Donald Payne: A Friend Indeed

There is no question that Essex County and Newark lost a great leader with the unfortunate passing of U.S. Representative Donald M. Payne, Jr. The Payne family had a legacy of public service, started by his father Donald Sr. and his uncle William, which Donald Jr. continued with his election to the Newark City Council, Board of Freeholders, and the U.S. House of Representatives.

When he succeeded his father as a U.S. Representative in 2012, Donald had big shoes to fill. Donald Sr. was a trailblazer and pioneer who was recognized for his Civil Rights platform that he advanced around the globe. Donald Jr. never hesitated, picked up the mantle of leadership without missing a beat and cut his own path, leaning on the wisdom and lessons he learned from his father for guidance.

When my political career started in the 1970s, I remember Donald Jr. working on campaigns. I watched him grow both as a person and an elected official and could not be prouder of the record he compiled working to enhance the health, safety, and quality of life of our residents. As a member of the Transportation and Infrastructure committee, he gained federal funding to modernize our roads and bridges and as a member of the Homeland Security committee, he worked to secure and protect our communities and country.

But Donald was more than just about bricks and mortar. He cared about the people he represented, and he never lost sight of where he was from. He fought for Medicare benefits for the elderly and infirm, equal pay and fairness in the work force, education opportunities for our young people, and protection to prevent women and children from becoming victims of violence. Of course, his greatest achievement had nothing to do with his government service. He and his wife Bernice have three beautiful children, the triplets Donald III, Jack, and Yvonne.

We worked closely together in County government, with me as the county executive, and Donald as a member of the Freeholder Board. I remember him calling me on numerous occasions with questions about parks improvement projects that we were presenting to the board. He was always looking out for his community and wanted to make sure that what we were presenting was for the best. When he joined Congress, we continued to speak regularly. I would call him to ask for more Federal funding for Essex and he would turn the conversation into asking me what I was doing for the people.

Sometimes in politics being nice is not a good character trait. But even working in Washington, DC, Donald did not change. He remained just as approachable as though he was your longtime neighbor. He was a Newarker at heart. Donald M. Payne, Jr. was a cheerleader, advocate and public servant, but most of all he was a friend to me and to all those he met. We miss our friend.