Essex County lawmaker Sheila Oliver positioned to become next Assembly Speaker
Source: Newark Star-Ledger
Newark native Sheila Oliver grew up among a family of labor leaders and civil rights activists — including a grandmother who organized a union at the Jersey City cigarette factory where she had worked in the 1930s.
On her block lived Rep. Donald Payne (D-10th Dist.), then an Essex County freeholder and president of the neighborhood watch group, and he became one of her earliest mentors.
So when the offer was dangled in front of Oliver to compete for the Assembly speaker’s post, the three-term Democratic legislator said she jumped at it, hungry for the chance to ascend the political ladder.
“My years in the Legislature have taught me if you want to be a catalyst for change, you have to be in the driver seat,” said Oliver, 57, an East Orange resident and assistant Essex County administrator. “I said if an opportunity existed I would be interested, no question.”
If she wins the election among her colleagues, Oliver’s rise would be historic, as the first black woman to serve as speaker, the General Assembly’s top job.
The offer was first made in February by Essex County Executive Joseph DiVincenzo, both he and Oliver said. They were discussing what would happen if Senate President Richard Codey (D-Essex) lost party support to keep his leadership post. DiVincenzo emphasized the need to have an Essex County legislator in one of the key leadership spots in the Legislature.
“I said, “Sheila, this is something that might happen,'” DiVincenzo said, recounting the conversation. “”I can’t make you a candidate, you have to make yourself a candidate.'” At that moment, DiVincenzo said, he saw her enthusiasm — a “fire in the belly.”
Momentum grew for her candidacy after Speaker Joseph Roberts (D-Camden) last month said he would not seek re-election.
“You will see she is professional, well-organized and very, very smart. She is very tough — no one is going to pull any wool over her,” said DiVincenzo, who is her boss.
In the last two years, Oliver has elevated her legislative profile. She ascended from Assembly Human Services Committee member to chairwoman when Assemblyman Joseph Cryan (D-Union) left the post last year to head the Assembly Education Committee. She also sponsored the state’s paid family leave law.
Sen. Joseph Vitale (D-Middlesex), chairman of the Senate Health, Human Services and Senior Services Committee, described Oliver as someone who is “very passionate on the issues and who pays attention to details.”
She would be the first black woman to lead the Assembly. The Rev. S. Howard Woodson Jr., a Democrat, African-American and prominent pastor from Trenton, was speaker from 1974-75. Marion West Higgins of Bergen County, a white Republican woman, served in 1965.