U.S. Rep. Donald Payne: 1934-2012

The first African-American from New Jersey to serve in the U.S. Congress, U.S. Rep. Donald Payne of Newark has died.

He was 77.

Noted for his quiet gravitas, progressive issues advocacy and pioneering life story, Congressman Payne along with his older brother Bill Payne defined the struggles of a generation of Newark Blacks who in the 1950s and ’60s fought for equal rights out of the North Ward. By the dawn of the 1970s, the Paynes relocated to the South of Newark, where they built a political base on Bergen Street that served as the launch pad for Mr. Payne’s historic campaigns for Congress in the 1980s.

He died at St. Barnabas Medical Center in Livingston.

“It is with great sadness that we announce the passing of Rep. Donald M. Payne,” read a statement issued by the congressman’s office. “A native of Newark, New Jersey, Rep. Payne dedicated his life to serving the men, women and children of the 10th Congressional District. In addition to his service as a public school teacher in Newark and Passaic, Rep. Payne served as the first African-American President of the National YMCA. For 24 yerars, Rep. Payne traveled throughout the world serving as a calm and rational voice on issues impacting the social conditions of the global community.”

Mr. Payne famously ran against incumbent U.S. Rep. Peter Rodino in 1982 and 1986, losing both times before party leaders persuaded the popular congressman to retire in 1988. Mr. Payne subsequently won a seat he would hold for 24 years.

A champion of the poor and dispossessed not only in Newark but in Africa, notably the Sudan, where he took one of this country’s most forceful stands against the genocide he witnessed there, Congressman Payne was once arrested in Washington, D.C., for protesting against the Sudanese government.

In 2002, Mr. Payne opposed giving George Bush the power to go to war in Iraq, one of four members of the New Jersey delegation who tried to stop Bush. To the end he condemned the Iraq War as “flawed policy.”

In voting against the Wall Street bailout in 2008, the veteran congressman acknowledged an economy in crisis, but insisted on seeing stronger bottom up measures to help the poor and middle class.

“I’m worried about the back streets, not Wall Street,” Congressman Payne told a Roselle crowd. “Everyone’s talking about Wall Street and Main Street, but man, I’m thinking about the back street. Sure, I support Wall Street. Yes, I back Main Street. But I want to know what’s going to happen on the back streets.”

As the Chairman of the Subcommittee on Africa for the Congressional Foreign Affairs Committee, Congressman Payne became a leading advocate for international human rights.

“I would be remiss if I did not thank those who are personally responsible for making sure that I know about Africa,” said then-President Bill Clinton, before immediately identifying Congressman Payne.

After a 2009 trip to Africa, the congressman prepared to depart from Mogadishu when his plane sustained small arms gun fire from the ground, according to CNN. The congressman had earlier that same day discussed the crisis of piracy off the failed state’s coast.

This year, he faced the prospect of a Democratic Primary challenge from West Ward Councilman Ronald C. Rice.

“We’re in a critical time,” the congressman told PolitickerNJ.com as he discussed his intentions to run for a 13th term. “Hopefully we can maintain control of the Senate and there is an outside chance of winning back the House. The Tea Party is influencing Republicans, creating havoc within the Republican caucus. The Republicans are obstructionist – the party of no. Congress’s ratings are very, very low right now and the GOP must bear the brunt of that.”

Mr. Payne grew up poor in a section of the North Ward known as Doodletown.

“He knew more Italians than I did,” said a grief-stricken Steve Adubato, who attended Barringer High School with the Payne Brothers.

“There was a lot of racism against Blacks then, but Donald was accepted by everyone. He was an unusal guy. And understand this: he always helped me. He always helped the North Ward Center.” 

The congressman worked on the docks in his young manhood.

“I love this place,” he told longshoremen at a 2008 campaign stop at Port Newark. “I worked down here from 1952 to 1956, on Doremus Avenue, where they used to have about one ship a week, believe me. The old days. But we’re so glad to see this port come to where it is today.”

He became a teacher, and older Passaic City families still remember him at the No. 8 Elementary School. He served as national YMCA president and later as an executive with Prudential.

