Donald M. Payne, who served 12 terms in the House of Representatives and was the first African American congressman from New Jersey, died March 6 at a hospital in Livingston, N.J., according to a statement from his office. He was 77 and had colon cancer.
Rep. Payne was first elected to the U.S. House in 1988, taking over the seat that had previously been held for 40 years by Peter W. Rodino, former chairman of the House Judiciary Committee. The district encompassed parts of Jersey City, Elizabeth and his hometown of Newark.
He was the head of a family political dynasty in New Jersey and was a past chairman of the Congressional Black Caucus.
He was considered a vocal advocate for education, labor, health care and fair housing and helped push through legislation to increase education grants for students and reduce interest rates on college loans.
He was a longtime member of the House Foreign Relations Committee, and a past chairman of its Africa and global health subcommittee, He was among the first public officials to denounce mass killings in the Darfur region of Sudan as “genocide.”
“This is a pariah government, which once harbored Osama bin Laden and took more than 20 years to even begin to end its civil war with the south,” Rep. Payne told The Washington Post in 2004. “Darfur could happen again if we don’t condemn this government’s role in planning and executing” the militia’s campaign of killing.
He also served on an influential advisory group to Democratic congressional leaders and was a member of the Democratic steering committee, which assigns committee posts and develops the party’s legislative priorities.
Because he seldom faced political opposition in his district, Rep. Payne “had the luxury of following his heart in his voting record,” said Brigid Callahan Harrison, a professor of political science and law at Montclair State University in New Jersey. “He was consistently one of the most liberal members of Congress.”
In 1994, Rep. Payne led a presidentially appointed delegation to Rwanda, seeking to end the ethnic violence that claimed hundreds of thousands of lives. In 2004, he called for the creation of an international war crimes tribunal to hold Sudanese militia members responsible for widespread massacres in Darfur. Within a year, the International Criminal Court began an investigation of atrocities committed in Darfur.
“Don Payne stood for human rights throughout his career,” Mark Schneider, senior vice president at the International Crisis Group, a human rights organization, said in an interview. “He forced several administrations to acknowledge what was happening throughout Africa and pressed for major diplomatic and financial commitments to Africa.”
Twice during visits to Somalia, Rep. Payne’s airplane was fired on by militants, but he escaped injury. He made so many trips to Africa and Haiti that he was sometimes accused of neglecting his constituents in New Jersey. In response, he often pointed to millions of dollars in federal spending that he steered toward projects in his district.
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Mostly shock at work today. Wonderful advocate on the Hill.