The Irish Times – Saturday, March 10, 2012

Donald M Payne: first African- American to be elected to represent New Jersey

Donald M Payne: US CONGRESSMAN Donald Payne, who died of cancer this week aged 77, was a frequent member of US delegations that travelled to Northern Ireland.

He visited the Garvaghy Road in Portadown and different parts of Belfast at times of community tension over Orange marches.

Payne, a Democrat, was the first African-American to be elected to represent New Jersey in the House of Representatives. He went on to become chairman of the Congressional Black Caucus.

Sinn Féin president Gerry Adams said he was “a thoughtful, generous, and well-informed politician” and “very supportive of the Irish peace process from the beginning.”

Fr Seán McManus, president of the US-based lobby group the Irish National Caucus, said Congressman Payne was a “noble soul” and that he “hungered and thirsted for justice – in America, Africa and throughout the world”. He recalled how, in congressional hearings on the anti-discrimination MacBride Principles, Payne said that as an African-American he could “easily identify with the Catholic minority” in Northern Ireland.

He had declared his ambition to become New Jersey’s first black congressman as early as 1974, when he was an Essex County legislator. But he was defeated in 1980 and 1986 primary efforts in his attempt to unseat Rep Peter W Rodino jnr, the long-time dean of the state’s congressional delegation and a popular figure in New Jersey’s heavily Democratic and largely black 10th Congressional District.

It was not until Rodino chose not to seek a 21st term, in 1988, that Payne saw his opportunity.

“I want to be a congressman to serve as a role model for the young people I talk to on the Newark street corners,” he said at the time. In the election, he handily defeated his Republican opponent.

In Congress Payne was a low-key and unassuming presence who nonetheless made a mark in a number of areas, including education and global affairs. A former teacher, he advanced policies that sought to make college more affordable.

He wrote legislation as a member of the House Committee on Foreign Affairs that sought to provide famine relief to the war-torn Darfur region of Sudan. He was also a founder of the Malaria Caucus in Congress and helped secure billions of dollars in foreign aid for treating HIV, Aids, tuberculosis and malaria.

Payne was in his 12th term in Congress when he died. In several of his later campaigns, he ran without any Republican opposition.

In a statement, President Barack Obama said Payne had “made it his mission to fight for working families”.

He married the former Hazel Johnson in 1958. She died in 1963. His survivors include a son, two daughters, four grandchildren and one great-grandchild.

Donald Milford Payne: born July 16th, 1934; died March 6th, 2012