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Donald Payne Jr., who filled father’s seat in the House, dies at 65

Caring was ‘part of the DNA in that family,’ former colleague says

Rep. Donald M. Payne Jr., D-N.J., stands near a picture of himself and his late father, former Rep. Donald M. Payne, in his Cannon House Office Building office in 2016.
Rep. Donald M. Payne Jr., D-N.J., stands near a picture of himself and his late father, former Rep. Donald M. Payne, in his Cannon House Office Building office in 2016. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call)

Rep. Donald M. Payne Jr., a former Newark, N.J., city council president who followed his trailblazing father to Congress, has died at age 65, New Jersey Gov. Phil Murphy announced Wednesday.

“With his signature bowtie, big heart and tenacious spirit, Donald embodied the very best of public service,” Murphy said in a statement. “As a former union worker and toll collector, he deeply understood the struggles our working families face.”

Payne was hospitalized in early April after what his office described as a “cardiac episode” tied to diabetes.

Initially, his office issued a statement that Payne’s “prognosis is good and he is expected to make a full recovery.” But following an April 17 report in the New Jersey Globe that Payne’s health crisis was more severe, his office issued a new statement asking for the public’s prayers.

Payne, a Democrat, represented New Jersey’s 10th District since he won a 2012 special election to succeed his late father, who had been New Jersey’s first Black member of Congress.

The younger Payne served on the Homeland Security Committee’s Emergency Management and Technology Subcommittee and the Transportation and Maritime Security Subcommittee. He was also a member of the Transportation and Infrastructure Committee, and served as ranking Democrat and was a former chairman of the Railroads, Pipelines and Hazardous Materials Subcommittee.

“He was a very caring guy,” said former Rep. Albio Sires, a Democrat who represented an adjacent district before his retirement in 2023 and had served with Payne’s father in Congress and uncle in the state legislature. “Caring seems to be part of the DNA in that family.”

Payne loved basketball, especially the Seton Hall University Pirates, said Sires. He also was committed to issues important to his district, including housing, health care and transportation. Sires said they both worked to secure funding to replace the Portal North Bridge, which carries Amtrak’s Northeast Corridor and NJ Transit commuter trains over the Hackensack River east of Newark.

“We used to tell everyone how when the bridge was opened, the tracks didn’t always line up when it closed and they had to use a sledge hammer to line them up,” Sires said. “That got people’s attention.”

Payne’s work on the Transportation panel often dovetailed with his efforts on the Homeland Security Committee where he kept an eye on the security of a stretch of the New Jersey Turnpike near Newark Liberty International Airport often referred to as the “two most dangerous miles” in America.

“We have chemical installations. We have the airport. We have the port. It’s a very attractive target,” Payne said of his district, which is home to busy terminals in the Port of New York and New Jersey and Newark Penn Station, the state’s busiest rail station.

His father died of colon cancer, and the younger Payne became a strong advocate of early screening and education efforts as a founding member of the Congressional Colorectal Cancer Caucus.

Payne’s mother died when he was 4, which made his father a particularly big presence in his life. Politics was always a family concern. One of his early childhood memories is being in a van, with its sound system blaring a city council campaign announcement for his uncle, William Payne — who would later serve in the state Assembly.

He was a teenager when his father started out in county government. Donald Payne Jr. began his own political activity as a student, when he helped form the Newark South Ward Junior Democrats.

Payne left Kean College after a few years and worked at Urban Data Systems, a computer forms company founded by his uncle William. He later held jobs as a toll collector and a student busing coordinator for Essex County. In late 2005, he was elected to the Essex County Board of Freeholders (now called county commissioners), and half a year later he was also elected to the Newark city council. He became the city council president in 2010.

Shortly after his father’s 2012 death, Payne announced his intention to run for his seat. He won a special election to complete the final weeks of his father’s term in the 112th Congress and easily won reelection since.

Statements by colleagues from New Jersey and beyond all portrayed Payne as a friend who would be missed.

“I cannot think of any member at any time who embodied the compassion, kindness, honesty, big heart and humble demeanor central to public service more than Donald,” said Rep. Bill Pascrell Jr., D-N.J. “He led the way for rail transportation and men’s health in the Capitol and was a beloved member of our state’s congressional delegation.”

Rep. Josh Gottheimer, D-N.J., said, “Don was just a great guy, and everyone loved him.”

Homeland Security ranking member Bennie Thompson, D-Miss., called Payne “a thoughtful legislator, a dear friend, and a man of such a kind and affable nature that he was well-liked and respected by Members on both sides of the aisle even during the Committee’s most divisive moments.”

Payne was running unopposed in the June 4 primary and ballots bearing his name were due to begin going out in the mail April 20, according to a timeline from the New Jersey Division of Elections.

Murphy could call for a special primary to replace him, which under state law would have to be held 70 to 76 days after he issues the writ. That would be followed by a special election 60 to 64 days later to fill the remainder of Payne’s current term.  

If the governor does not call a special election, Democratic county committee members from the counties in Payne’s district could select someone to replace him on the November ballot. That election would only be for a full term starting Jan. 3, 2025.

Herb Jackson contributed to this report.

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