Rep. Donald Payne, a New Jersey Democrat first elected to Congress in 1988, has died after a battle with colon cancer. He was 77.
Payne just went public with his illness last month. At the time, he vowed to fight the disease, saying his doctors “expect my full recovery, as do I.” But as his condition deteriorated, he was flown from Washington to New Jersey in early March on a medical transport.
He passed away on Tuesday, according to news reports confirmed by a congressional aide.
The flags above the Capitol were ordered to be lowered to half-mast, as tributes to the longtime congressman poured in.
President Obama said in a statement that he and first lady Michelle Obama were “saddened” by Payne’s passing. “By any standard, Don lived a full and meaningful life,” he said.
Payne has represented northeastern New Jersey with few significant challengers for more than two decades. In his last race, he won 85 percent of the vote in the general election after going unopposed in the primary – and that was his closest contest since 2002.
He was a former chairman of the Congressional Black Caucus. More recently, he led the Congressional Black Caucus Foundation, the group’s philanthropic wing. He was also the first African American member of Congress from New Jersey.
“Donald Payne was a true trailblazer,” said Rep. Bill Pascrell, Jr , D-N.J., in a statement.
Payne was long active in foreign affairs and was the ranking Democrat on the Foreign Affairs Subcommittee on Africa, Global Health, and Human Rights. In 2003, President George W. Bush named Payne one of two congressional delegates to the United Nations. And in 2009, he gained notoriety after an airplane he was on came under fire while leaving Somalia en route to Kenya. Payne later said he was unaware of the attack until they landed.
Rep. Howard Berman, D-Calif., the ranking member on the House Foreign Affairs Committee, hailed Payne as “a champion for the underserved, a voice for the downtrodden, a leader for peoples and causes that are too often neglected.”
“With wisdom and charm, insight and steadfastness, Don Payne distinguished himself as a leader on many important issues, but particularly related to Africa,” Berman said.
According to the biography on his Web site, Payne is survived by one great grandchild, four grandchildren and three children. Among them is his son, Donald Payne Jr., currently the president of the Newark Municipal Council.