With tears in her eyes and a thumbs-up to the crowd, Lt. Gov. Sheila Oliver entered a new role in Trenton.
“As I recited my oath of office, I could not help but note the wonderous irony that our inauguration day falls on the day after Martin Luther King Day. It is a reminder that, not long ago, even in a state that prides itself as a laboratory of progressive policy, it has taken from our independence in 1776 to now to have a woman of color serving in a statewide elected office.”
The auditorium at Patriots Theater at the War Memorial interrupted her last sentence, breaking into applause.
“Just as I did as I became the first African-American woman to serve as speaker of the General Assembly, I recognize that, while these moments are historic, we make history not in the moment, but in what we do with it,” she said.
It is more than a personal achievement for Oliver, it’s one that represents a more symbolic achievement for the African-American community, and the Legislative Black Caucus.
State Sen. Troy Singleton (D-Moorestown), who just left his position in the Assembly, said, “It’s a source of pride for all of us, especially in the African-American community, that she has risen to this level.”
The No. 2 to new Gov. Phil Murphy, Oliver has also chosen to be commissioner of the state Department of Community Affairs.
“I think she’s well qualified to be the DCA commissioner, based on all her experiences at the local and county government,” Singleton said. “It gives her unique experiences to be able to effectuate change and understand public policy the DCA deals with.”
But her influence on the new administration will go beyond that.
“There are some folks who shortchange the former speaker in thinking that her influence and guidance of the administration will be just in the area of community affairs. I know Gov. Murphy is smart enough not only to have picked her, but to understand her wealth of experience, her legislative acumen, will allow her to help him as he navigates his agenda, regardless of the subject matter, through the Legislature,” Singleton said. “I hope he leans on her to accomplish those goals.”
It’s something Oliver is aware of.
“For me, this means dedicating to being a strong, encouraging and contributing partner in the administration that will take office today. As lieutenant governor, I take the responsibility of service to our state and the need to act from time to time as our state’s chief exec with great seriousness. But I will also bring that vigor to the department of community affairs,” she said.
Assemblywoman Shavonda Sumter (D-Paterson), a now-former colleague of Oliver in the Assembly, said Oliver’s experience means less time spent learning how to navigate Trenton.
“She has an understanding and knows how to navigate those waters for New Jersey politics, and has served during tough times with Gov. Chris Christie,” she said. “The learning curve is not steep and the touch and connection with communities exists, so relationships are there, which always helps to move the needle with government.”
The African-American community and black caucus now have an eye on areas where Oliver can wield influence, including funding for municipalities, tax relief, economic development, legalization of marijuana and criminal justice reforms, including the restoration of the right to vote.
“I pledge to serve you with honesty in my words and transparency in my actions,” Oliver said. “To the people of New Jersey, I will seek to bridge divides, but I will not give up my voice where I see division.”