Democratic gubernatorial candidate Phil Murphy taps Newark native Sheila Oliver as running mate

Assemblywoman Sheila Oliver was announced today as Democratic gubernatorial candidate Phil Murphy's running mate. Credits: Mark J. Bonamo
The Rev. Ronald Slaughter, pastor of St. James AME, speaks with Assemblywoman Sheila Oliver, who was tapped by Democratic gubernatorial candidate Phil Murphy as his running mate. Credits: Mark J. Bonamo

On the day she was officially named the Democratic lieutenant gubernatorial candidate, Assemblywoman Sheila Oliver's mind went back to Bock Avenue, the one-block street in Newark's South Ward where she grew up and where her political awakening began. 

"It was a very multicultural and multiethnic neighborhood when I grew up there," said Oliver, 65, a 13-year state Legislature veteran who served as the first African-American female speaker of the state General Assembly from 2010 to 2014.

"My family lived down the block from (the late U.S. Rep.) Donald M. Payne, and he was the president of our block association," she said. "He told me to tell my dad to cut his hedges. People cared about our block. We had politicians, business owners, an Orthodox rabbi and the national president of the United Negro College Fund living on our street. Leadership was all around me."

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New Jersey's Democratic Party leadership was all around her again Wednesday as Democratic gubernatorial nominee Phil Murphy announced he was adding her to his ticket.

"Sheila Oliver has stood up for everything that Chris Christie and Kim Guadagno have stood against," said Murphy to a sweltering crowd of more than 100 people outside his campaign headquarters in downtown Newark.

Murphy, a retired Goldman Sachs executive and former U.S. Ambassador to Germany, lauded Oliver's policy positions in favor of raising the minimum wage, prioritizing property tax relief for the middle class and investing in public schools as he slammed the current Republican governor and lieutenant governor, now the GOP nominee to replace Christie.

"She's going to be an active, contributing member of our administration," Murphy said. "I'm incredibly honored to have her by my side." 

Oliver drew contrasts between the type of lieutenant governor she would be compared to Guadagno, who was the state's first.

"Unlike Kim Guadagno, I will spend every minute of my time working to make this state better for women, for children, for families and for every single constituent group up and down the state," Oliver said. 

"I have never forgot who elected me, or whose interests I serve," she said. "The Christie-Guadagno administration has done everything in their power to protect those at the top of the economic ladder, and have done very, very little to help working class people in this state. It's an administration that would try to reinstate tax fairness to millionaires, but no tax fairness to working class people. We must reject this." 

Oliver was born in Newark and graduated from the city's Chancellor Avenue School and Weequahic High School before earning degrees from Lincoln University, a historically black college, and Columbia University. 

Her more than two decades in government included membership on the school board in East Orange, her adopted hometown, as well as the Essex County Freeholder Board and work as a county administrator. She was elected to the Assembly in 2003 for the 34th Legislative District, representing the Essex County municipalities of East Orange, Montclair, Orange as well as the Passaic County of Clifton.

In 2013, Oliver made a quixotic run for U.S. Senate, placing fourth in a four-way Democratic primary, which was won by Newark Mayor Cory Booker, now New Jersey's junior senator.

The ballot alliance between Murphy and Oliver represents the joining of two separate socioeconomic subsets in New Jersey that also reflect a statewide and nationwide divide in the Democratic Party - one largely white and suburban and the other mostly people of color and urban. 

Murphy, a Monmouth County resident who grew up in an Irish-American, working-class family from outside of Boston, noted that crossing this divide is an important reason why he picked Oliver. 

"We don't want to just say nice things about leadership that's inclusive in government - we want to show that in our actions," Murphy told TAPinto Newark. "We may have come to this from different perspectives and different backgrounds, but we share that same belief that we rise and fall as one state, and frankly as one country."

Several Essex County politicians who watched Oliver work her way up in politics described her journey.

"She's got a strong personality, and you want that kind of person around you to tell you how they feel," said Essex County Executive Joseph DiVincenzo, Jr. "She brings in not only urban votes to the ticket. Whether she's in Newark or Millburn, she's well respected and she knows the issues. She's going to take that respect statewide." 

Chris James, the New Jersey Democratic State Committee executive director and East Orange city councilman who served as Oliver's chief of staff, said he learned balance and compromise from Oliver.

"You have to work with everyone to move things forward," James said. "She knows how to do this in Trenton. But I've also seen her fight to make sure that the poorest people in our state get what they need to survive. This is a continuation of what she's already done." 

Essex County Freeholder Brendan Gill, Murphy's campaign manager and chair of the Montclair Democrats, said what drove Murphy's decision to pick Oliver is her qualifications.

"It's ultimately [Murphy's] choice as to what her role should be, but it will definitely be a collaborative process figuring out what that role is," Gill said. "She'll be part of an agenda focused on economic fairness, which is not just exclusive to cities." 

After getting the official nominee nod from Murphy, Oliver went to a noontime service at St. James AME Church on Newark's Martin Luther King Jr. Blvd., where the church's pastor, the Rev. Ronald L. Slaughter, called on those in the pews to support the Murphy-Oliver ticket.

At the same time, Slaughter called out those who he believed are trying to incorrectly take credit for Oliver being selected to be on the ticket.

"I'm pleased to say, after a personal conversation with him, that Phil Murphy chose Sheila Oliver, not the establishment," Slaughter told TAPinto Newark. "I said to him that he did not have to succumb to the machine to get [the Democratic gubernatorial nomination], and he should not have to succumb to the machine in order to chose his running mate. Her selection was not done by Joe DiVincenzo or [Essex County Democratic Chairman] Leroy Jones Jr., and they don't choose for the whole community. Sheila is experienced, but she has bucked the establishment herself. That makes her a good candidate who can help Murphy."

Jones shrugged at Slaughter's assertions, focusing instead on Oliver's assets to the Murphy ticket.

"This wasn't anything remotely close to a backroom deal," Jones said. "Sheila is an institution inside the institution of the Legislature. She knows its inner workings. It's going to be a learning process for Phil Murphy as governor, and she can help him navigate through all the nooks and crannies of Trenton. She's a true policy wonk, and she's going to play that role, too." 

Oliver's potential role as the first African-American lieutenant governor, one step away from the top spot in Trenton, was foreseen by somebody else from back on Bock Avenue. 

"Every summer when she was a little girl, she would get an award from the library because she read the most books, but she's got a tough side, too," said Jennie Oliver, the Assemblywoman's mother. "I'll take a little credit for the tough side."

That same drive forward fuels Oliver this summer for a final election test in the fall. She said she is going to be thinking about all of the other black women from Newark's South Ward who are trying to power forward in their own lives.

"We have to change the trajectory in Trenton and create a more representative government in Trenton. Take a look at some of the boards in the state, like the Port Authority. You go to a board meeting, you see mostly white men around the table," Oliver said. "Those guys don't take the PATH train. They don't take the bus. I'm a voice for people who don't have a voice. That's been the labor of my entire life."

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