Donald M. Payne, the first African American to represent New Jersey in the U.S. Congress, pursued a domestic and foreign policy agenda during his 12 terms in the U.S. House of Representatives. An experienced community activist and Newark elected official before his election to Congress, Payne delivered essential resources to his constituents while using his position to draw attention toward his legislative interests. “I want to be a congressman to serve as a model for the young people I talk to on the Newark street corners,” Payne said. “I want them to see there are no barriers to achievement. I want to give them a reason to try.”1
Donald Milford Payne was born on July 16, 1934, in Newark, New Jersey, son of William Evander Payne, a dock worker, and Norma Garrett Payne. Payne, along with his brother William and sister Kathryn, grew up in Doodletown, an Italian-American section of Newark. Payne later recalled, “Everyone, whites and blacks, worked for low wages, although we didn’t think of it as living in poverty, and there was a real sense of neighborhood, of depending on one another.”2 As a teenager, Payne joined a group called “The Leaguers,” which sought to promote inner city youth by providing social, educational, and work activities.3 The founders, Reynold and Mary Burch, were prominent African Americans in Newark and helped Payne secure a four-year scholarship at Seton Hall University. Payne graduated in 1957 with a degree in social studies; and later pursued graduate studies at Springfield College in Massachusetts. On June 15, 1958, he married Hazel Johnson. The couple raised three children—Donald, Jr., Wanda, and Nicole—before Hazel died in 1963. Payne never remarried. He taught English and social studies and coached football in the Newark public schools before working for a major insurance company. He later served as vice president of a computer forms manufacturing company founded by his brother.4
Payne became involved in politics at age 19 as manager of his brother’s successful campaign to serve as Newark’s first African-American district leader.5 He pursued community work through the local Young Men’s Christian Association (YMCA). From 1970 to 1973, Payne served as president of the YMCA of the United States—the first African American to hold that position. In 1972, he was elected to the Essex County board of freeholders. During his six years as a freeholder, he eventually chaired the board. In 1982, Payne won election to the city council of Newark.
Payne twice challenged Representative Peter Rodino in the Democratic primary for a U.S. House seat encompassing Newark and portions of Essex County. Arguing that the district had become overwhelmingly black (nearly 60 percent by the 1990 Census) and should be represented by an African American, Payne failed in 1980 and 1986 to unseat the influential, longtime chairman of the House Judiciary Committee.6 In 1988, however, when Rodino announced his retirement after 40 years in the House, Payne became a leading contender for the nomination to fill the open seat. In the June 1988 Democratic primary, he defeated Ralph T. Grant, a Newark city councilman, by a two-to-one ratio. In a district that voted overwhelmingly Democratic, Payne defeated Republican Michael Webb, a local teacher, with 77 percent of the vote in the general election. He won by similar margins in his subsequent 11 re-election campaigns.7
After Payne was sworn into the House on January 3, 1989, he received assignments on three committees: Government Operations; Education and Labor; and Foreign Affairs. He served on the Government Operations committee for two non-consecutive terms before leaving the committee at the start of the 104th Congress (1995–1997). Payne remained on the two other panels for the remainder of his House career.8 During the 103rd and 104th Congresses (1993–1997), Payne and other Members successfully lobbied to save the Foreign Affairs Committee’s Subcommittee on Africa from elimination. Payne also served as chairman of the Government Operations’ Subcommittee on Human Resources and Intergovernmental Affairs during the 102nd Congress. In the 110th Congress (2007–2009), Payne assumed the chairman’s gavel of the Foreign Affairs Committee’s Subcommittee on Africa and Global Health. Payne served as an assistant Whip throughout his congressional career.9
Payne established what the Almanac of American Politics called an “impeccably liberal voting record.”10 His domestic agenda focused on bringing financial resources to his district and promoting educational opportunities. One of his first pieces of legislation was a bill promoting National Literacy Day that became law.11 Payne sponsored bills that expanded educational opportunities such as the College Opportunity Act of 1991 (H.R. 3364), and the Urban Schools America Act of 1993 (H.R. 1202). An advocate for urban redevelopment, Payne successfully steered $6 million toward the building and improvement of parks in his district with the help of the New Jersey delegation during the 105th Congress (1997–1999).12 In the 104th Congress, Payne’s initiative to encourage workers to save more for their retirements culminated in the passage of the “Savings are Vital to Everyone’s Retirement” (SAVER) Act (H.R. 1377). The act amended the Employee Retirement Income Security Act of 1974 to direct the Secretary of Labor to maintain outreach programs to promote saving income for retirement. The bill also directed President William J. (Bill) Clinton to convene a national summit to discuss retirement savings in greater detail. Upon the bill’s passage, Payne commented, “The retirement clock is running out for millions of Americans and their families. . . . I am hopeful that the Summit will be far-reaching in providing information to American workers as well as to businesses about the type of savings plans that are presently available.”13
As chairman of the Congressional Black Caucus (CBC) during the 104th Congress, Payne’s reputation as being thoughtful, determined, and low-key guided his leadership style. “I think there is a lot of dignity in being able to achieve things without having to create rapture,” he once noted.14 During this Congress, the caucus lost its logistical support when the House leadership eliminated financing for legislative service organizations as a method to curb spending. Caucus members contributed staff and resources from their offices to keep the organization running.15 Payne became, according to Congressional Quarterly, “a vocal critic of the new Republican majority across a wide spectrum of issues, including affirmative action and welfare overhaul.” Payne oversaw the caucus’s program to block bills that could negatively affect African Americans, forming a task force to review upcoming legislation and regularly discussing strategy with President Bill Clinton.16
Like his CBC predecessors Charles C. Diggs, Jr., of Michigan and George Thomas (Mickey) Leland of Texas, Payne also advocated for greater U.S. engagement in Africa. As a senior member of the Foreign Affairs Committee, Representative Payne promoted fostering relations with sub-Saharan Africa and brought attention to international human rights issues.17 A frequent visitor to the African continent through his congressional career, Payne was dubbed the “unofficial ambassador of Congress to the nations of Africa.”18 During the 103rd Congress, Payne publicly questioned the Clinton administration’s decision to forcibly return Haitian refugees who risked their lives to sail to the United States on boats. He also criticized the administration’s failure to craft a comprehensive approach to Africa and its tepid response to the civil war in Rwanda.19 Payne’s concern for human rights abroad was reflected in his sponsorship of bills such as the Nigeria Democracy Act (H.R. 1786) and the Northern Ireland Peace and Reconciliation Act (H.R. 4494) during the 105th Congress.
During the George W. Bush administration (2001–2009), Payne worked with President Bush to bring attention to issues such as the HIV/AIDS epidemic in sub-Saharan Africa. He acknowledged that while he opposed Bush on the Iraq War and many domestic policies, nevertheless the President “was great on Africa and AIDS . . . He went beyond what any other president had done.” Payne praised the administration’s Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief, which provided $15 billion to combat the spread of HIV/AIDS in sub-Saharan Africa (P.L.108-25). In September 2003, President Bush appointed Payne to serve as a congressional delegate to United Nations.20
In February 2012, Payne announced that he was diagnosed with colon cancer and would seek treatment while tending to his congressional duties. He died of complications from his cancer in Livingston, New Jersey, on March 6, 2012.21 In November 2012, Payne’s son, Donald Payne, Jr., was elected in a special election to represent his father’s former district, making the Paynes the third African-American father-and-son pair ever to serve in Congress.
View Record in the Biographical Directory of the U.S. Congress
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