Trailblazer: Congressman Donald Payne Sr.

By David WildsteinJanuary 20 2020

New Jersey Globe

Rep. Donald M. Payne, Sr.

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Donald Payne, Sr. (1934-2012) was the first African American to represent New Jersey in the U.S. House of Representatives.

He had run for Congress twice before winning the seat in 1988.

In 1970, Payne became the first African American to serve as president of the National Council of YMCAs.  That year, he played a key role in helping Kenneth Gibson win his bid to become the first black mayor of Newark.

Payne was elected to the Essex County Board of Freeholders in 1972 — one of the Republicans he beat was future Bloomfield mayor John Crecco — and was re-elected in 1975.

When Essex County voters approved a charter change referendum, Payne ran in the 1978 race to become the first Essex County Executive.  Payne carried Newark and East Orange but finished third in the Democratic primary behind Assemblyman Peter Shapiro (D-South Orange) and Sheriff John Cryan.

Shapiro beat Cryan by about 2,000 votes.  Payne and another candidate, County Treasurer Samuel Angelo, took votes mostly from Cryan.

In 1980, Payne mounted a challenge to Rep. Peter Rodino (D-Newark) in the Democratic primary.  Rodino, elected to Congress in 1948, had risen to national prominence as chairman of the House Judiciary Committee during the move to impeach President Richard Nixon.

Rodino’s district had been drawn in 1972 to elect a black congressman, but he had significant support in Newark through an alliance with Gibson. The incumbent won a four-candidate Democratic primary with 57% against East Orange mayor William Hart (37%) and former Assemblyman George Richardson (5%).

In the June primary, Rodino defeated Payne by 17,118 votes, 62%-23%.  Former Newark Municipal Court Judge Golden Johnson won 12% and former Essex County Freeholder Russell Fox won 3%.

Payne mounted a political comeback in 1982, winning a seat on the Newark City Council.  He was re-elected in 1986.

Also in 1986, Payne mounted another primary challenge against Rodino.

Gibson sought reelection to a fifth term that May but lost to councilman Sharpe James.  Payne had backed James.

As the mayor-elect, James supported Payne against Rodino – so did Rev. Jesse Jackson, who was popular in Newark after his 1984 bid for the Democratic presidential nomination.

Rodino beat Payne by 9,920 votes, 59%-36%.

Payne was prepared to run against Rodino again in 1988.  After 40 years in Congress, Rodino recognized that the district would become increasingly more difficult to hold.  At age 81, he retired.

Payne won the Democratic primary with 73% of the vote against Newark councilman Ralph Grant.

The general election was even easier, defeating Republican Michael Webb by a 77%-13% margin.  Former State Sen. Anthony Imperiale ran as an independent and won 5%.

Payne was re-elected eleven times and became a formidable figure on Capitol Hill.  He had served as chairman of the powerful Congressional Black Caucus and became chairman of the Foreign Affairs Subcommittee on Africa and Global Health when Democrats took control of the House in 2006.

He served in Congress until his death of colon cancer in 2012.  He was succeeded by his son, Donald Payne, Jr.

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