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Lt. Governor Sheila Oliver. (Photo: Kevin Sanders for the New Jersey Globe).

Trailblazer: Lt. Governor Sheila Oliver

First Black women to wins statewide election in New Jersey

By David Wildstein, January 17 2022 12:22 am

Sheila Oliver is the first Black  to serve as Lieutenant Governor of New Jersey, the first Black woman to win a statewide election in New Jersey, and was the first Black woman to serve as Speaker of the New Jersey State Assembly.

Oliver began her political career as a two-term member of the East Orange Board of Education, beginning in 1994.  She was elected to the Essex County Board of Freeholders in 1996 and served one term.

In 1997, Oliver became a candidate for mayor of East Orange, but lost the Democratic primary to Robert Bowser by just 52 votes in a field of five candidates.

When the 34th district was redrawn to include East Orange, Montclair and Clifton in 2001, Oliver entered the race to challenge freshman State Sen. Norman Robertson (R-Clifton) in an overwhelmingly Democratic district.  She lost the Democratic primary to Assemblywoman Nia Gill (D-Montclair) by 7,243 votes, a massive 78%-18% margin.

Essex County Democrats decided to drop freshman Assemblyman Willis Edwards (D-East Orange), who had replaced Gill, from their ticket in 2003 and replace him with Oliver.  She was the top vote-getter in the Democratic primary, defeating Helyn Baltimore by 1,469 votes.

Following the retirement of Assembly Speaker Joseph Roberts (D-Camden) after the 2009 election, Oliver forged a coalition with South Jersey to edge out Majority Leader Joseph Cryan (D-Union) to become the next Speaker.  She held that post until a new coalition backed by South Jersey replaced her with Vincent Prieto (D-Secaucus) four years later.

Oliver sought the Democratic nomination for U.S. Senate in a special 2013 Democratic primary following the death of Frank Lautenberg.  She finished fourth, losing to Newark Mayor Cory Booker by 201,280 votes.  As the sitting Assembly Speaker, she won just 4% of the statewide vote.

In 2017, Democratic gubernatorial candidate Phil Murphy selected Oliver as his running mate.  Murphy and Oliver defeated Republicans Kim Guadagno and Carlos Rendo by 303,527 votes, 56%-42%.  Murphy and Oliver were re-elected to second terms in 2021.

As Lt. Governor, Oliver also serves as Commissioner of Community Affairs.

This story was first published on January 21, 2019.

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