For the first time since he won the nomination to succeed his late father in Congress a decade ago, New Jersey Rep. Donald M. Payne Jr. is facing a competitive primary, prompting the five-term Democrat to step up his campaign efforts.
First elected in a 2012 special election in which he got 71 percent of the primary vote, Payne has never gotten less than 83 percent in a general election since then and has averaged 93 percent in primaries, including 100 percent when no one challenged him in 2016.
This year, however, he faces Imani Oakley, a political organizer and former Capitol Hill and New Jersey Legislature staffer who topped him in fundraising during last year’s third quarter, in the June 6 Democratic primary.
For the mild-mannered Payne, a former Newark city councilman who has often worked behind the scenes, it has meant talking more about his record while lining up endorsements and diving into fundraising.
For years, New Jersey’s delegation has been pushing to secure funding for a new rail tunnel under the Hudson River to replace one that was built at the start of the last century and is still used by tens of thousands of commuters into New York City daily. Payne is trying to make sure voters know about the work he did as chairman of the House Transportation Railroads, Pipelines and Hazardous Materials Subcommittee on the massive infrastructure package President Joe Biden signed that could make the new tunnel, and extra tracks and bridges connecting his native Newark to it, a reality.
“I’m starting to talk about the things that I’ve accomplished because it seems like there is a disconnect from what I’m doing and people knowing what I’ve done,” he said in a short interview at the Capitol last week.
He’s also had to step up his fundraising game after historically raising far less than the average House member.
“I usually defer to Frontliners and people that were in trouble, and I sat back, but I find myself in the position now needing the resources,” Payne said.
In his five campaigns from 2012 through 2020, Payne’s total fundraising never topped $600,000, while the amount raised by the average House member ranged from $1.7 million to $2.7 million per cycle, according to OpenSecrets, a nonpartisan campaign finance tracking site.
It didn’t matter though. Payne has easily won reelection each cycle, and according to Federal Election Commission filings, he had significant cash advantages over his opponents each election cycle. In some cycles, in fact, he faced opponents who spent no money.
Oakley said that Payne has benefited from New Jersey’s “machine” style of politics and that he has been inactive in the role so voters don’t know him. She is pushing issues like housing and the environment and says the district needs “somebody who is not just inheriting a seat and keeping it warm.”
“When I go door-to-door and when we’re canvassing, the No. 1 thing I hear, before I even get to talk about policy, is that people are ready for a change here in New Jersey,” she said. “They use the phrase, ‘We’re ready for a new blood.’”
Oakley said she expected to post a six-figure fundraising number for the first quarter of this year when disclosures are filed at the end of this week. Through the end of 2021, she had raised $261,000 but had $103,000 in cash on hand, compared with the $400,000 Payne had in the bank. In the third quarter of last year, Oakley took in $124,000 to Payne’s $68,000.
Payne is backed by the county Democratic organizations in his district, which means he’ll get preferential ballot placement alongside other party-endorsed candidates, an advantage known as “the line” that makes primary challenges difficult in many parts of the state.
New Jersey’s governor and two senators have also made public endorsements, as did many House colleagues, including Speaker Nancy Pelosi and Congressional Progressive Caucus Chair Pramila Jayapal, D-Wash.
He was also included in the first round of endorsements last month from Team Blue PAC, an effort chaired by Reps. Josh Gottheimer of New Jersey, Hakeem Jeffries of New York and Terri A. Sewell of Alabama.
“I am proud to fight side-by-side with him for affordable healthcare, free college tuition, and to improve the federal response to flooding and other climate-related disasters,” Jayapal said in a recent statement. She cited Payne’s support for “Medicare for All” and legislation that would expand access to higher education.
While Payne is not a member of the Progressive Caucus, he and Jayapal share similar voting records. Since Jayapal joined Congress in 2017, she has voted with Democrats 99.3 percent of the time, while Payne has voted with his party 99.2 percent of the time, according to CQ Vote Watch.
Oakley has been endorsed by four local Sunrise Movement chapters, the Elect Black Women PAC and Black Lives Matter PAC.
The race comes as some incumbent Democrats have lost to progressive challengers in recent election cycles. Oakley said the race was somewhat similar to Rep. Cori Bush’s 2020 defeat of former Missouri Rep. Lacy Clay, a 10-term incumbent whose father founded the Congressional Black Caucus.
Still, Oakley, a political organizer who has worked with the Movement School and Working Families New Jersey, said her campaign had some differences. Notably, she said her support isn’t coming just from progressives, which she says is because Payne has been inactive in Congress.
“We are talking to everyone, which is a surprise to us, because when we started this, we actually thought we would be more so in the realm of, like, progressivism versus non-progressives, but we’re not. We’re just in the realm of, like, are you going to show up and fight for us?” she said.