Donald Payne Jr. is set to replace his father in the House next year. After the death of Donald Payne Sr. from colon cancer in March 2012, Payne Jr. became the heir apparent in this heavily African-American and Democratic district. Once he secured a victory in the Democratic primary, Payne Jr. coasted to victory in the fall.
A Newark native, Payne became involved in politics as a teenager when he founded and became president of the Newark South Ward Junior Democrats. He attended Kean College (now Kean University) and studied graphic arts, but did not graduate. At 21, he began working in the tolls division of the New Jersey Highway Authority, but a back injury forced his resignation a few years later. In 1996, at the age of 27, he became a school bus monitor with the Essex County Educational Services Commission, and went on to become director of student transportation for the county.
In 1992, he was elected by local Democrats to the party position of South Ward leader in Newark. In 2006, Payne was elected to the Newark Municipal Council and was its president from 2010 to 2012. During his tenure, he cofounded Embracing Arms, a nonprofit youth-advancement organization that sponsors a book club, art programs, and public service projects for young people.
As council president, Payne also served on the board of the Newark Watershed Conservation Development Corporation, an independent and taxpayer-funded agency. Early in 2012, the finances of the corporation were called into question when The Star-Ledger of Newark reported on misuse of tax dollars there. A local group of activists demanded an investigation by the city council, putting Payne in a precarious position. He has since stopped attending Watershed meetings.
Following his father’s death, Payne Jr. entered the Democratic primary for the 10th District seat. His family pedigree made him a heavy favorite. Not only was his father the first African-American member of Congress to represent New Jersey, but his uncle, William Payne, served in the New Jersey General Assembly for 10 years. Payne Jr. also had the backing of the powerful Democratic Party machine in Essex, Hudson, and Union counties.
But political opponents and journalists raised questions about his readiness for Congress. “The dispiriting truth is that his claim to the seat is based entirely on his last name,” The Star-Ledgereditorialized. “He has only the vaguest grip on key federal issues. He is simply not ready for the job, and hasn’t done his homework.”
In an editorial board meeting with The Star-Ledger before the election, Payne named creating jobs as his chief priority, but declined to provide specific details. He also was vague about how he would deal with several other issues, including ensuring the future of Medicare and Social Security and solving the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. On the latter issue, he said, “I have people in Congress that are looking forward to helping me understand.”
He won the primary election with 61 percent of the vote, beating out fellow Newark Councilman Ron Rice and state Sen. Nia Gill, who got 20 percent and 14 percent of the vote, respectively. He faced only token opposition in the general election.