“Leader,” “champion” and “friend” — those words were echoed in the countless statements released in the hours following the death of Rep. Donald Payne.
The 12-term New Jersey Democrat died Tuesday at the age of 77 from complications from colon cancer, four days after his condition began to deteriorate. He had announced his diagnosis a few weeks earlier, at which time he said the prognosis was good.
Payne, described as quiet and low-key, was not as big a personality on Capitol Hill as some others. But he had tremendous influence and respect among his colleagues on both sides of the aisle, reflected in the outpouring of emotion at the news of his death.
The first African-American to represent New Jersey in Washington, D.C., Payne was the Congressional Black Caucus chairman in the mid-1990s. Since 2010, he had served as board chairman of the Congressional Black Caucus Foundation.
“The Congressional Black Caucus lost a beloved and tremendous member,” CBC Chairman Emanuel Cleaver (D-Mo.) said. “I am particularly grateful for his constant encouragement and lessons on the great history of this caucus.”
As ranking member on the Foreign Affairs Subcommittee on Africa, Global Health and Human Rights, Payne was also a prolific traveler throughout Africa and a staunch advocate for foreign aid in developing countries.
Payne’s colleagues looked to him as a guidepost for his thoughts on foreign policy matters in Africa. They also saw him as a moral compass for how and when Congress should get involved in human rights issues there.
“Donald was a champion of the lesser among us who saw wrong and fought tirelessly to make it right,” Rep. Charlie Rangel (D-N.Y.) said.
“Africa has lost its greatest champion in Congress,” Rep. Jesse Jackson Jr. (D-Ill.) added. “He constantly reminded the Congressional Black Caucus, the Democratic Caucus, indeed, the entire Congress of Africa’s contribution to this nation and Africa’s role in helping to make our country great. [He] was the consistent voice that reminded us of our obligation to the motherland.”
Fellow New Jersey Rep. Chris Smith, the top Republican on the Africa subcommittee and Payne’s ranking member when Democrats controlled the House, said he knew “firsthand how much [Payne] truly cared and how hard he worked for peace and reconciliation in war-ravaged nations.”
Payne’s vast body of expertise in African politics and policy were also noted in statements by lawmakers who worked and traveled with him.
“Congress lost its best teacher on Africa,” said Rep. Barbara Lee (D-Calif.), who also chaired the CBC and served with Payne on the Africa subcommittee. There, she said, he spearheaded legislation to address the global AIDS pandemic and genocide in Darfur.
Rules Chairman David Dreier (R-Calif.), who last November traveled with Payne to Egypt to witness its first parliamentary elections, cited his “encyclopedic knowledge” on foreign affairs.
Members also recalled how Payne championed disadvantaged communities at home, too, particularly from his perch on the Education and Workforce Committee.
“Working people across the country could always count on Donald to stand up for them when it came to their health, safety and fair treatment on the job,” ranking member George Miller (D-Calif.) said. “He was a tireless advocate for all children … giving [them] a better chance at a brighter future.”
Some Members also lost a close friend Tuesday.
“I saw him on Saturday for the last time, and I can’t think of anybody who in this House has been closer to me and someone who made it so much better for us to be in Congress,” said Rep. Frank Pallone (D), another member of the New Jersey delegation, on the House floor. “I will sorely miss him. I don’t think there will be anybody that can replace him.”