Watch CBS News

Sheila Oliver, New Jersey's Lieutenant Governor, dies at 71

Sheila Oliver was an inspiration to young Black women, relative says
Sheila Oliver was an inspiration to young Black women, relative says 03:12

TRENTON, N.J. (CBS) -- New Jersey's Lieutenant Governor, Sheila Oliver, died at age 71, her family and Gov. Phil Murphy announced Tuesday.

Oliver had been filling in as acting governor while Murphy was out of the state on a family vacation in Italy. Then on Monday, she was taken to a hospital for an undisclosed medical issue.

Oliver made history in New Jersey. She was the first Black woman to be Speaker of the New Jersey General Assembly and only the second Black woman to lead any state legislature.

Under the state constitution, Democratic Senate President Nicholas Scutari is set to serve as acting governor.

ALSO SEE: What happens next with New Jersey Lt. Governor vacancy?

After years of representing North Jersey communities, including Newark in the assembly, Murphy tapped Oliver to be his running mate.

"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. "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."

The Oliver family said in a statement that that Oliver was "not only a distinguished public servant but also our cherished daughter, sister, aunt, friend and hero."

"Sheila Y. Oliver leaves behind a legacy of dedication, service, and inspiration," the family statement said. "We will remember her commitment to the people of New Jersey and her tireless efforts to uplift the community."

Assembly Majority Leader Louis Greenwald, whose district includes parts of Camden County and Maple Shade in Burlington County, remembered Oliver as a "compassionate and accomplished legislator."

ALSO SEE: NJ state officials share heartfelt tributes in memory of Lt. Governor Sheila Oliver

"Sheila will be remembered as a pioneer in public service paving the way for so many women, but most of all I will remember her for the thoughtful compassion with which she approached the legislative process," Greenwald said in a statement.

Attorney General Matt Platkin called Oliver "brilliant" and "fearless" in a statement.

"She never forgot what this work was all about: the people. And she always believed things could get better – better for an individual, better for a community, better for a state," Platkin said, closing with these words: "The world needs more Sheila Olivers. May she rest in peace."

Lieutenant Governor Sheila Oliver of New Jersey, in a file photo from 2018
FILE - New Jersey Lt. Gov. Sheila Oliver speaks during a news conference on Aug. 1, 2018, in Newark, N.J.  Julio Cortez / AP

A relative of Oliver, Tina Jordan, shared the personal side to the Lt. Gov. with CBS News Philadelphia. 

"When my son would come over there, she would just scoop him up and I didn't have anything to do with him when she got a hold of him, it was just nothing for me to do but sit back," Jordan said. 

Jordan says Oliver was an inspiration to young Black women like herself.

"We always thought of Sheila as a celebrity," Jordan said. "She had a Jaguar, which no Black person we knew had a Jaguar, but she was always so down to earth like i couldn't believe it."

Assemblyman Paul Moriarty served with Oliver when she served as New Jersey's first Black female assembly speaker. He remembers the last text she sent him.

"The text she had sent to me was a little heart emoji, and she said 'Despite it all, I continue to smile. My motto: live, love, laugh.' And that was Sheila Oliver, and that's how I'll remember her," Moriarty said. 

Jordan says she was particularly an inspiration to her family, including her brother Chucky.

"He called me yesterday in tears and he said, 'Tina, Sheila didn't open her eyes, but I said bye Sheila and she opened up her eyes and said bye Chucky, and I love you, and he was shaken thinking that, that would be the last words he would hear from his sister."

Gov. Murphy to return to N.J. after Oliver's death

Murphy is planning to cut his vacation short and come back to New Jersey after Oliver's death, two people familiar with the governor's plans tell CBS News' Ed O'Keefe.

It's not clear when he will return.

View CBS News In
CBS News App Open
Chrome Safari Continue
Be the first to know
Get browser notifications for breaking news, live events, and exclusive reporting.