New Jersey Lt. Gov. Sheila Oliver lies in state in the capitol rotunda

Aug 10, 2023, 6:57 AM | Updated: 10:08 am

TRENTON, N.J. (AP) — New Jersey Gov. Phil Murphy, a host of lawmakers, and numerous mourners poured into the statehouse rotunda Thursday to mourn the late Lt. Gov. Sheila Oliver, whose U.S. flag-draped casket lay in state just over a week since she died after a hospital stay for an undisclosed medical issue.

“God Bless Sheila,” Murphy, a Democrat, said after a New Jersey State Police honor guard placed her remains near the state seal in the rotunda.

A stream of legislators, former staffers and members of the public paid their respects to Oliver, who was the first Black woman elected to statewide office in New Jersey history, as well as the first Black woman to be Assembly speaker. She was 71.

Donna Jackson, 60, from Trenton, carried an umbrella into the statehouse as she prepared pay her respects. Jackson said she met Oliver once at a rally years ago and said she “loved” her. She echoed many of the eulogies about Oliver that cast her as a trailblazer.

“It’s empowering that a Black woman accomplished this much,” Jackson said.

Murphy and first lady Tammy Murphy attended a private visitation with Oliver before the rotunda opens to the public.

Murphy ordered flags to be flown at half-staff for a month and commissioned a portrait of her that he has said would hang in the statehouse.

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 served in the Assembly, where she was elected speaker in 2010. She served in that role until 2014, returning to the back benches when Murphy tapped her to be his running mate in 2017. They won the election that year and were reelected together in 2021.

She began her legislative career in 2003, when she won an Assembly seat in native Essex County. Before that she served on the Essex County board of chosen freeholders from 1996 to 1999.

Born and raised in Newark, she earned a sociology degree from Pennsylvania’s Lincoln University and had a master’s degree in community organization from Columbia University.

Speaking from his office last week, Murphy remembered her as an advocate for affordable housing and for urban communities across the state, including Atlantic City, where she was the de facto final decision maker for some of the city’s most consequential decisions. A law passed under Republican Gov. Chris Christie gave control over much of the city’s major decisions to the state.

As acting governor she signed a bill in 2021 that established a pilot program to overhaul the state’s juvenile justice system in four cities and which aimed to reintegrate young people into their communities. Another measure she signed in 2021 revived a defunct fund for “urban enterprise zones” aimed driving economic development in cities through lower sales tax rates.

After lying in state in the statehouse Thursday, Oliver’s remains will lie in the historic Essex County courthouse Friday. A funeral service where Al Sharpton and the governor will eulogize her is set for Saturday.

The state constitution requires Murphy to name a successor within 45 days of the vacancy. He so far has not nominated anyone.

Senate President Nicholas Scutari will serve as acting governor if Murphy leaves the state or is incapacitated in the interim.

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New Jersey Lt. Gov. Sheila Oliver lies in state in the capitol rotunda