Donald Payne, six-term congressman from New Jersey, dies at 65 - New Jersey Globe (2024)

Rep. Donald Payne Jr. (D-Newark) – an immensely likable, low-key but effective, progressive six-term congressman from New Jersey with a passion for social justice and constituent service – died today. He was 65.

Payne suffered a heart attack on April 6 and had been unconscious and on a ventilator since then at Newark Beth Israel Medical Center. He battled a series of health issues in recent years, including diabetes, high blood pressure, and kidney issues that required regular dialysis.

According to Payne’s office, the Newark Democrat “experienced a physical accident at home…which necessitated hospitalization.”

“During his treatment for this health issue, he faced medical complications due to diabetes and high blood pressure that led to subsequent cardiorespiratory arrest,” Payne’s office said in a statement this afternoon. “Despite the dedicated efforts of the medical staff to treat him and improve his health, they were unable to prevent his passing, unfortunately.”

He is unopposed in the Democratic primary.

Payne’s father, Rep. Donald Payne Sr. (D-Newark), was a trailblazer in New Jersey politics. When he was elected to Congress in 1988, the winner of an open seat after twice challenging Rep. Peter W. Rodino (D-Newark) in the Democratic primary in a Black-majority district, he became New Jersey’s first-ever Black representative.

Following his father’s death of colon cancer in March 2012 at age 77, Payne became a candidate for the U.S. House of Representatives and won a tough primary in New Jersey’s 10th district.

As a Democrat, Payne checked all the boxes for support among progressive voters: he supported Medicare for All, Green New Deal, Racial Justice, Equal Rights for all, Reproductive Freedom, public transportation, and free college tuition.

Payne became a national leader in a move to fund clean drinking water projects across the nation that resulted in the passage of a House infrastructure bill that included $55 billion for the national replacement of lead pipes. Nearly $200 million went to replace more than 24,000 lead pipes in Newark.

In a bid to reduce community gun violence, Payne was a sponsor of the Safer Neighborhoods Gun Buyback Act of 2019.
As a proponent of making childcare, housing, and prescription drugs more affordable and fighting climate change, Payne voted for the Build Back Better Act. He supported legislation to expand the Voting Rights Act, to provide to citizenship for undocumented immigrants, and the George Floyd Justice in Policing Act.

Under a Democratic majority, Payne served as chairman of the House Transportation and Infrastructure Subcommittee on Railroads, Pipelines, and Hazardous Materials. He had previously headed the House Homeland Security Subcommittee on Emergency Preparedness, Response, and Recovery.

Born in Newark on December 17, 1958, Payne was just five years old when his mother, Hazel, died. That left his father to raise three children alone.

He served as president of the South Ward Young Democrats and worked as a Garden State Parkway toll collector and for the Essex County Educational Services Commission before becoming a candidate.

Payne began his own electoral career the same way his father had in 1972: running in a countywide election as a candidate for Essex County Freeholder. Democrats put Payne on the organization line in 2005 to replace Albertus Jenkins, who opted not to seek re-election. Running with three incumbents, Payne was the top vote-getter with about 105,000 votes against a ticket headed by Republican Candace Straight.

He was re-elected in 2008 and 2011, the top vote-getter in primary and general elections in every county race he ran in.

In 2006, Payne ran for anat-large seat on the Newark City Council. That was the year Cory Booker was first elected mayor.

In the May non-partisan municipal election, he finished fifth out of twelve candidates in a race for four seats. Seven at-large candidates made it to a June runoff, including three incumbents who ran with Booker: Luis Quintana (20,479), Mildred Crump (18,441), and Carlos Gonzalez (14,158). Ras Baraka, now the mayor of Newark, received 15,512 votes, and Payne got 13,198.

In the runoff, Payne finished third with 16,489 votes, behind Crump (18,550) and Quintana (17,460). Gonzalez (15,580) captured the fourth seat, ending out Baraka (11,435) by 4,145 votes.

As a candidate for re-election in 2010, Payne was the top vote-getter with 20,358 votes, followed by Mildred Crump (18,918), Luis Quintana (17,546), and Carlos Gonzalez (15,547). The fifth-place finisher was John Sharpe James (12,589), the son of the former mayor, followed by Carol Graves (7,141), the former Essex County Register of Deeds and Mortgages and onetime Newark Teacher’s Union president.

Payne became the city council president when the council reorganized in July 2010.

Running for Congress in 2012, Payne had the organization line as the endorsed candidate for the Essex County Democrats.

He faced a crowded field of six candidates that included: Newark West Ward City Councilman Ronald C. Rice, the son of a popular state senator; State Sen. Nia Gill (D-Montclair); Irvington Mayor Wayne Smith; and newcomers Iraq War veteran Dennis Flynn and Cathy Wright, who worked in the billing office at the Star-Ledger.

