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Trailing Badly in the Polls, Assembly Speaker Still Has Her Eye on the Prize

Oliver cites varied experiences in both private and public sectors as she seeks to become NJ’s first woman to serve in U.S. Senate.

sheila oliver
State Assembly Speaker Sheila Oliver

Democratic state Assembly Speaker Sheila Oliver says shattering glass ceilings was one of her main motivations when she announced she would run in the special election to fill the U.S. Senate seat left vacant by the death of Frank Lautenberg.

This is nothing new for the Newark native. She was the first woman to launch a competitive campaign for mayor in East Orange, running in 1997 and losing by only 51 votes. More recently, in 2010, she became only the second woman ever to serve as state Assembly speaker.

Now she wants to become New Jersey's first female senator.

"In our congressional delegation, two U.S. Senate seats and 12 House of Representative seats, there is not one woman," Oliver said in an interview Monday. "One of the things that compelled me to run was that the party I belong to, the Democratic Party, has to begin to understand that activist Democratic women are not going to have a glass ceiling established on top of their heads. They are going to mobilize and step out and aspire to reach higher office."

Her varied experience is what Oliver believes qualifies her to go up against her three Democratic opponents, U.S. Rep. Frank Pallone (D-6th), U.S. Rep. Rush Holt (D-12th), and Newark Mayor Cory Booker.

Oliver, the assistant Essex County administrator for more than a decade, served on the East Orange Board of Education from 1994 to 2000, as its president in 1999-2000 and as vice president in 1998-1999. She served on the Essex County Board of Chosen Freeholders from 1996 to 1999 before being elected to the Assembly in 2003 to represent the 34th District. She's also been involved with organizations across the state, having had a consulting business for nonprofits.

"When the four candidates are stacked against each other, I don't think there is a candidate who can say he has sat at a desk at every level of government having to administer federal programs, state programs, county programs, and having the depth of experience I have had with grassroots communities all over the state," Oliver said. "I think I am the only candidate in this state that can say affirmatively that they have built networks of relationships with people from one end of the state to the other."

Sen. Ronald Rice and Assemblywoman Mila Jasey, both D-Essex, have endorsed Oliver’s candidacy, as have Essex County Freeholder Bonnie Watson and Plainfield Mayor Sharon Robinson-Briggs.

But Oliver has been trailing badly in the race, according to a Quinnipiac University poll of likely Democratic voters released this week. Oliver had just 5 percent of the vote, while Booker led by a huge margin with 54 percent. Pallone had 17 percent and Holt came in second-to-last with 15 percent.

Oliver's campaign funds do not look promising either, with her contributions totaling only $11,690 and expenditures of just $6,925, according to the Federal Election Commission.

"It looks as if the speculation was right: Newark Mayor Cory Booker seems to be a shoo-in for the U.S. Senate," said Maurice Carroll, director of the Quinnipiac University Polling Institute, in a press release. "Observers wondered why Assembly Speaker Sheila Oliver, like Booker, an Essex County pol, decided to run. She's the weakest of the bunch."

Asked what she thought of Booker's run, Oliver said: "It's no surprise. We have known for a very long time that Mayor Booker aspired to be the first black president but Barack Obama got there before him. Those of us who know him and have dealt with him through the years know that that is where he has his eye fixed. However, being a mayor of a city for seven years does not necessarily translate into the broad breadth of experience that is required to do the things he may want to do in the future."

She describes her relationship with Booker as collegial. While some have speculated that she is running to take votes away from Booker, Oliver explains her reason for running very differently.

She believes there needs to be female representation in the Senate, but another incentive she says is bringing to the Senate her depth of experience and dedication to getting to know all sides of New Jersey.

"I have served in the state Legislature for a decade. I've been a legislative leader for four years. For the past four years, I have been involved in every public policy issue that effectuates our state - It's the economy, it's the healthcare system, it's the educational system. I think that while our congressional incumbent representatives are interested in rising up and going over to the other chamber and of course Mayor Booker has interest in going to Washington, D.C., there is no doubt that I have a broader depth of experience compared to all three of them."

