Sheila Oliver discusses vision for role as lieutenant governor

BY David Cruz, Senior Correspondent |

Lieutenant Governor-elect Sheila Oliver has already been named Commissioner of the Department of Community Affairs by Governor-elect Phil Murphy. She’s expected to take on the job of lieutenant governor wielding considerably more political clout than her predecessor had. Oliver sat down for an exclusive first talk with Senior Correspondent David Cruz.

Cruz: You must have at some point over the last couple of weeks given some thought to this kid from Newark, Weequahic High School who went on to be speaker of the Assembly and now lieutenant governor. When you thought of that, what popped into your head?

Oliver: Ironically, David, it just has seemed as if it’s a natural progression from everything I’ve ever done. People ask me if I’m excited, people ask me if I’m overwhelmed, it just is an extension of what I have always done. 

Cruz: How did the lieutenant governor thing come about? What were the conversations? I don’t know that you were necessarily seeking to become lieutenant governor. How did that all come about?

Oliver: I wasn’t seeking it. Approximately three years ago, I got a phone call from a man named Ambassador Phil Murphy and he told me that he was meeting with civic leaders and thought leaders in New Jersey, and I arranged to have him to meet me at Berkeley College because I’m a big supporter of Berkeley College.

Cruz: Here in Newark.

Oliver: Yes. And they have just named the library after Congressman Donald Payne and I wanted to expose him to what was going on so he met me down at Berkeley. We spent about close to two hours talking to each other. Being in the legislature, and knowing the next big thing that was going to happen in New Jersey was a gubernatorial election, quite frankly, I decided that day that that was the person I was going to support to be the next governor. But, I never engaged in discussion with the ambassador around me being a running mate with him.

Cruz: That long ago, you said this guy impressed you enough that you thought he should be governor?

Oliver: Yes.

Cruz: I want to play you this sound bite from former Gov. Tom Kean and then we will get your reaction to it.

Kean: Sheila Oliver is a a very dignified, proud person. And, she’s going to want her own portfolio, she’s going to want some independence, and that’s not always great in the lieutenant governor. But, on the other hand, you got one who’s able, and who has a lot of experience and who is going to have some of her own agenda, and that’s just something he’s going to be able to deal with.

Cruz: I think the thing that a lot of people thought about when they saw you teamed with Murphy was that this is a tough woman with velvet gloves hiding a fist of iron. How is that going to work do you think? You’re a very independent-minded woman.

Oliver: I am, and I’m glad that at an early age I was encouraged to be a critical thinker. And, I’ve been like that my entire life. My parents particularly encouraged me to be a critical thinker and I believe that we need more people who undertake critical thinking who work in government. So, it’s always worked well for me. I have to send Gov. Kean a note to thank him for summing me up quite appropriately, but I think that who I am and my personality and my style of working, I think that is what is needed in government. We need objective, analytical examination of what the major public policy issues are that are affecting us. And, we don’t get enough of that in government. You know, David. You covered the State House and we make jokes sometimes that if you’re a member of the legislature all you have to learn to do is push the green button. But, I think that we should pay more attention to the implication of what we do as governmental leaders and the implication it has for peoples’ lives.

Cruz: Your predecessor, the first lieutenant governor of the state, cut a lot of ribbons and stayed very much in the background. Now, that may have been a function of what the governor was, but I don’t see you cutting a lot of ribbons, not that there is anything wrong with cutting ribbons, but this is going to be more a partnership.

Oliver: It is. And, you know when the legislature passed the lieutenant governor statue, it required a governor to identify a cabinet position for the lieutenant governor to assume. And, I am honored and privileged that Ambassador Murphy is extending an opportunity to me to become Commissioner of the New Jersey Department of Community Affairs. And I think when you look at what DCA does, it is reflective of the things that I’ve been passionate about most of my professional career.

Cruz: Very much more about service delivery than about, say, corporate business development.

Oliver: Absolutely, and DCA has a major responsibility for working with the 565 municipalities in this state. And, I think for the past eight years, not every municipality got the attention nor the support that they could’ve had. Our major cities certainly rely on DCA to support them in the transformative things that they are doing.

Cruz: Different focus, right, from the previous governor in what he thought the lieutenant governor should be doing?

Oliver: Absolutely, and I knew that that could not be a role for me. I also think it gives an opportunity for Ambassador Murphy to select someone to be our secretary of state.

Cruz: Do you see yourself playing a role with the legislature. I mean, you’ve been speaker of the Assembly, so do you see yourself playing a role in terms of helping to shepherd in some of these more complicated, or controversial, legislative agenda items?

Oliver: Very sarcastically, I’ve told my colleagues in the Assembly that I’m not giving up my seat in the caucus room. So, they tell me that I will be welcome in the caucus room. I do think that having served in the Assembly for close to 14 years, working with the Senate as well, I can be very helpful to the administration in issues that we have to address in the legislature.

Cruz: Alright, Lieutenant Governor-elect Sheila Oliver, great to see you again and good luck going forward.

Oliver: Thank you. Thanks so much, David, for having me.