Rep. Donald Payne died today, just weeks after announcing that he had colon cancer.
The New Jersey Democrat, first elected to Congress in 1988, was 77. Payne’s condition showed signs of deterioration early Friday when he was being taken from Washington, D.C., back to New Jersey by medical transport plane.
Payne, the first African-American to represent New Jersey in Congress, will be remembered for his tireless advocacy for humanitarian relief for Africa.
On Friday, the U.S. Agency for International Development announced the creation of the Donald Payne Development Fellowship, which will “attract outstanding young people to careers in international development.”
“There have been few greater friends of USAID, and Rep. Payne’s legacy of helping people and solving problems around the world will continue through this fellowship,” USAID administrator Rajiv Shah said.
At the helm of the Foreign Affairs Subcommittee on Africa, Global Health and Human Rights, Payne was a leader in legislative efforts to free political prisoners in Ethiopia, to pressure the dictatorial president of the Ivory Coast to step down and to provide financial relief to Haiti after the devastating earthquake in 2010.
His passion for his work occasionally put him in tight spots. In 2001 Payne was arrested for chaining himself to the gates of the Sudanese Embassy in protest of the country’s genocide of black Africans in Darfur. And during a 2009 visit to Somalia to meet with the president and prime minister, insurgents fired mortar shells at his airplane during take-off.
Payne also took an international focus when he assumed the chairmanship of the Congressional Black Caucus Foundation in 2010.
“We must continue to expand our vision internationally,” he said. “We will partner with African nations in an effort to look at the intersection of African-Americans and Africans as we journey through the challenges and opportunities in health, education and economic empowerment.”
Payne, often described as “low-key,” was generally able to do his job without controversy since arriving in Washington in 1989.
In 2010, however, he was exonerated for unwittingly violating House gift rules but still had to repay about $10,400 for a trip to the Caribbean.
In 2007, a former intern pleaded guilty to illegally using Payne’s stationery and stamped signature to get U.S. visas for 11 individuals from Cameroon.
Born and raised in Newark, Payne returned home after graduating from Seton Hall University to work as a high school history teacher and football coach while also running a YMCA in Newark out of a storefront. He continued to stay involved with the YMCA throughout his life: he was the first black president of the National Council of YMCAs in 1970, and until his death, he was a board member of the Newark chapter.
Payne maintained a link with his community even when taking on business ventures, such as that of community affairs director of the Newark-based Prudential Insurance Co.