Oliver vows to fight for women, minorities as she opens U.S. Senate headquarters

NEWARK — Sheila Oliver said she's been asked over and over why she decided to enter the crowded race for the Democratic nomination in New Jersey's special U.S. Senate election — a race she's considered a long shot to win.

Tonight, the state Assembly Speaker stressed a few reasons: to try to give women and minorities a stronger voice in Congress and to fight to prevent "injustices" like Trayvon Martin's death and the U.S. Supreme Court's decision to strike down a key part of the Voting Rights Act.

"I am making a statement for women across New Jersey," Oliver (D-Essex) said in an impassioned 30-minute speech to about 100 supporters who gathered for the opening of her new campaign headquarters in a high-rise office building in downtown Newark.

She added that "whether America likes it or not, our country is culturally, socially and ethnically diverse."

Polls show that Oliver — the second female and second African-American speaker of the state Assembly — ranks last out of the four candidates running in the Aug. 13 Democratic primary to fill the U.S. Senate seat vacated after Frank Lautenberg's death. She is battling Newark Mayor Cory Booker, U.S. Rep. Rush Holt and U.S. Rep. Frank Pallone.

But Oliver said she is bothered that none of New Jersey's 14 members of Congress — two in the Senate and 12 in the House of Representatives — are women. She said she was inspired by Shirley Chisholm, the New York politician who in 1968 became the first African-American woman elected to Congress and in 1972 became the first woman to vie for the Democratic nomination for president.

"The time has come for women — activist women, grass-roots women, professional women, political women — to stand up and represent women," Oliver told the audience.

Oliver said she'd fight for lower- and middle-class residents to get easier access to higher education and affordable housing and to help bring attention to the plight of inner cities.

She also spoke out against the death of Trayvon Martin, the 17-year-old African-American boy who was gunned down in Florida in 2012.

Many protestors claimed it was a case of racial profiling, but Zimmerman said he shot the unarmed Martin in self-defense and some argued that Florida's Stand Your Ground allowed him to use deadly force if he feared bodily harm. Two weeks ago, a Florida jury acquitted Zimmerman in the shooting.

Oliver said "we can fix the legal climate that led to that tragedy" and oppose laws like Stand Your Ground.

"This law and others like it encourage others to see people as threats to be dealt with," she said. "The only way to change that law is to elect leaders of diversity."

Oliver also said the Supreme Court's Voting Rights Act decision hurts minority voters and she called for new legislation in Congress for updated voting protections.

"Republicans are dedicated to having fewer minorities to vote," she told the crowd. "It is important out Congress acts immediately on a new, 21st Century Voting Rights Act."

Meanwhile, state Sen. Ron Rice (D-Essex) not only endorsed Oliver for the Democratic nod — but he urged voters not to support Cory Booker, the favorite in the race. Rice called Booker a "no-show mayor" who has spent more time on the road than he has in Newark.

"We don't appreciate that he was never here to lead," said Rice, a former Newark city councilman who lost to Booker in the 2006 mayoral election. "He was only here for photo ops."

"We need a real leader like Sheila Oliver, and not some fictitious personality who's an actor," Rice continued. "Go back to Hollywood."

Kevin Griffis, a spokesman for Booker's campaign, declined to comment.

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