U.S. Rep. Donald M. Payne, New Jersey's first African-American congressman, died Tuesday morning after battling colon cancer, according to reports. He was 77.
Payne, a Democrat who has served 12 terms representing the 10th congressional district, died at Saint Barnabas Medical Center in Livingston after being flown back to his native New Jersey late last week for treatment.
He announced in February that he was battling the disease, saying at the time that he was expected to make a full recovery. Up for reelection next November and facing a primary in June, Payne said he was determined to seek re-election.
President Barack Obama was among many who expressed their condolences to the Payne family this morning.
"By any standard, Don lived a full and meaningful life," Obama said in a statement. "In Washington, he 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....Don will be missed, and our thoughts and prayers go out to his friends and family at this difficult time."
"Newark, New Jersey has lost a home-grown hero, a champion to us and people all over the globe," said Newark Mayor Cory Booker. Payne was "a defender of and advocate for the rights, liberties, equal opportyunities and dignity of all people," Booker added.
"Donald Payne was a true trailblazer – a champion for education and civil rights who sought to combat injustice all over the world," said U.S. Rep. Bill Pascrell Jr. in a statement. "I will greatly miss my friend and brother."
Pascrell, who represents the 8th district, shared parts of Montclair, South Orange and West Orange with Payne.
Gov. Chris Christie described Payne as a "great role model for every person in New Jersey who aspires to public service."
"He was a true gentleman and we considered him a friend," Christie said.
Before being elected to Congress in 1988, Payne served as a Newark city councilman and an Essex County freeholder. He comes from a prominent family of politics, including his son, Donald M. Payne Jr., who serves as Newark's municipal council president and Essex County freeholder, and his brother, William, a former state assemblyman.
Payne, a longtime advocate for human rights in South Africa and Northern Ireland, was honored in 2009 by Essex County with a plaza dedication near the county courthouse. A week earlier, Payne was a passenger on a plane that was attacked by missiles, following his official visit to Somalia. He was praised during the dedication for risking his life for his humanitarian efforts.
"Congressman Payne spoke out on behalf of suffering people in some of the most difficult situations in the world: from Rwanda to Sudan to the peace process in Northern Ireland," House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi said in a statement.
"It was a personal privilege to travel with Congressman Payne to Darfur; he was a leader in bringing attention to the genocide there," Pelosi added. "He was an expert on the political, economic and security situation throughout the continent of Africa."
Payne spent much of his Congressional career focussing on issues affecting the developing world. He worked on legislation providing funding for tuberculosis, malaria and HIV/AIDS as well as "micro-lending," small cash disbursements to entrepreneurs in developing nations.
Payne, a former public school teacher, served as the ranking Democrat on the House of Representatives Foreign Affairs Subcommittee on Africa, Global Health and Human Rights. He also held a senior position on the U.S. House of Representatives Education and Workforce Committee.
"Rep. Payne once stated, 'There is a lot of dignity in being able to achieve things without having to create rapture,'" his office said in a statement. "In accordance with his civil approach and global humanitarian efforts, Rep. Payne would want us to carry on by defending against injustice and protecting human rights so that all mankind can pursue the excellence of the human potential."
Payne was expected to go head-to-head with Ronald C. Rice, councilman of Newark's West Ward, in the June primary. The 10th congressional district includes parts of Essex, Union and Hudson counties.
Rice, who has yet to formally announce his congressional run, called Payne Tuesday an "American icon" and "trailblazer for New Jersey" and African Americans.
"What barriers existed, he helped tear down and showed future generations that the promise of America was accessible to all of us," said Rice in a statement. "I am truly in his debt, for I would not be here without him. God bless the Payne family. My thoughts and prayers are with them."
Under the U.S. Constitution, Payne's seat remains vacant until the outcome of a special election. In such circumstances a congress member's offices remain open for various routine functions.
Payne was remembered today as a staunch advocate for civil liberties. He voted against reinstating the Patriot Act, which greatly expanded the government's surveillance and arrest powers in the wake of the Sept. 11 attacks, voted against a proposed flag-burning amendment as well as an act that would have defined marriage as being solely between a man and a woman.
Payne "was a principled leader whose legacy will live on in the freedoms that we enjoy," said Deborah Jacobs, executive director of the New Jersey chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union. "We were proud to have Congressman Payne represent New Jersey and remain grateful for his many years of public service."
The Newark native was also remembered for his services to his alma mater, Seton Hall University, where he served on a number of boards and committees and was a prominent supporter of the basketball Pirates. He also helped secure funding for a technology center at the university.
Payne "was a model educator and public servant who fervently believed in the value that good government could provide to the citizens of his beloved 10th District and Americans everywhere," Seton Hall President A. Gabriel Esteban said in a statement.
Several of his other constituents spoke about Payne's service to his district. Janine Bauer, a member of the South Orange Board of Trustees, who often volunteered with Payne, described him as a "leader" and a "man of the people."
"He kept our conscience during undeclared wars whether involving the US in Iraq, or elsewhere, such as Darfur. He believed in diplomacy," Bauer said. "South Orange will always be in Rep. Payne's debt for his help and guidance."
Funeral arrangments had not been announced as of Tuesday morning.
Staff writers Karen Yi, Paul Milo and Scott Egelberg contributed to this report.