Rep. Donald Payne, New Jersey’s first African-American congressman and a former Congressional Black Caucus chairman, has died. He was 77.
Payne's brother, William, told the Associated Press, that he died Tuesday morning at St. Barnabas Hospital. Payne returned to New Jersey Friday, less than a month after he disclosed that he had been diagnosed with colon cancer.
Payne has represented the 10th District in northern New Jersey since 1988 and was elected to a 12th term in 2010. He was a member of the House education and foreign affairs committees and previously served as chairman of the House subcommittee on Africa.
Payne served as the chairman of the Congressional Black Caucus Foundation, whose mission is to advance the global Black community by developing leaders through internship and fellowship programs, informing policy and educating the public. He also is a past chairman of the Congressional Black Caucus.
“By any standard, Don lived a full and meaningful life. After serving as the first African American president of the National Council of YMCAs, and then several years in local government, Don went on to become the first African American Congressman to represent the state of New Jersey,” President Obama said in a statement. “In Washington, he made it his mission to fight for working families, increase the minimum wage, ensure worker safety, guarantee affordable health care and improve the educational system. He was a leader in US-Africa policy, making enormous contributions towards helping restore democracy and human rights across the continent.”
Payne was vocal in the passage of legislation to increase the minimum wage, the Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Act; Worker Health and Safety legislation; and the historic America’s Affordable Health Choices Act of 2009. Through his public policy efforts, billions of dollars for economic development and other key programs have been allocated to Essex, Hudson and Union counties in his New Jersey district.
But those familiar with Payne know that Africa was his true passion and he traveled to the continent several times, most memorably in April 2009, when mortar shells were fired toward the Mogadishu airport as the plane he was on was taking off. Payne had made a one-day trip to the Somali capital to meet with the nation’s president and prime minister to discuss piracy and cooperation between Somalia and the United States.
"Africa has lost its greatest champion in Congress. He constantly reminded the Congressional Black Caucus, the Democratic Caucus, indeed, the entire Congress, of Africa's contribution to this nation and [its] role in helping to make our country great,” said Rep. Jesse Jackson Jr.
The 24-year veteran disclosed that he was battling colon cancer in February but said that he was expected to make a full recovery and planned to run for re-election this year. Last week, however, his condition took a sudden turn for the worse and he was flown home to New Jersey.
A graduate of Seton Hall University, Payne pursued graduate studies at Springfield College in Massachusetts. He received honorary doctorates from Drew University, Essex County College, William Paterson University, Chicago State University, Bloomfield College and Berkeley College.
Payne was a widower with three children and four grandchildren. His son, Donald Payne Jr., is a Newark city councilman.
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(Photo: Susana Vera / Reuters)