayreville, N.J., Ms. Oliver delivered an impassioned eulogy, recounting how she had navigated a similarly untrodden political path, frequently alone.

“Don’t forget what she packed into those 30 years,” Ms. Oliver urged the crowd.

Ms. Oliver was born in Newark and often spoke of her formative years as a student in the public schools, where her eyes were opened to “societal injustices and inequities.” She graduated with honors from Lincoln University, a historically Black college in Pennsylvania, an accomplishment that a former aide said made her especially proud.

“She was really fearless,” said Gina Trish, Ms. Oliver’s former communications director in Trenton. “She would just preach to women — that they had to keep this alligator hide, that politics wasn’t for the faint of heart, especially in New Jersey.”

Before heading to Trenton, she was elected to the governing board of Essex County, N.J., and she also served on the school board in East Orange. In 1997, she entered the race for mayor of East Orange, but lost a Democratic primary by 51 votes.

An elementary school named for Ms. Oliver opened several years ago in East Orange, where her mother, who is in her 90s, still lives.

While in the Assembly, Ms. Oliver was known to capably steer sometimes controversial legislation, most notably a bill backed by the Republican governor, Chris Christie, that required state employees to pay more toward their pensions and health benefits.

In a 2010 interview with The Star-Ledger, Ms. Oliver described the difficulty female politicians faced in New Jersey. More than a decade later, white men hold the three top leadership spots in the Capitol, and the liberal-leaning state ranks 21st in the country for its percentage of female lawmakers, according to the Center for American Women and Politics at Rutgers University.

“Many men historically have held a view that women don’t have the ability to lead, that women somehow don’t have the same level of intellect that men have,” she told The Star-Ledger. “If there is any tension, I think the tension could be described in those terms.”

Senator Bob Menendez, appearing at the New Jersey Institute of Technology in Newark, said Tuesday that Ms. Oliver brought her life experiences to bear “in a powerful way” in each role she held.

“If it was your problem, it was her problem — she took it to heart,” Mr. Menendez said.

Loretta Weinberg, a friend of Ms. Oliver, retired last year from the State Senate after nearly three decades in Trenton.

She said Ms. Oliver had mastered the political “art form” of getting along “without always going along.”

“I could always depend on her,” Ms. Weinberg, 88, said. “She always knew how to move the power forward for the things that were important to her.”

The two shared frequent texts. Her last message to Ms. Oliver, sent about five days ago, went unanswered, which left Ms. Weinberg worried that her friend’s health had deteriorated.

On Tuesday, Ms. Weinberg said she scrolled back through their exchanges.

“We’ve got to prove that women are not only at the table,” Ms. Oliver wrote in one text, “but in the room, and in the fray.”

“She wasn’t ever afraid of the fray,” Ms. Weinberg said.

Elise Young contributed reporting.

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