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.
After serving more than a decade in local political posts, Payne decided he wanted to represent Newark from Capitol Hill. He tried twice to unseat Democratic Rep. Peter Rodino, who represented New Jersey’s 10th District for 40 years. When Rodino retired in 1988, Payne coasted to victory, just as he did in the 11 succeeding elections.
Shortly after news broke of Payne's death, his colleagues in the House quickly issued statements reflecting on his years of service and his legacy.
"New Jersey has lost one of its greatest leaders in the fight for equality and fairness for all Americans, and one of the greatest advocates for families of the Garden State," Rep. Bill Pascrell (D-N.J.) said. "Donald Payne was a true trailblazer — a champion for education and civil rights. ... I will greatly miss my friend and brother."
Rep. Howard Berman (Calif.), the top Democrat on the Foreign Affairs Committee, also praised Payne's commitment to equality and justice, as well as his wide-reaching influence.
"Today we have all lost a champion for the undeserved, a voice for the downtrodden, a leader for peoples and causes that are too often neglected," he said in a statement. "Presidents, Prime Ministers and many of his colleagues in Congress followed Don's lead and sought out his counsel."
"I was proud to recognize Congressman Payne's global advocacy by recommending that President George W. Bush name him a congressional delegate to the United Nations," Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) said. "He earned respect around the world for his outspoken advocacy on behalf of human rights and the worth and dignity of every person."