N.J. Democrat Phil Murphy to pick ex-speaker Oliver as running mate in race to succeed Christie

Election New Jersey Governors Race
Phil Murphy claps while talking to supporters during a Democratic primary election watch party at the Robert Treat Hotel, Tuesday, June 6, 2017, in Newark, N.J. Murphy won the primary and will face New Jersey Lt. Gov. Kim Guadagno, who won the Republican primary. (AP Photo/Julio Cortez)

Phil Murphy, New Jersey’s Democratic gubernatorial nominee and front-runner to succeed Gov. Christie, will pick as his running mate the first black woman to have served as Assembly speaker.

Murphy, 59, a former Goldman Sachs banker and ambassador to Germany under President Barack Obama, is expected to officially name Sheila Oliver as the Democratic nominee for lieutenant governor on Wednesday morning in Newark, according to a person familiar with the matter.

Murphy is running against Christie’s No. 2, Lt. Gov. Kim Guadagno, in November’s general election. Guadagno, 58, of Monmouth Beach, is expected to name Carlos Rendo, mayor of Woodcliff Lake, Bergen County, as her running mate, according to a source with knowledge of the decision and multiple media reports.

Rendo, 53, was born in Cuba in 1964 and immigrated to the United States with his family in 1966 to escape the communist Castro regime. A lawyer and former adviser on ethnic issues to Gov. Christie Whitman, Rendo was a cochair of Florida Sen. Marco Rubio’s presidential campaign last year.

Murphy’s decision was first reported by Insider NJ.

Murphy, who lives in Middletown, Monmouth County, leads Guadagno by 21 percentage points among registered voters, according to a July 20 NBC 4 New York/Marist poll. Part of Guadagno’s challenge is to distinguish herself from Christie, a Republican whose approval rating has cratered to 15 percent.

Oliver, 65, has served in the state Assembly since 2004 and was speaker from 2010 through 2013 — the first black woman to hold that position.

Of the 312 statewide elected positions in the country, just seven are held by women of color, according to the Center for American Women and Politics at Rutgers.

As the highest-ranking member in the Democratic-controlled Legislature’s lower house, Oliver broke with the majority of her party in supporting Christie’s changes to the pension and health-benefits systems for public workers.

Oliver, an Essex County administrator, became speaker as part of a deal struck by her boss, Essex County Executive Joe DiVincenzo, and George E. Norcross III, the South Jersey insurance and hospital executive and political power broker.

South Jersey Democrats aligned with Norcross were also essential in pushing through Christie’s pension and benefits changes, which required workers to contribute more money toward their retirement and raised the retirement age, among other provisions.

Oliver fell out of favor with party leaders after two terms as speaker and was replaced by Vincent Prieto, the current speaker. She unsuccessfully ran for U.S. Senate in 2013 in the Democratic primary won by former Newark Mayor Cory A. Booker, who still holds the seat in Washington.

Some liberal activists have been pushing for more diverse leaders in Trenton. All three front-runners to hold the most powerful positions in state government in January — governor (Murphy), Senate president (Stephen Sweeney of Gloucester County), and Assembly speaker (Craig Coughlin of Middlesex County) — are white men.

“I think Sheila’s pick is a good one. Most importantly, she has years of experience,” said Analilia Mejia, director of the New Jersey Working Families Alliance.

Mejia praised Oliver for pushing progressive causes and cochairing the Resistance Coalition, a group of legislators and activists “working in collaboration to create firewalls within the state” against the Trump administration.

Oliver also reflects “the diversity and richness of the state,” Mejia said.

New Jersey voters established the position of lieutenant governor through a 2005 constitutional amendment.

With the resignations of Whitman and Gov. Jim McGreevey in the early 2000s, the Senate presidents at the time became the state’s chief executive, raising constitutional concerns about separation of powers.

Lawmakers thought this line of gubernatorial succession concentrated too much power in one person, so they advanced the amendment to establish the lieutenant governor.

The position, a new statewide office, was also seen as a possible stepping-stone for women and minorities to advance politically. Guadagno became the state’s first lieutenant governor when she took office with Christie in 2010.