New Jersey Rep. Donald Payne died today of complications from colon cancer. The Democrat and former chairman of the Congressional Black Caucus was 77 years old. He died at St. Barnabas Hospital in Livingston, N.J., according to his office.
Payne was the first African American elected to the House of Representatives from New Jersey, in 1988. Representing the 10th District of the Garden State, his jurisdiction included counties that border New York City. A native of Newark, the congressman made alleviating poverty a key tenet of his 12 terms in office. He was one of the most progressive members of his state’s delegation.
Speaking on the House floor, fellow New Jersey Democrat Rep. Frank Pallone said the diversity of Payne’s district made him accustomed to working across party lines and ethnic barriers.
“He always thought that we could have a better world, that Democrats and Republicans could work together.”
The congressman was also well-known for his work on human rights. A member of the House Committee on Foreign Affairs, he was the ranking Democrat on the subcommittee dealing with Africa, and a member of a congressional delegation to the United Nations. In April 2009, mortar shells were fired toward a Somali airport as Payne’s plane was taking off, killing a number of civilians. Payne was in Mogadishu to discuss piracy and security issues with the prime minister.
Rep. Christopher Smith, R-N.J., joined Pallone. Smith, who served with Payne on the House Committee on Foreign Affairs, said Payne was a man who “truly cared” and “worked for peace and reconciliation in war-ravaged nations.”
Smith then led the chamber in a moment of silence.
In the Senate, Frank Lautenberg, D-N.J., paid tribute to Payne by saying that for many years he had been struck by Payne’s “soft-spoken demeanor.”
“That kind of made him a rarity in politics, as we know here. But Congressman Payne knew he didn’t have to raise his voice. His ideas were powerful enough.”
In a written statement, President Obama called Payne a “leader in U.S.-Africa policy, making enormous contributions toward helping tp restore democracy and human rights across the continent.”
Before his election to the U.S. House of Representatives, Payne was the first black president of the YMCA. He served on the Newark city council and spent time as an elementary school teacher. He was also a board member for several nonprofit organizations, including the Boys and Girls Club of Newark.
Last month, Payne announced he was undergoing treatment for colon cancer. He was flown to his home state from Georgetown University Hospital in Washington when his health deteriorated.
Payne is survived by three children and four grandchildren. His son, Donald Payne Jr., follows his father’s footsteps as a city council member in Newark.