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Payne Jr. on Path to Take Over His Father’s Congressional Seat

The Newark City Council President defeats five candidates in primary for chance to carry on legacy.

Newark City Council President Donald Payne Jr. proved yesterday that the son also rises, rolling to the Democratic nomination to replace his late father in Congress.

“I have been standing on my own two feet for a long time,” Payne told a cheering crowd of about 250 supporters at the Robert Treat Hotel in Newark.

Donald Payne Jr.

Payne captured about 60 percent of the vote, besting five other candidates for the privilege of running in November to replace his father, the late Donald Payne Sr., New Jersey's first African-American congressman who died last March.

At Payne’s victory celebration last night, Assemblyman John Wisniewski (D-Middlesex), the state Democratic chairman, said Payne won because he was “a great candidate” who appealed to voters across the district, which is largely urban and centered in Newark.

Payne, who is also an Essex County freeholder, had made the case that no one knew his father’s legacy better. He also stressed job creation, an argument that resonated with voters. Having the backing of the Essex County Democratic party didn’t hurt, either.

Sen. Robert Menendez (D-NJ), had also endorsed the younger Payne, who had the money advantage over his opponents. Through mid-May, he had raised $188,688. That was almost as much as all the other candidates combined, at least financially validating Payne's assertion that he already has a network of political relationships that will be useful to the district in Washington.

Despite all of Payne’s advantages, five other Democrats had gotten into the race for an open seat, which is a rare political occurrence in the 10th.

With widespread backing from labor -- including locals of the communications workers and service employees -- and such liberal-left groups like Howard Dean's Democracy for America, Newark Councilman Ron Rice Jr. ran energetically and finished second. He pitched himself as "the most progressive candidate" in the race. But that wasn’t enough.

From her base in Montclair, state Sen. Nia Gill (D-Essex) reached out to take the party line in Hudson County, which accounts for about a quarter of the district. Gill emphasized her two decades in the Legislature and the absence of women from New Jersey's congressional delegation. She finished third.

Coming in fourth was Irvington Mayor Wayne Smith, who had campaigned as "an ordinary guy." A former shop steward, he also pointed to his consulting business, a host of governmental offices, activism with community organizations and high-level positions in local institutions as making him best qualified for Congress.

Last night, Smith congratulated Payne on his victory and said he will consider his political future when his mayoral term expires in 2014.

“I’m going to go to work tomorrow and keep doing the job I’ve been doing,” Smith said. “I’ve joined the ranks of Bill Clinton, Barak Obama, and all the others who lost their first race for Congress. It was a learning experience.”

Cathy Wright of Newark and Dennis Flynn of Glen Ridge rounded out the field, each getting less than 1,000 votes.

Victory in the Democratic primary is tantamount to election -- registered Democrats outnumber Republicans 10-to-1. Still, Brian Keleman of Bayonne will contest the seat in November after being unopposed for the full Republican nomination.

Payne also won a special election to finish out his father’s term in the current 10th District. Due to election law, that seat won’t be filled until the November election. Payne is likely to be that winner, as no Republicans even filed for that term. If he does, he will serve until the new Congress is sworn in January.

During three decades reporting in New Jersey, Joe Tyrrell has covered everything from Avon to Zarephath, with a particular emphasis on politics and government, the environment and agriculture. He founded the New Jersey Foundation for Open Government, which unites civic groups, citizens and journalists to promote transparency and ethics.

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