He spent a lifetime in politics. In the words of one of his friends, when the congressman’s wife died relatively early in Mr. Payne’s life, his family in a sense became the public world of politics.

At the beginning of their careers, he and his older brother worked in tandem as they sought greater African-American representation within the Newark Democratic Party, with Bill Payne very early gaining a reputation as the aggressive activist and Donald Payne showing skills as a diplomat.

Never an obvious self-promoter, Mr. Payne as a public person embodied old school qualities of humility and toughness. He seldom sought out a microphone but commanded attention naturally by being a presence in the room.

His staff in their statement noted, “New Jersey has lost a noble public servant, and the world has lost an amazing human being. Those of us who have been fortunate enough to know and work with Rep. Payne have lost a dear friend and an inspiring mentor. Rep. Payne once stated, ‘There is a lot of dignity in being able to achieve things without having to create rapture.'”

In the aftermath of the Newark riots, the Payne brothers became the strongest South Ward political brand in the city, using the Bergen Street business district as their most visible base of operations. The congressman scorned conventional polling, preferring instead to gauge his own popularity by the number of beeps on the horn he heard as he walked along his beloved Bergen Street.

He was a former leader of the Congressional Black Caucus.

Mr. Payne served as a Newark City councilman and as an Essex Freeholder. In 1978, he ran in a four-way race for Essex County executive, losing to Peter Shapiro.

“He was a man in whom the poor had a voice,” said Assemblyman Joe Cryan, (D-20), Union, whose father, Sheriff John Cryan, also ran unsuccessfully in the 1978 county executive’s race.

“Congressman Payne was someone who knew presidents and kings but was more comfortable with the man in the street, that’s just who he was,’ said Cryan.

In recent years the Paynes managed to fend off several organized political forays against them, most notably in 2008, when Newark Mayor Cory Booker’s allies tried to weaken the Paynes in a South Ward district leader battle. On Democratic Primary night, the Paynes celebrated a hard-fought victory, not only over the Booker Team, but with political ally U.S. Sen. Frank Lautenberg’s flattening of South Jersey challenger U.S. Rep. Rob Andrews.

The win proved the Paynes’ continued strength in the ward.

Assemblyman Tom Giblin (D-34) called Donald Payne the ultimate political survivor, who after six years on the freeholder board left that governing body to pursue a run for county executive.

“He came in third on a shoe string budget at best,” said Giblin. “He crossed the racial barrier early on; worked at it seven days a week.”

Giblin said the congressman’s legacy inevitably must include his work on international human rights, an effort he made global in the truest sense.

“He was constantly taking trips trying to bridge the gap between Africa and other countries,” said the assemblyman, “but elsewhere also. Even in Ireland, (Sinn Fein leader) Gerry Adams would tell you he was influential in bringing about world peace. Adams repeated many times that Donald Payne played an influential role in never shying away from trying to bring about peace in Northern Ireland.

“I think he saw it all as interrelated: how critical it is to stop the erosions of Democratic governments worldwide, and if we fail to do so, that could haunt us on our own shores. He never stopped working at it. If he came home on a Thursday night from Washington, D.C., he would work all weekend. You never heard Donald Payne doing much for himself.”

The congressman’s son, Donald Payne Jr., serves as president of the Newark City Council, where Mr. Payne started as an elected official.

Friends and relatives worried about the congressman’s health during the course of the last year and a half as he battled colon cancer. In recent weeks, his colleagues first began to notice signs of physical deterioration.

Honored by the Legislative Black Caucus last month, the almost always reserved congressman was overcome by emotion.

National Democratic Party leaders last Thursday urged caucus members to take a break from the voting session to go to George Washington University Hospital to pay their respects to their colleague.

A day later, Mr. Payne left Washington, D.C., via medical transport plane to return home to Newark. 

“In accordance with his civil approach and global humanitarian efforts,” said his staff, “Rep. Payne would want us to carry on by defending against injustice and protecting human rights so that all mankind can pursue the excellence of the human potential.” U.S. Rep. Donald Payne: 1934-2012