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Son of Late Congressman Seeks His Seat in 10th District

Joe Tyrrell | October 10, 2012

Donald Payne Jr. faces scant opposition in election after winning fiercely-fought Democratic primary.

Donald Payne Jr.

The telephone is disconnected in Donald Payne Jr.’s Newark campaign office, and the candidate’s website has not been updated since the Democratic primary in June.

Yet unless something extraordinary happens, come Nov. 6, Payne will succeed his father as the elected representative of New Jersey’s 10th Congressional District, covering parts of Essex, Union and Hudson counties.

After routing five challengers in the hard-fought primary, Payne is enjoying a cakewalk to victory in the general election. He does face nominal opposition -- from Republican Brian Keleman, Libertarian Mick Erickson and independent Joanne Miller -- but no other candidate is mounting much of a campaign.

Still, Payne is campaigning. While he has really no need to spend money, he has been out pressing the flesh, meeting with community groups and attending events like the Dominican Heritage Day parade in Newark on Sept. 24.

It helps Payne’s visibility that he is both an Essex County freeholder at-large and president of the Newark City Council. Events such as the relocation of Panasonic’s North American headquarters from Secaucus to Newark are helping Payne stay in the news.

He did not simply fall into his political roles. Payne’s father was New Jersey’s first African-American congressman, serving the district for 23 years until his death in March.

“My dad’s career had a lot to do with why I’m in public service,” Payne said.

The elder Payne “wanted to be a congressman from the time he was 11,” his son said, but lost his first two efforts before finally succeeding long-time Rep. Peter Rodino.

“That taught me a lot about setting a goal for yourself and sticking to it,” Payne said.

Even more eye-opening were the opportunities to accomplish things in the district and in the world. A one-time chairman of the Congressional Black Caucus, his father was an activist on social and human- rights issues here and abroad.

“After he died, the president of the new nation of South Sudan sent me a letter,” Payne said. “He wrote that without my dad, that country would not exist.”

The younger Payne launched himself into politics as a teen, by founding the Newark South Ward Junior Democrats. He has been a ward leader for 20 years, and was elected as councilman-at-large in 2006. Since his win in the primary, he has been talking to congressional democratic leaders, and hopes to land a seat on the House Education and Workforce Committee.

Payne, 42, studied graphic arts at what is now Kean University and worked for the New Jersey Highway Authority and the Essex County Educational Services Commission. Payne and his wife Bea are parents of 13-year-old triplets.

Miller, of Newark, is running as an independent on the slogan “Change, change, change.” She is known in her hometown from her previous campaigns for legislative and local offices.

"I'm really interested in the unexpired term this time," Miller said, pointing to an unusual ballot choice.

Because the elder Payne died while in office, voters are being asked to choose someone to fill the last two months of his term representing the 10th as it currently exists, as well as elect his successor in the newly redrawn 10th. Both incarnations of the 10th cover portions of Essex, Hudson and Union, but the boundary lines for each are somewhat different, with the new district being larger than the old to account for New Jersey's loss of one congressional representative.

In the normal course of events, Miller said, political power brokers would never consider her. But a significant showing for the unexpired term -- she is the only candidate on the ballot besides Payne -- might change that, as well as showing other working people they have a chance to change things. Her interest in politics was sparked by her own mother, who attended the famous March on Washington and got involved in Newark ,"trying to make a difference," by working to elect former Mayor Kenneth Gibson, Miller said.

The widowed teacher said she is in the process of printing campaign literature and has been working to register voters.

Erickson, of West Orange, could not be reached for comment. A woman who answered his phone said he was out of state and unavailable.

Then there is Republican Brian C. Kelemen of Bayonne, who is keeping an even lower profile. Kelemen does not have a website or social media presence, unlike Erickson, who has both. After numerous attempts, NJ Spotlight finally reached Kelemen and he said he would call back, but he has not. Further calls to him have all gone to voicemail.

The 10th District covers all or parts of 18 towns in the three counties, with Essex supplying the majority of votes. That makes it difficult territory for Republicans, said Hudson County GOP Chairman Jose Arango.

But the party continues to field candidates and believes there is reason to “make a push,” he said. Even if a local candidate does not win, “if we can hold down the margin here, we have a better chance to win statewide,” Arango said.

Meanwhile, Payne said national Democrats are pulling resources out of New Jersey, where they enjoy comfortable leads in the polls. Local party activists are being dispatched to work in Pennsylvania, he said. Payne himself may be sent farther afield, to Florida or Virginia, for instance, where Democrats hope to pick up seats in Congress. So voters may see little more of him before the election.

“For those of us in safe districts, they’re asking us to help out in other places in the country where our message might have some effectiveness,” Payne said.

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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