Congressman Donald M. Payne Jr. has died, nearly three weeks after he had a heart attack that left him hospitalized in a coma at Newark Beth Israel Medical Center. He was 65.

The six-term Democrat and Newark native has represented the 10th Congressional District, which covers parts of Essex, Hudson, and Union counties, since 2012, succeeding his late father, Donald Payne Sr. Mourners are remembering him as a fighter and a friend to working families, and someone who, as Newark Mayor Ras Baraka said, had a love for his hometown that was part of his DNA.

“Representative Donald M. Payne, Jr. carried his devotion to the residents of Newark from his first teenage involvement as founder of the Newark South Ward Junior Democrats, through his service as President of our Municipal Council, to his acclaimed advocacy for New Jersey as Representative in Congress,” Baraka said.

Payne is survived by his wife, Beatrice, and their triplets, Donald III, Jack, and Yvonne.

His father was a trailblazer in New Jersey politics, becoming the first Black person elected to Congress from New Jersey in 1988. When he died in 2012, his son replaced him after winning a special election to fill the rest of his term.

Payne served on Congress’ homeland security and transportation and infrastructure committees and various subcommittees, including railroads, pipelines and hazardous materials, where he was ranking member. Before joining Congress, Payne served as a councilman and an Essex County freeholder.

Gov. Phil Murphy issued a statement saying he and first lady Tammy Murphy are “deeply saddened.”

“With his signature bowtie, big heart, and tenacious spirit, Donald embodied the very best of public service,” the governor said. “As a former union worker and toll collector, he deeply understood the struggles our working families face, and he fought valiantly to serve their needs, every single day. That purpose was the light that guided him through his early years as Newark City Council President and during his tenure on the Essex County Board of Commissioners. And it guided him still through his more than a decade of service in Congress.”

‘A true titan among progressives’

Condolences poured in Wednesday from around New Jersey and beyond.

Rep. Andy Kim called Payne’s death “incredibly painful news.”

“Donald served New Jersey with such honor, care, and pride. He was a kind man who was never afraid to fight for what was right. We should aspire to follow that example,” Kim wrote on social media. “I’m honored I got to work alongside such a great man, someone who always took time to listen, give me advice, and stand up together. Love and strength to his family through this tough moment. All of New Jersey mourns today.”

Rep. Frank Pallone Jr. noted Payne’s fight to raise awareness for diabetes and colorectal cancer prevention, as well as his advocacy for replacing lead pipes in Newark.

“New Jersey has lost a truly great public servant far too soon,” Pallone said. “Don affectionately called me ‘Uncle Frank’ whenever I saw him, because we cherished the strong relationship we forged following the death of his father. We worked together to improve the lives and health of New Jerseyans.”

Payne’s commitment to strengthening public education and expanding access to health care changed people’s lives, Rep. Mikie Sherrill said.

“The advice, encouragement, and support Donald offered me when I first entered politics sticks with me to this day. Donald was someone who went out of his way to make others feel welcomed and heard,” Sherrill said.

Rep. Bill Pascrell, Jr. said he was “anguished and devastated” by Payne’s passing.

“Like his father, Donald gave his entire life to the people of Newark. I cannot think of any member at any time who embodied the compassion, kindness, honesty, big heart, and humble demeanor central to public service more than Donald,” Pascrell said.

State Sen. Raj Mukherji (D-Hudson) said Payne was always accessible to those he served and was “a true titan among progressives.”

Payne’s “dogged determination” helped win a $900 million federal appropriation for the Gateway Project to upgrade the bridges and tunnels connecting Newark to New York City and improve the region’s transportation corridor, Baraka said.

Payne was running unopposed to retain his seat in the coming June 4 Democratic primary. His name is on the ballot and can’t be replaced.

Republished courtesy of New Jersey Monitor, which is part of States Newsroom, a nonprofit news network supported by grants and a coalition of donors as a 501c(3) public charity. New Jersey Monitor maintains editorial independence. Contact Editor Terrence T. McDonald for questions: [email protected]. Follow New Jersey Monitor on Facebook and Twitter.