Roughly 2 in 5 likely voters in New Jersey – and even more among the broader population – have no opinion on the candidates for governor. So it’s a sure bet their running mates are barely known.

But on Monday night, the would-be lieutenant governors have a chance to change that a bit, as they meet for a debate at Montclair State University airing on NJTV at 8 p.m.

Assemblywoman Sheila Oliver, D-Essex, has a longer track record in public life, after serving for nearly 14 years in the Legislature, including four years – the first half of Gov. Chris Christie’s tenure – when she was the Assembly speaker.

“Sheila brings so much to the table, from personal chemistry to her beliefs to her family story to her experience, and certainly her experience in Trenton,” Democratic gubernatorial nominee Phil Murphy said. “That absolutely is important on the long list of things that make Sheila Oliver as special as she is.”

Oliver is the first black woman to have served as a legislative leader in New Jersey and the second nationally.

“I think it is a statement,” Murphy said of choosing Oliver. “We don’t want to just say nice things about leadership that’s inclusive and governs for all 9 million of us, but we want to show that in our actions.”

Oliver is a former East Orange school board president and Essex County freeholder and works as an assistant administration for Essex County. In 2013, she finished last in a four-candidate field in the Democratic primary for U.S. Senate, to fill the seat that opened when then-U.S. Sen. Frank Lautenberg died.

“This is something that I wanted to do to support Phil Murphy as he revamps the environment in Trenton,” Oliver said.

Republican nominee Lt. Gov. Kim Guadagno’s running mate is Carlos Rendo, an attorney with roots in Hudson County who was elected in 2015 as mayor of Woodcliff Lake, a Bergen County borough of nearly 6,000 people.

“No one understands more about how to change things from the ground up than a mayor,” Guadagno said. “I think a legislator is a horrible pick when it comes to lieutenant governor.”

Guadagno said Rendo would be in charge of her "audit Trenton" program – examining all departments and agencies in state government to identify hundreds of millions of dollars in savings. His report would be due within 100 day of taking office.

“What he’s going to be is disruptive, quite frankly,” Guadagno said. “He’s going to be the workout artist. He’s going to go through each one of the 25 departments, and he’s going to make sure that the people of New Jersey know that they’re getting their money’s worth.”

Rendo was born in Cuba, but his family fled to Florida in 1966, when he was 2½ years old. His family then made its way to Union City. He became an American citizen in 1984.

It wouldn’t be surprising if Rendo talks about that background in the debate – in part to try to help Guadagno’s ticket connect to Hispanic voters, but also because Oliver was among 10 state lawmakers who visited Cuba in January 2016.

“For Phil Murphy to nominate a lieutenant governor who went on an unauthorized trip to Cuba, the same repressive regime that my family and I fled, that is now harboring a cop killer, is inexcusable,” Rendo said.

Republicans have also criticized Oliver for voting in the Assembly against a bill that bans the state pension funds from investing in businesses that boycott Israel and Israel businesses.

Rendo is criticized by Democrats because he’s being sued, as mayor of Woodcliff Lake, by an Orthodox Jewish group over zoning conflicts in the borough.


New Jersey: Decoded cuts through the cruft and gets to what matters in New Jersey news and politics. Follow on Facebook and Twitter.


Michael Symons is State House bureau chief for New Jersey 101.5 and the editor of New Jersey: Decoded. Follow @NJDecoded on Twitter and Facebook. Contact him at michael.symons@townsquaremedia.com