Meet Sheila Oliver, Senate candidate

WASHINGTON – New Jersey’s Senate primary has a famous, ambitious mayor vowing to bring the polarized parties together in Washington. It has two liberal Congressmen who have long-eyed a Senate seat and have each pledged to fight for the late Sen. Frank Lautenberg’s progressive legacy.

And then it has Sheila Oliver, Assembly speaker for the past four years but who, until very recently, wasn’t on the short-list of names insiders tossed around whenever talk turned to statewide campaigns.

So what got Oliver into the four-way Democratic primary?

She explained today on The Brian Lehrer show on WNYC radio, raising two central points to try to distinguish herself from her competitors: her statewide experience and the need for more women in Congress.

She also argued that despite early polls showing her trailing, that an election is “not a popularity contest.”

“I don’t think becoming a senator is about being in a popularity contest,” Oliver said. “I think the citizens of New Jersey are best looking for someone to articulate and to represent their interests on Capitol Hill.”

Oliver is trying to beat Newark Mayor Cory Booker and Congressmen Rush Holt and Frank Pallone for the Democratic nomination. The Republican primary is expected to be much less competitive, with favorite Steve Lonegan facing the largely-unknown Alieta Eck.

Making the case for herself, Oliver stressed the need to have more women in Washington and particularly from New Jersey, whose entire delegation is male.

“As we look at the demographics within our state and within our country it is imperative that women begin to seek higher office,” Oliver said. She later pointed to statistics that show women are the leading breadwinners in 40 percent of U.S. households. “We made great progress in sending more women to the United States Senate and I think it’s time for New Jersey to send a woman.”

Second, she said her perch as Assembly speaker has given her a statewide view that none of the other Democratic contenders can match.

“I have been involved with every legislative district, every mayor, every board of local governance and every stakeholder in the state government.”

She praised Booker as “extremely talented” but touted her depth of experience compared to his.

“The mayor has not had to deal with the broad, wide-ranging, divergent issues that I have been engaged with in the state Legislature,” she said. “My legislative experience is vastly broader than that of Mayor Booker’s.”

If elected, Oliver said she would focus on education and the cost of college, as well as reviving the economy in aging industrial and suburban areas.

Oliver begins the short run to the Aug. 13 primary trailing. A Monmouth University poll last week gave her 6 percent of the primary vote. Booker led with 63 percent.

Oliver comes from the same home county, Essex, as Booker and her biggest political backer Essex County Executive Joseph DiVincenzo, is supporting the mayor. (DiVincenzo is also Oliver’s boss in her day job as an administrator in county government).

South Jersey pols back Booker

South Jersey Democratic lawmakers have started lining up behind Newark Mayor Cory Booker.

New Jersey Senate President Stephen Sweeney told Bloomberg News today that "Cory’s the strongest of all the candidates. I wouldn’t say anything bad about Rush Holt or Pallone or Sheila. They are all good candidates."

He added, "Each one has their own strengths but we’re backing Cory.”

State Sen. Jim Whelan, of Atlantic City, also endorsed Booker, according to

The endorsements shouldn’t be a surprise. George Norcross, an ally of both and South Jersey’s most influential political figure has already endorsed Booker. Norcross is managing partner of the company that owns the Inqurier.

Pallone calls for multiple debates

Pallone today called for “multiple debates” featuring the four Democratic candidates, though his statement did not specify a number.

“It is critically important that New Jersey’s Democratic voters be afforded the opportunity to make a clear, rational decision on our party’s nominee for the United States Senate based on how the declared candidates would handle the important matters confronting the nation as opposed to having that decisions based solely on slick TV ads and twenty second sound bites,” Pallone said in a release.