TRENTON, N.J. — Lt. Gov. Sheila Oliver, the first Black woman elected to statewide office in New Jersey history, was remembered in a memorial service Saturday as a trailblazer who fought to help those in need.
The Rev. Al Sharpton and a host of New Jersey officials addressed mourners Saturday in the packed Cathedral Basilica of the Sacred Heart in Newark. Mourners included Oliver‘s 95-year-old mother and other family members as well as five current and former governors of the state.
Sharpton told mourners that Oliver, also the first Black woman to lead the state Assembly, “never forgot why she was in the room.”
“She never backed down, she never sold out, she never turned her back on the people that made her. She was and is ours and always will be,” he said, drawing thunderous applause and bringing many in the crowd to their feet.
Gov. Phil Murphy praised Oliver, 71, who died Aug. 1 following a hospital stay for an undisclosed medical issue, as a “first-rate fighter for every New Jerseyan.”
“No matter the office, Sheila won whatever victory she could for the forgotten families of our state. And as a changemaker, she was always ahead of the curve,” said Murphy, a Democrat. He thanked Cardinal Joseph Tobin “for sharing this holy ground with us as Sheila lifts up and takes flight as New Jersey’s newest guardian angel.”
Dionne Warwick, a New Jersey native, called her friend “a person who never, ever met a stranger” and who “knew everyone intimately even though they were not intimately known.”
“She loved to laugh - and she loved a good piece of gossip, too,” Warwick said, drawing laughter herself.
Oliver’s U.S. flag-draped casket lay in state Friday near the state seal in the Capitol rotunda, drawing a stream of legislators, former staffers and members of the public to pay their respects.
In addition to serving as Murphy’s top deputy, stepping in while he was out of the state, Oliver also oversaw the Department of Community Affairs, which coordinates state aid to towns and cities and supervises code enforcement. Oliver was in the Assembly, serving as speaker from 2010 to 2014, before becoming Murphy’s running mate in 2017.
Born and raised in Newark, Murphy earned a sociology degree from Pennsylvania’s Lincoln University and had a master’s degree in community organization from Columbia University. She won an Assembly seat in native Essex County in 2003 after serving on the Essex County board of chosen freeholders from 1996 to 1999.
The state constitution requires Murphy to name a successor within 45 days of the vacancy. Until he does so, Senate President Nicholas Scutari will serve as acting governor if Murphy leaves the state or is incapacitated.