Gill had the county line in Hudson after winning the endorsem*nt of the Democratic county chairman, Bayonne Mayor Mark Smith. But U.S. Senator Bob Menendez and then-Jersey City Councilman Steven Fulop endorsed Payne.

Three Newark city council members – Baraka, Crump, and Darrin Sharif – endorsed Rice.

Union County Democrats put Payne, Rice, Gill, and Smith on the organization line.

Payne won the Democratic primary with 59.6%, defeating Rice (19.5%) by 24,627 votes. Gill finished third with 16.6%, running 1,732 votes behind Rice. Smith received just 2.2%, followed by Flynn (1.3%) and Wright, who had less than one percent of the vote.

Payne won Essex County with 61% of the vote, followed by Rice (23%), Gill (13%), and Smith 2%. Gill carried the Hudson County portion of the district by a 49%-39% margin over Payne; Union County gave Payne 69.5%.

Payne ran in two different elections in two different districts that day, seeking his father’s unexpired term as well as a full two-year term. Congressional redistricting that year changed the boundaries slightly.

Gill did not compete in the special primary, and Payne defeated Rice by 22,423 votes, 70.7% to 24.6%, with Smith finishing third with 4.8%.

New Jersey’s 10th district is one of the most Democratic in the nation, and Payne won his first term in Congress with 87.6% against Republican Brian Kelemen. The GOP didn’t run anyone in the special election, and Payne defeated independent Joanne Miller with 97.4% of the vote.

Payne endorsed Shavar Jeffries for mayor in his race for mayor of Newark against Baraka in 2014.

Payne caught some bad press in June 2021 when a live Zoom camera caught him unawares, in his underpants and a Captain America T-shirt, while in the middle of a committee hearing. The incident prompted criticism from Payne’s Republican House colleagues and significant embarrassment back home in New Jersey. The episode happened because a technologically challenged Baby Boomer congressman was alone because his staff was not known for early arrivals at the office. Payne used self-deprecating humor to diffuse the situation.

The following year, he faced what appeared to be his first serious primary challenge in a decade. Imani Oakley entered the race against Payne, hoping to harness the same progressive energy that had propelled other left-wing underdogs like Reps. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and Jamaal Bowman to victory in next-door New York districts. She raised $462,671.

Oakley tried to run to Payne’s left, though the congressman hasn’t left a massive amount of room for her to do so, promoting endorsem*nts from progressive luminaries like Rep. Pramila Jayapal (D-WA) and Gov. Phil Murphy. Payne has voted 97% of the time with Rep. Alexandra Ocasio-Cortez (D-New York), the hero of the national progressive movement, during the 117th Congress. No other New Jersey House member has voted with Ocasio-Cortez more frequently than Payne.

But Oakley proved to be a deeply flawed, mountebank candidate who held a variety of jobs in progressive organizations in recent years but hadn’t been able to hold any of them, and didn’t run with any particular institutional backing. Her former employers – U.S. Senator Cory Booker, then-Assemblywoman Britnee Timberlake (D-East Orange), and New Jersey Working Families – endorsed Payne for re-election.

Recognizing that his political image had faded, Payne took the challenge seriously from the start and began building his dormant campaign organization back up. Needing 200 signatures to get on the ballot, he submitted nearly 10,000 – a symbolic gesture that reconnected his field team with the voters of the 10th district – and raised $1,375,800, far more than in previous cycles. Under the tutelage of Democratic State Chairman LeRoy Jones, Jr. and Rep. Josh Gottheimer (D-Wyckoff), Payne became a fundraising powerhouse, relatively speaking.

Payne also made serious inroads with the left wing of the Democratic Party, which has never been fully in his corner but which distrusted Oakley far more. He won endorsem*nts from unions that might typically be allied with liberal causes– the New Jersey Education Association, AFCME, and the CWA – as well as Planned Parenthood, Baraka, and Fulop.

Because of the strength of the Democratic Party organization in Essex County, Payne would likely have beaten Oakley even if he’d been operating on autopilot. But his strong campaign netted him a huge win, garnering 84% of the vote with Oakley far behind at just 10%. With that victory came newfound recognition from New Jersey Democrats that Payne was indeed a competent, hardworking lawmaker with real progressive chops.

Following his father’s death, Payne actively promoted enhanced awareness of colon cancer and colonoscopies, especially among low-income residents in his district. He was a member of the Congressional Men’s Health Caucus, the Colorectal Cancer Caucus, and the Peripheral Artery Disease Caucus.

Payne is survived by his wife, Beatrice, and their triplets: Donald III, Jack, and Yvonne.

He is also survived by his uncle, William Payne, and his cousin, Craig Stanley, both former assemblymen from Essex County. He was predeceased by his parents and his sister, Wanda.

This story was updated at 2:19 PM with comment from Payne’s office.

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Donald Payne, six-term congressman from New Jersey, dies at 65 - New Jersey Globe (2024)
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