The first African-American elected to Congress from New Jersey died Tuesday. Congressman Donald Payne, who was 77, had been undergoing treatment for colon cancer.
Payne, first elected to Congress in1988, was seeking re-election to a 13th term. His fellow Democrat, Congressman Bill Pascrell, says the Garden State has lost one of its greatest leaders in the fight for equality.
“He had a tremendous impact on civil rights. He had a tremendous impact of how we looked at, and even perceived, the beautiful countries of Africa,” Pascrell said. “He was devoted to world peace.”
Gov. Chris Christie, who ordered flags to be flown at half staff, said Payne was a leader with great compassion and a role model for everyone in New Jersey who aspires to public service.
Assembly Speaker Sheila Oliver said Payne never lost the common touch and was a champion for working families.
Oliver, who lived across the street from the Payne family when she was growing up, said Payne’s 1988 election as New Jersey’s first African American Congressman was extremely significant.
“When he won that congressional seat,” she said, “he then became the congressional representative and role model for African-Americans from one end of the state to another.”
It’s unclear whether the governor will call a special election to fill Payne’s seat or will leave it vacant until the November elections.