Donald Payne was a city councilman representing the South Ward in Newark, N.J., when I met him as a junior at St. Benedict’s Prep School around 1984. I was a member of Youth in Government, a leadership development group he ran that linked young people to the state legislature and U.N. programs. We met weekly or so in his office in Newark City Hall, that gold-domed behemoth on Broad Street that screamed power to a 16-year-old news-and-politics nerd. Payne died today of colon cancer. He was 77.
“Don Payne was genuinely committed to creating opportunity for young people,” said Rick Thigpen, who was the young staffer who oversaw the Youth in Government program for Payne. “He did a great job for some . . . 10-15 years running that leadership development program at the Newark Y for kids who showed potential and interest. He touched so many lives that way, like yours and mine.”
Payne exuded quiet confidence. He led as much by what he said as he did by his example.
One of my all-time favorite memories is of sitting in Payne’s chair in his city hall office as I made plane reservations for a trip to see my uncle in Virginia. Looking out the window, I remember thinking, “Wow! How cool is this?!”
We lost touch after my graduation. But I was oh so proud when Payne was elected as New Jersey’s first African American member of Congress in 1988. Newarkers would send him back to Washington for 12 terms. During his time here he was a chairman of the Congressional Black Caucus and most recently the chair of the Congressional Black Caucus Foundation. “But Africa was his lifelong work,” Thigpen told me. Payne was on the House Foreign Affairs Committee. He served as the chair of its Africa subcommittee. House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi paid tribute to that focus:
Congressman Payne spoke out on behalf of suffering people in some of the most difficult situations around the world: from Rwanda to Sudan to the peace process in Northern Ireland. It was a personal privilege to travel with Congressman Payne to Darfur; he was a leader in bringing attention to the genocide there. He was an expert on the political, economic, and security situation throughout the continent of Africa.
Payne was also a member of the House Education and Workforce Committee. “[H]e made it his mission to fight for working families, increase the minimum wage, ensure worker safety, guarantee affordable health care and improve the educational system,” President Obama said in a statement this morning.
It was just a few years ago that I had an opportunity to reintroduce myself to Payne. I told him that I was one of the kids in his Youth in Government program way back when. I even told him about sitting in his chair. To be honest, I don’t remember what he said. But I do remember the warm, sincere smile he gave me. The kind one gives to someone who reminds him of the good old days.
Rest in peace, Rep. Payne. And thank you.