In its editorial endorsing Booker, the Star-Ledger called Oliver “a shrewd deal maker” and praised her work as Assembly Speaker: “She worked constructively with Gov. Chris Christie and defied her own party to win much needed pension and health reforms. She’s right that we need more women in Congress. But while she’s been a good Speaker, she’s not nearly as well-versed on federal issues.”

Oliver scoffs at that.

"While Mayor Booker has been the mayor of a city, it is a city of 275,000 people. He has only had to deal with governing body of nine council members. As a legislative leader, I have dealt with 119 other legislators coming from both parties and all regions of the state. I have had to deal with a governor and a governor's administration. I've had to go through the processof crafting and approving bills and moving an agenda forward. I don't think…the other three candidates have had that same experience that I have had."

It’s true that Oliver has had to negotiate with strong-willed personalities such as Christie and state Sen. Steven Sweeney (D-Gloucester),

Indeed, an early decision to post the vote for a controversial health and pension reform package in Spring 2011 – legislation championed by Christie and Sweeney – led to talk of a coup by Democrats who opposed it. It could have cost her the speaker’s chair but Christie said Oliver asked for his help should she need it to retain the position. Oliver vehemently denied that she asked for Christie’s support.

“I have great respect for the speaker; she’s been a wonderful partner,” said Christie at the time. “She was looking for an insurance policy and we gave her one ... I think it’s a great story about New Jersey, that Republicans and Democrats were willing to work together, that Republicans were willing to vote for a Democrat for speaker if she was challenged because they all agreed on the policy. So if she’s embarrassed for some reason, I don’t understand why she would be. I think she was a courageous leader and is one. I think what she did was courageous. And I was happy to be of help in any way that I could be.”

Oliver had risen to the top spot in the lower house in 2009 as part of a deal brokered by the Democratic party bosses in North Jersey and South Jersey that also put Sweeney, in charge of the Senate. In the end, it took the help of George Norcross in South Jersey, Joe DiVincenzo – Oliver’s boss – in Essex County and Sen. Nicholas Sacco, D-Hudson, to keep Oliver in power in Fall 2011, in return for concessions that shook up some Assembly leadership positions and committee chairmanships.

On Oliver'swebsite, she says she is for gun control, is pro-choice, and believes. federal energy policies are heading in the right directions.

Oliver says he has worked in the Assembly to protect New Jersey’s families, sponsoring legislation such as creating paid family leave, amending the state’s wrongful death law, providing low-cost auto insurance for people with low incomes and co-sponsoring the law creating the Department of Children and Families.

Oliver stated in an interview that she is against "No Child Left Behind" and vouchers for students, but is in agreement with increasing the minimum wage, supports the Affordable Care Act, and wants to preserve Social Security and Medicare.

Oliver, who has lived in East Orange for the past 30 years, grew up in Newark, attending Chancellor Avenue School and Weequahic High School. She attended Lincoln University in Pennsylvania, earning a bachelor’s degree in sociology, and went on to receive a master’s degree in planning and administration from Columbia University.

"During the course of the journey is where I really developed an interest in public policy issues and politics and government. My family had always been politically active as well. I grew up in an environment where we were always having discussions about whatever was the contemporary issue of the day," Oliver said

But it was a student strike organized during her junior year of high schoolthat Oliver said opened up the reality that if people mobilized and organized, they could effectuate change through government.

Although she is behind in the polls, Oliver doesn't believe the campaign should be a popularity contest but ultimately should be determined by who is most qualified for the job.

"When I became the speaker in 2010. I made a commitment the day I was sworn in to visit all 40 legislative districts starting down in Cape May and working my way up to Sussex and Warren. There is not a legislative district that I have not visited, engaged with elected officials in, as well as business owners, and educators. I think that in the past year and a half in the short, truncated election cycle, many of my opponents in the race are now going for the first time and traveling from one end of the state to the other because they are seeking votes. I have already done that. I've been with those communities and I am no stranger to those communities," Oliver said.

Maya Chung is an intern at NJ Spotlight.

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