Longtime New Jersey Rep. Donald Payne dies from colon cancer

Rep. Donald Payne (D-N.J.), a 12-term member of Congress and former chairman of the Congressional Black Caucus, died Tuesday at age 77.

The cause was complications from colon cancer, his office said. He disclosed in February that he was being treated for the disease, and his condition deteriorated in the last week.

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“New Jersey has lost a noble public servant, and the world has lost an amazing human being,” a statement from Payne’s office read. 

“Those of us who have been fortunate enough to know and work with Rep. Payne have lost a dear friend and inspiring mentor. Rep. Payne once stated, ‘There is a lot of dignity in being able to achieve things without having to create rapture.’ In accordance with his civil approach and global humanitarian efforts, Rep. Payne would want us to carry on by defending against injustice and protecting human rights so that all mankind can pursue the excellence of the human potential.”

First elected in 1988, Payne represented parts of Newark in New Jersey’s 10th district and led a prominent political family in the state. He was the first African-American elected to Congress from New Jersey, and led the CBC in 1995 and 1996.

Tributes poured in from leaders in both parties, who hailed Payne as a champion of the downtrodden who made his mark in education policy and U.S.-Africa relations.

President Obama said he and his wife were “saddened” to hear of Payne’s death. He ended his news conference at the White House on Tuesday with a tribute to Payne, calling him a “wonderful man; did great work, both domestically and internationally. He was a friend of mine. And so my heart goes out to his family and to his colleagues.”

Flags at the U.S. Capitol and at the state Capitol in New Jersey were lowered to half-staff. 

New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie (R) said Payne was “a great role model for every person in New Jersey who aspires to public service.” 

“He was a true gentleman, and we considered him a friend,” the governor said.

The House held a moment of silence and unanimously approved a resolution honoring Payne on Tuesday.

“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 in a statement. “Donald Payne was a true trailblazer — a champion for education and civil rights who sought to combat injustice all over the world. I will greatly miss my friend and brother.”

When he first disclosed that he had colon cancer in February, Payne said his doctors expected a full recovery and that he intended to run for a 13th term in November.

But his condition worsened quickly, and he did not make it back to the House floor.

Before returning to New Jersey on Friday, Payne was hospitalized in Washington, where a steady stream of CBC members visited, including the chairman, Rep. Emanuel Cleaver (D-Mo.), who was “at his bed three or four times in the last week,” according to a source familiar with those visits.

A 23-year veteran of Capitol Hill, Payne was the ranking Democrat on the House Foreign Affairs subcommittee on Africa, Global Health and Human Rights, and his interest in U.S.-Africa relations almost got him killed during a 2009 visit to Somalia.

Leaving Mogadishu, Somalia’s capital, Payne became the target of Islamic militants who fired mortar rounds at his plane, according to a New York Times report on the incident. Ten people were injured in the attack; Payne was not among them.

“We fired on the airport to target the so-called Democratic congressman sent by Obama,” said a spokesman for the group behind the attack, the Times reported. “Let him go back with the message of our strength and enmity towards the U.S. and its allies.”

Obama had warned Payne against taking the trip, the Times reported.

The top Democrat on the House Foreign Affairs Committee, Rep. Howard Berman (Calif.), praised Payne as “a champion for the underserved, a voice for the downtrodden, a leader for peoples and causes that are too often neglected.”

He was also a senior member of the Education and the Workforce Committee.

Payne represented a safely Democratic district, and the race to replace him is not expected to affect the balance in the House. The winner of the Democratic primary for his seat is likely to also win in the general election. It is up to the governor of New Jersey to set the date of the special election. Christie’s office has not yet indicated when that will be.

Payne was born in 1934 and grew up in Newark, where he later worked as a schoolteacher and a business executive, including as national president of the YMCA. 

He served in local elected office in the 1970s and 1980s. After losing his first race for the House in 1986, he won in 1988 and has been reelected easily ever since. 

Payne’s wife predeceased him. He has three children; his son, Donald Payne Jr., is president of the Newark City Council.

Mike Lillis, Pete Kasperowicz and Josh Lederman contributed.

This story was updated at 12:29 p.m. and 8:21 p.m.