Lincoln News

Lion - A Lincoln Lion Becomes Lieutenant Governor

lieutenant-350w.jpgSheila Y. Oliver ’74 Sworn In as the First African American Female Lieutenant Governor of New Jersey

Sheila Oliver made history on January 16, 2018, when she became the first African American lieutenant governor in the State of New Jersey. She is now the second highest-ranking official in the state and the first officer in line to succeed the governor of New Jersey.

This is not the first time her name has been entered into the history books. As a article put it, after Oliver was announced as the Democratic candidate for lieutenant governor in July 2017, she “shot from obscurity to the third most powerful elected official in New Jersey when she was elected as Assembly Speaker. She became the first African American woman ever to hold the post and only the second African American woman in America to do so. The position of speaker may carry a low profile, but is hugely influential, controlling which bills make it to the Assembly floor for a vote and deciding how billions of dollars are spent.”

But long before she set foot in the statehouse in Trenton, Oliver attended Lincoln for four years, a time that she refers to as the “best period of my life,” citing the social experiences and friendships she made — and continues to maintain — to this day.

However, her career interest when she first set foot on campus during move-in day in fall 1970 was not in political science or pre-law.

“When I graduated from high school, my interest was in retail buying,” said the Weequahic High School graduate, which is part of the Newark Public School System. “I wanted to work for Bloomingdale’s or Saks.”

After talking with her college counselor she instead enrolled in courses related to pre-law, but after freshman year, she sought to broaden her focus. Thirsting for exposure to a wide variety of subjects, she landed in sociology.

“Economics. Government. Human conditions. For me sociology captured the diverse interests that I had. I never regretted it. I got very involved in social research,” she said.

Her first taste of research came during the summer after her junior year. She and other students worked with Dr. Don Royster on research in North Philadelphia where she said there was a great deal of gang activity. With federal funding from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, she said the team researched “how to begin to change culture and access to opportunity for disenfranchised populations.”

It was faculty like Royster who she says “left an indelible impression.” She graduated in 1974, cum laude, with a degree in sociology.

She said the education she received at Lincoln outrivaled the Ivy League education she received at Columbia University in New York City where she earned a master’s degree in planning and administration in 1976.


Before she jumped into the political arena, Oliver used her Lincoln sociology education in a series of public service roles. In her late 20s, Oliver was recruited to become an executive director of The Leaguers, Inc., a nonprofit founded in 1943 by Mary Burch to enhance the quality of life for children and families through diverse educational and cultural programs that foster self-growth, personal empowerment and pride in one’s community.

On the day that Oliver was introduced as the executive director, Oliver fondly recalls that Burch gave her sage advice. “My dear,” Burch said, “if you are going to commit to a career in public service then you best develop an alligator hide.” And Oliver added, “I never forgot what she said.”

“I think you are going to have slingshots and arrows as you try to accomplish things particularly in the public arena and they need to bounce off of you.”

The advice she received from Burch served her well when she was appointed to serve on the Board of Education of the East Orange School District in 1994, an experience that she calls a “labor of love.” Oliver, who has resided in East Orange for 40 years, was chosen by her peers to serve as the Board of Education’s vice president from 1998 to 1999 and president from 1999 to 2000.

“I got the best education in the K-12 world by serving on the Board of Education. Should we have charters? Should we have vouchers? ... Best experience I had in my whole volunteer service.”

In municipal government, she served in the Office of Youth Services and Special Projects for the City of Newark, the mayor’s Office of Employment and Training, and the Newark Literacy Campaign.

For several years, Oliver also worked on several college campuses, teaching classes in achievement motivation, nonprofit management, and pre-college preparation.

In the non-profit sector, Oliver served as a consultant to a variety of non-profit organizations and spent several years as the director of the Essex County Division of Community Action, an anti-poverty initiative established by the federal government. Oliver was one of the founders of the Newark Coalition for Low Income Housing.


As hard as it is to believe looking over Oliver’s long public service and political history, there was a time, Oliver said, when she wanted no part of politics or politicians when she left Lincoln.

“When I was young, I was an activist. We were exposed to international and domestic issues at Lincoln. My activities led to my politicism.”

“As I matured, I stayed involved in community activism. If our voices are not in the room, we are not being heard. You have to be engaged.”

Oliver said it was a quote by Shirley Chisolm that encapsulates her motivation to get off the sidelines and into the political arena. In 1968, Chisholm became the first African American woman elected to the United States Congress, going on to represent New York’s 12th Congressional District for seven terms.

“[Chisholm] once gave a speech and said ‘you don’t make progress by standing on the sidelines, whimpering and complaining. You make progress by implementing ideas.’ She said it decades ago, but it’s so appropriate today. I do believe that students today understand that the quality of life for their families post-graduation is all influenced by politics.”


Bringing with her sociology education, years of public service experience, and wisdom from Shirley Chisholm and Mary Burch, Oliver went to serve in Trenton as a New Jersey state legislator after winning her seat in 2003.

On November 23, 2009, Oliver was elected unanimously by Assembly Democrats to become the 169th Speaker of the Assembly, a title she would hold for two terms, from January 12, 2010 to January 14, 2014. Her election made her the second
woman to serve as Speaker in New Jersey’s 300-year history. Nationwide, she became the second African American woman to lead a state legislature after Karen Bass of California.

During her 14-year career in the lower house of the state legislature, she earned a reputation for fighting for justice and fairness for New Jersey families. She was re-elected seven times to two-year terms in every cycle after her initial election in 2003.

Prior to the state legislature, she served on the Essex County Board of Chosen Freeholders for one term from 1996 to 1999. In 1997, she became the first woman to launch a competitive campaign for mayor in the City of East Orange, losing the
election by 51 votes. In 2000, she became the assistant county administrator in Essex County, a position Oliver continues to hold today.


Even though she is several months removed from the euphoria of election night 2017 and she has settled into her position in the lieutenant governor’s office, it is clear that she will not slow down.

“The interesting thing about my position is that the state constitution requires appointment to lead an agency or department,” Oliver said.

This is a departure from other states where the lieutenant governor is largely ceremonial.

lieutenant-350w-2.jpgPhil Murphy, governor of New Jersey, has appointed Oliver to serve as commissioner of the Department of Community Affairs, which has responsibility for approving budgets of 565 municipalities in the state, economic development, creating housing for low- and moderate-income residents, among many others.

Reflecting on election night 2017, she calls the experience “surreal” and expresses appreciation to Governor Murphy for choosing her and enthusiasm for the state because they now have a new leadership team, but as always, she is not dwelling on the past or sitting idly by.

“I’m very excited. I’m ready to get to work.”

This story originally appeared in the Spring 2018 Lion.