Congressman Donald M. Payne 1934-2012

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HAT TIP: By David Giambusso/The Star-Ledger

U.S. Rep. Donald Payne, the elder statesman of New Jersey’s congressional delegation, died after a months-long battle with colon cancer today, according to three sources close to the Payne family. The longtime politician was 77.

Payne announced last month he was under treatment for colon cancer but said that he expected to make a full recovery. Last week, though, his health took a turn for the worse.

He was hospitalized at Georgetown University Hospital, but on Friday was flown back to New Jersey on a medical transport. After arriving at Teterboro airport, he was taken to St. Barnabas Medical Center in Livingston. Payne, a Democrat who represented New Jersey’s 10th congressional district for 23 years, was placed in hospice care and died early this morning.

The state’s first — and currently its only — black congressman, Payne headed one of Newark’s most powerful political dynasties. His son Donald Payne Jr. is the Newark City Council president, as well as an Essex County Freeholder. His brother and lifelong political partner, William, is a former state assemblyman.

“He’s had a tremendous impact on the state, country and the world,” William Payne said.

Payne was up for re-election this year and facing a primary in June. Despite his condition, he vowed to run again only last month and refused to take a leave of absence.

A former teacher, insurance executive, city councilman, and county freeholder, Payne’s lifelong dream was to become a congressman. In 1988 he finally achieved that goal and was returned to Congress 11 times — by some of the widest margins in New Jersey congressional history.

While in the House of Representatives, Payne was known as a tireless advocate for his constituents, a champion of education and a de facto ambassador to Africa. He helped secure $100 million to help prevent and treat Malaria and HIV/AIDS, mostly in sub-Saharan Africa.

“New Jersey has lost one of its greatest leaders in the fight for equality and fairness for all Americans, and one of the greatest advocates for families of the Garden State,” said U.S. Rep. Bill Pascrell, whose 8th district shared parts of Montclair, South Orange and West Orange with Payne.

“Donald Payne was a true trailblazer – a champion for education and civil rights who sought to combat injustice all over the world. I will greatly miss my friend and brother,” Pascrell said in a statement released this morning.

Payne was recognized in Congress for having the most supportive record on issues regarding the Northern Ireland peace process. He helped win passage of a resolution declaring the killing in Darfur genocide and he authored the Sudan Peace Act, facilitating famine relief efforts.

State Sen. Richard Codey called Payne’s legacy a strong one, and one that merits emulation at all levels of government, particularly with regard to oppressed peoples.

“He was bigger than life but never conducted himself that way,” Codey said by phone this morning. “If you were violating somebody’s rights, you better get out of the way.”

Although Payne was well-known for his interest in African affairs, Payne, for instance, also long supported peace initiatives to end sectarian violence in Ireland, Codey said.

“People always associated him with Africa and advocating for Darfur and he did, but color didn’t matter to him, just your civil rights,” he said.