Right now, is Donald Payne New Jersey’s most vulnerable Congressman?

While Democrats seem to be focused on Linda Stender’s rematch with Mike Ferguson, the most vulnerable incumbent in New Jersey’s thirteen-member congressional delegation could be Donald Payne.

The ten-term Congressman remains politically estranged from the most powerful man in his district, Newark Mayor Cory Booker. His brother is challenging Booker’s candidate for State Senate in the 29th district, and his nephew is running on an opposition slate for Assemblyman in the 28th district.

If Booker decides he wants to new Congressman representing Newark, the 72-year-old Payne could have a problem in the 2008 Democratic primary.

Payne gets how the game is played. He backed Sharpe James for Mayor in 1986, while the nineteen-term Congressman Peter Rodino supported his ally, incumbent Kenneth Gibson. Gibson had backed Rodino, a white man in a black-majority district, in primary challenges from ex-Assemblyman George Richardson in 1972, and against Payne in 1980 (Rodino won 62%-23%, with 12% for former East Orange Municipal Court Judge Golden Johnson.)

Almost immediately after James defeated Gibson, the Mayor-elect announced his endorsement of Payne — then holding James’ old South Ward City Council seat — against Rodino in the Democratic primary. At James' request, Rev. Jesse Jackson came to Newark to endorse Payne. Rodino won renomination to a 20th term by a 60%-36% margin.

By 1988, James was already entrenched as the new power in City Hall, and sent word to the aging House Judiciary Committee Chairman that it was time to go. On March 14, 1988, Rodino announced that he would not seek re-election. James endorsed Payne, who had an easy path to Washington.

Payne, in public office for most of the last 35 years, could survive a primary. He had $779,877 cash-on-hand, as of his last filing, and as a past Congressional Black Caucus Chairman and member of the majority party, he would not be without substantial support. Still, if Booker decides he wants Payne gone, the veteran Congressman will face his toughest campaign since he ran for Freeholder in 1972.

Right now, is Donald Payne New Jersey’s most vulnerable Congressman?