New Jersey Rep. Donald Payne Jr. dies

  • Oops!
    Something went wrong.
    Please try again later.
  • Oops!
    Something went wrong.
    Please try again later.

Donald M. Payne Jr., a member of a prominent Newark political family who represented the city and nearby communities in Congress for over 11 years, died Wednesday following a heart attack brought on by complications from diabetes, his office said.

Payne, 65, entered Congress somewhat reluctantly in 2012 following the death of his father, Rep. Donald Payne Sr., who was the first Black person elected to Congress in New Jersey and who became one of the city’s luminaries during his more than two decades in Congress.

Payne had been hospitalized and reportedly unconscious since the April 6 heart attack.

Though he never developed the high profile of his father and was stricken with health problems during the last several years that led to him to frequently vote by proxy, Payne Jr. was well-liked by his colleagues and served as chair and ranking member of the House Subcommittee on Railroads, Pipelines, and Hazardous Materials.

On that committee, he was instrumental in securing funding for the biggest infrastructure project in the state: The Gateway Project to replace the dilapidated century-old train tunnels between New Jersey and Manhattan.

“It was my great honor to work side-by-side with Donald to build a stronger and fairer New Jersey, and we will hold his memory close to our hearts as we build upon the Payne family’s deep legacy of service in advocating for the communities they served so dearly,” Gov. Phil Murphy said in a statement announcing the congressman’s death.

Payne’s district, which includes parts of Essex, Hudson and Union counties, is one of the most heavily Democratic in the country. Primary ballots were due to be mailed on April 20, so his name will remain on the ballot. His successor as a general election candidate is expected be determined by members of the Democratic county committees in the towns covered by his district.

The governor has the authority to call a special election to replace Payne for the remainder of his current term. When his father died in March 2012, then-Gov. Chris Christie called a special election for that November to coincide with the regularly-scheduled general election.

While in Congress, Payne emphasized expanding access to health care.

In 2021, he sponsored legislation to promote screening for colorectal cancer, the cause of his father’s death. Last year, he introduced the Amputation Reduction and Compassion Act to promote screenings for peripheral arterial disease with the aim of reducing amputations brought about by the condition, which is often associated with diabetes.

Payne is survived by his wife Beatrice and their three adult triplets: Donald III, Jack and Yvonne.

The Payne family is one of the most prominent in Newark politics. In addition to Donald Payne Sr.’s time in Congress, Payne Jr.’s uncle William and cousin Craig Stanley both served lengthy tenures in the New Jersey Assembly.

Payne Jr., a Hillside High graduate who grew up on Newark’s Bock Avenue and lived on the street his entire life, began his political career as a teenager when he founded the South Ward Junior Democrats.

He began working in government in 1990 with the former New Jersey Highway Authority, then with the Essex County Educational Services Commission from 1996 until 2006, where he served as supervisor of student transportation.

“As a former union worker and toll collector, he deeply understood the struggles our working families face, and he fought valiantly to serve their needs, every single day,” Murphy said. “That purpose was the light that guided him through his early years as Newark City Council President and during his tenure on the Essex County Board of Commissioners. And it guided him still through his more than a decade of service in Congress.”

Payne was first elected to office in 2005 as an at-large Essex County freeholder, and just months later successfully ran for an at-large seat on the Newark City Council. That was shortly before New Jersey banned dual office-holding for most politicians. Payne remained in both positions — he was elevated to Newark council president in 2010 — until his father’s death and his election to Congress.

Payne often cut a unique image on the House floor with his colorful dress and bow ties.

“Always dressed to the nines. During campaign time, you can see him sporting a ‘RUN DMP’ shirt, a witty play on the popular hip-hop group RUN DMC,” state Sen. Britnee Timberlake, an Essex County Democrat, wrote following the disclosure of Payne’s grave condition.

Other members of New Jersey’s congressional delegation expressed their grief at Payne’s passing.

"We have lost Donald far too soon but the Payne name will live on in Newark and North Jersey forever," said Democratic Rep. Bill Pascrell.

Rep. Frank Pallone, a Democrat, said Payne called him “Uncle Frank” whenever they saw each other because of a strong relationship forged after Payne’s father died.