Like father like son: NJ Rep. Payne following in the footsteps of dad

If Rep. Donald Payne Jr. (D-N.J.) runs for mayor of Newark, N.J., it will be one of the few times his political path has diverged from his father’s.

Payne Jr. — elected last year to fill the vacancy left open by his father’s death — told The Hill he is entertaining the idea of running for mayor now that Cory Booker (D) seems poised to win a seat in the Senate later this year.

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“I think you always leave it open and entertain it,” Payne said. He also hinted at a run earlier this month in The Star-Ledger. 

Payne said he has received solicitations from some local government officials and constituents who have told him he can “unite the city.” 

“If the electorate is coming to you to say they want you … These are citizens in the street saying, ‘please come back. Please, the city is in disarray.’ Am I just going to ignore them or shrug them off? I have to entertain it,” he said. 

He noted that he already has a job in Congress and is not one to back out of a commitment. However, when pressed on whether that ruled out a run in the near term, he said, “We are still looking at it.” 

The mayoral race is held in May 2014 and would not require him to give up his seat in Congress in order to run. If Booker is elected to the Senate in October, the city council would be tasked with appointing an interim mayor until then, a state Democratic official said. 

Though rare, it is not unheard of for a House member to run for mayor of a large city. Last year, former Rep. Bob Filner (D-Calif.) gave up a seat in the House to become mayor of San Diego. Former Rep. Anthony Weiner (D-N.Y.) had aspirations to run for mayor of New York City while still a congressman and has since announced a bid. 

The last New Jersey congressman — and the only one in the last 100 years — to become mayor of Newark was Hugh Joseph Addonizio in 1962. 

Whatever Payne’s thinking, he will have vastly more time to decide than last year when he was thrust into his current House seat. 

Payne began receiving calls to run a day after the burial of his father and namesake, Donald Payne Sr., a 12-term House incumbent and the first black representative from New Jersey, who died of colon cancer last March.

Payne was still grieving and politely asked for a little more time to get his thoughts together. 

Apologies were exchanged and Payne hung up. A day later, Payne received another call asking if he had made a decision. Under pressure to decide, he agreed to run. 

“I wanted to wait until after the weekend and get my thoughts together, but it was moving — well, most things move much more quickly than I do. But it was just moving at that pace, and I had to make the decision,” Payne said.  

Up to this point, Payne has made political moves emblematic of his father. Both served on the Newark city council and as Essex County freeholders before entering Congress. 

The younger Payne said he did not chart a path to mirror his father’s, nor was he pressured to follow his father into elected office.

“It is just the opportunities sort of presented themselves in that order,” Payne said. “And it is really kind of eerie the parallels that our lives have had. It wasn’t any plan. It just kind of fell that way.”

Payne even retained the majority of his father’s old legislative staff after the election, including his chief of staff. 

He said the veteran staff was invaluable after an election in which his opponents and the media alike branded him as a wholly unqualified candidate who was riding his last name to victory. 

Though he won the primary and general elections easily, The Star-Ledger had endorsed one of his opponents in the Democratic primary, arguing Payne had “only the vaguest grip on key federal issues” and his claim to the seat was “based entirely on his last name.” 

That criticism has followed Payne throughout his political career, he said. He concedes that his father’s legacy has helped, but said voters ultimately elected him because he had something to offer. 

“It opened the door … One of [former Vice President ] Cheney’s daughters just announced she was going to run for Senate in Wyoming. What opened the door?” Payne said.

Payne and his father never discussed his potential run for Congress. His father’s death came too quickly. Payne was president of the Newark city council at the time of his father’s death and had been rumored to be next in line for mayor before the congressional seat opened up. 

“It was that sudden,” he said. “There wasn’t any discussion. We had a congressman. We didn’t expect him to be going anywhere. But that’s not how it played out, so here I am.”