U.S. Rep. Donald Payne, the elder statesman of New Jersey’s congressional delegation, died after a months-long battle with colon cancer today, according to three sources close to the Payne family. The longtime politician was 77.
Payne announced last month he was under treatment for colon cancer but said that he expected to make a full recovery. Last week, though, his health took a turn for the worse.
He was hospitalized at Georgetown University Hospital, but on Friday was flown back to New Jersey on a medical transport. After arriving at Teterboro airport, he was taken to St. Barnabas Medical Center in Livingston. Payne, a Democrat who represented New Jersey’s 10th congressional district for 23 years, was placed in hospice care and died at roughly 2:30 this morning.
The state’s first — and before his death its only active — black congressman, Payne headed one of Newark’s most powerful political dynasties. His son Donald Payne Jr. is the Newark City Council president, as well as an Essex County Freeholder. His brother and lifelong political partner, William, is a former state assemblyman.
“He’s had a tremendous impact on the state, country and the world,” William Payne said.
Leaders from throughout the state and the country lined up today to express sorrow over the loss of a local and national hero.
“Michelle and I were saddened to hear about the passing of Congressman Donald Payne, Chairman of the Congressional Black Caucus Foundation and former Chairman of the Congressional Black Caucus.” President Obama said in a statement. “By any standard, Don lived a full and meaningful life.”
• Age: 77
• Hometown: Newark
• Family: Predeceased by his wife; survived by 3 children, 4 grandchildren, 1 great grandchild
• Education: Barringer High School graduate; Seton Hall University graduate; pursued graduate studies at Springfield College in Massachusetts
• Occupations: Newark School District teacher; executive with Prudential Financial; politician
• Distinctions: First African-American Congressman to be elected in New Jersey; first African-American president of the National Council of YMCAs.
• Political career: Newark city councilman; Essex County freeholder; elected to U.S. Congress in 1988, representing 10th District (Essex, Hudson and Union counties); re-elected 11 times; chairman of the Congressional Black Caucus Foundation; member of the Democratic Whip Organization; senior member of the House Committee on Education and Workforce; former chairman of the Congressional Black Caucus; former member of the House Democratic Leadership Advisory Group
Source: The Star-Ledger; Donald Payne’s congressional website
“Congressman Donald Payne was a leader of conscience and a public servant of diligence,” said former House Speaker Nancy Pelosi. “He was admired by his colleagues; he earned respect around the world for his outspoken advocacy on behalf of human rights and the worth and dignity of every person.”
Payne was up for re-election this year and facing a primary in June. Despite his condition, he vowed to run again only last month and refused to take a leave of absence.
A former teacher, Prudential executive, city councilman, and Essex County freeholder, Payne’s lifelong dream was to become a congressman. In 1988 he finally achieved that goal and was returned to Congress 11 times — by some of the widest margins in New Jersey congressional history.
While in the House of Representatives, Payne was known as a tireless advocate for his constituents, a champion of education and a de facto ambassador to Africa. He helped secure $100 million to help prevent and treat malaria and HIV/AIDS, mostly in sub-Saharan Africa.
“New Jersey has lost one of its greatest leaders in the fight for equality and fairness for all Americans, and one of the greatest advocates for families of the Garden State,” said U.S. Rep. Bill Pascrell, whose 8th district shared parts of Montclair, South Orange and West Orange with Payne.
“Donald Payne was a true trailblazer – a champion for education and civil rights who sought to combat injustice all over the world. I will greatly miss my friend and brother,” Pascrell said in a statement released this morning.
Payne was recognized in Congress for having the most supportive record on issues regarding the Northern Ireland peace process. He helped win passage of a resolution declaring the killing in Darfur genocide and he authored the Sudan Peace Act, facilitating famine relief efforts.
State Sen. Richard Codey called Payne’s legacy a strong one, and one that merits emulation at all levels of government, particularly with regard to oppressed peoples.
“He was bigger than life but never conducted himself that way,” Codey said by phone this morning. “If you were violating somebody’s rights, you better get out of the way.”
“People always associated him with Africa and advocating for Darfur and he did, but color didn’t matter to him, just your civil rights,” Codey said.
Warned off a 2009 fact-finding mission to Somalia by President Obama’s administration, Payne, the senior Democrat on the Foreign Affairs Committee’s sub-panel on Africa, ignored concerns about his safety. He said solving problems in Somalia was key to solving problems throughout the continent.
The militant group al-Shabab fired mortar shells at his plane when it took off from Mogadishu airport, missing the aircraft entirely, but injuring 19 locals.
From his days as the first black president of the National Council of YMCAs in 1970, to his many trips to Africa as a de facto U.S. ambassador, education was the central issue of Payne’s political career. A graduate of Barringer High School and Seton Hall University, Payne preached the importance of education here and abroad.
“Education and training get you jobs. Jobs get you your housing, health care and other needs,” Payne said in 1991. “It’s really the key to all the social problems of the district.”
Aside from his success in politics, Payne held executive positions at Prudential Financial and Urban Data Systems. But it was his for his work in the community that he will be remembered in Newark
“He never really told me too much about politics only about humanitarian issues,” said Salaam Ismial, director of the United Youth Council. “We owe him a debt of gratitude. We love him and we’ll miss him.”
President Obama has ordered flags at the White House to be lowered to half staff, according to a spokesman, and Gov. Christie has ordered the same throughout the state.