Rep. Donald M. Payne, a New Jersey Democrat and former leader of the Congressional Black Caucus who championed education, civil rights and the improvement of conditions on the African continent during his 23 years in Congress, died Tuesday after a months-long battle with colon cancer, his office reported. He was 77.
Leaders from across the political spectrum, including President Obama, House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi and New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, noted his passing.
Mr. Obama closed his press conference Tuesday with a comment on the congressman’s death.
“I want to publicly express condolences to the family of Donald Payne … a wonderful man. Did great work, both domestically and internationally. He was a friend of mine. And so my heart goes out to his family and to his colleagues.”
House Democratic Whip Steny H. Hoyer, Maryland Democrat. said Mr. Payne’s “fight for justice at home and human rights around the world will be Don’s lasting legacy.”
Mr. Payne was a trailblazer in public and private life: in the 1960s, he was an executive with Prudential Insurance and the first black president of the National Council of YMCAs before being elected in 1988 as the first black congressman from New Jersey.
He had intended to seek re-election for a 13th term in the fall.
“Don was not only a colleague, he was a mentor and friend who I lovingly called ‘The Professor,’ ” said Rep. Gwen Moore, Wisconsin Democrat.
On Capitol Hill, Mr. Payne was known as an advocate for Africa. He was instrumental in pushing a 2004 resolution through Congress that labeled the ongoing killing in Sudan as genocide, leading to sanctions against the north African nation’s government. He later wrote the Sudan Peace Act, a plan to bring famine relief to the country.
In 2009, while on a fact-finding mission to Somalia, insurgents fired mortar rounds at his plane.
Mr. Payne helped secure millions of dollars in U.S. funding for efforts to combat malaria, tuberculosis and HIV/AIDS around the world, with most of the money going to sub-Saharan Africa.
Born in Newark, N.J., on July 16, 1934, Mr. Payne lost his mother at age 7. Raised by his grandmother and father, who worked the docks of Newark, Mr. Payne went on to graduate from Barringer High School in 1952 and Seton Hall University and went to work as a teacher in Newark.
In the 1980s, he was elected to the Newark City Council for two terms.