It was 1995 and Sheila Oliver wanted to sound off about the state Legislature.
Oliver, then an East Orange school board member, was sparring with a state lawmaker hosting a meeting in Atlantic City on his pro-charter school bill. She told him — in what the Associated Press at the time said was part of a “spirited exchange” — that poor performance in public schools could be attributed to social problems at some students’ homes, not bad teachers.
“The state Legislature would be better served if they addressed the human services needs of these people instead of laying the blame at the feet of educators,” Oliver said.
She would soon get a chance to decide for herself what the Legislature should address when she joined the Assembly in 2004 and then became its speaker in 2010, seven years before being elected the state’s lieutenant governor.
Her 1995 clash with the lawmaker in Atlantic City illustrates what friends and colleagues of Oliver, who died this week at 71, said is her legacy: She was tough, she was passionate, and she used her influence to help those with less power.
“She has been able to live a life that I think many would envy because she has had such a positive impact on so many people,” said Assemblyman Herb Conaway (D-Burlington).
Assemblywoman Verlina Reynolds-Jackson (D-Mercer) called Oliver “the type of leader that we all aspire to be.”
“I was blessed to be able to be under her tutelage. I hope more women are inspired, when they hear about her passing, to see how they too can put a footprint in public policy,” she said.
The details surrounding Oliver’s death are still unknown. On Monday morning, a statement from Gov. Phil Murphy’s office said Oliver was receiving medical care at a hospital in Livingston and was “unable to discharge the duties” of acting governor (Murphy is vacationing in Italy). Senate President Nicholas Scutari became acting governor.
On Tuesday afternoon, a statement from Oliver’s family announced Oliver’s death, asked for privacy, and said more information would be released at another time. Murphy is expected to return to New Jersey in the next few days.
Oliver’s death is “a real shock to the system,” said Sen. Shirley Turner (D-Mercer), who noted it comes soon after the March death of Ron Rice, a longtime state senator from Oliver’s home of Essex County.
“They were great public servants, and they were always there to support the underdogs and to uplift our community. Sheila, as well as Ron, both of them, were truth-tellers. They spoke truth to power, and they were open about their feelings, and they were honest,” Turner said.
A native of Newark, Oliver started her political career on the East Orange Board of Education in 1994 before becoming an Essex County commissioner for one term starting in 1996. She ran unsuccessfully for the state Senate in 2001, but voters sent her to the Assembly two years later.
Her rise to Assembly speaker came as part of a deal that made then-Sen. Steve Sweeney the Senate president. She held onto the post for four years.
“She was a trailblazer fighting for affordable housing at times when it wasn’t popular, fighting for community policing when it wasn’t popular, fighting for voting rights when it wasn’t popular. She was that person, a fighter from the very beginning. And that’s leadership,” Reynolds-Jackson said.
In 2017, Murphy tapped Oliver to be his lieutenant governor, and the two won an overwhelming victory at the polls that November. In the Murphy administration, Oliver oversaw the state Department of Community Affairs.
“When you need someone to get something done, I’d always say call Sheila because I knew she would get it done and done in the right way,” said Sen. Dick Codey (D-Essex).
Turner said the two became friends when they were in the Legislature together, backing some of the same bills and pushing many of the same issues. Oliver was a great mentor to so many women, particularly women of color, she said.
“We’re all grieving now. My phone’s been ringing constantly, ever since we heard that she had passed, and everybody has been just blown away by it,” Turner said.
Nikita Biryukov and Dana DiFilippo contributed.