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Democrat Looks to Continue Legacy of Late Father in 10th District

On the verge of succeeding his late father as the congressman in New Jersey’s 10th District, Donald M. Payne Jr. hopes to continue a tradition rather than change the course.

Donald Payne Jr.

Having survived a hotly contested Democratic primary, the Essex County freeholder and Newark City Council president faces only token opposition on the Nov. 6 ballot.

In his latest filing with the Federal Election Commission, Payne reported $469,944 in campaign receipts through September. Only about a quarter of that has come in since the June primary, but Payne has no worries. His three opponents -- independent Joanne Miller of Newark, Libertarian Mick Erickson of West Orange and Republican Brian Kelemen of Bayonne -- listed nary a cent in campaign funds.

Those numbers reflect hard facts. The district includes East Orange, Irvington, Orange and parts of Maplewood, Montclair, Newark, South Orange and West Orange in Essex County; parts of Bayonne and Jersey City in Hudson; and Hillside, Rahway, Roselle and parts of Elizabeth, Linden and Union Township in Union County.

That is safely Democratic territory, where a seat opens up only under extraordinary circumstances, such as the elder Payne’s death last March after 23 years in office.

“Why wouldn’t I want to be like my father?” asked Payne Jr.

After all, the elder Payne was New Jersey’s first African-American congressman, an advocate for education funding, an opponent of the death penalty and a key player on international issues, especially on human rights and Africa.

While a raft of other Democrats sought the seat last spring, challenging Payne Jr. from all angles, he prevailed by preaching the party’s traditional liberal values.

In the general election campaign, Payne has not changed course and is saying many of the same things, but with an added emphasis on the economy.

Barring unforeseen events, his election is virtually assured. But he is concerned about stoking enthusiasm among the Democratic faithful, acknowledging some are less committed than they were in 2008.

“We don’t want people to sit this one out,” he said, referring to the support needed by the entire ticket, from President Obama on down.

“Jobs, jobs, jobs” are a critical necessity for the district and the nation, Payne said. He pointed to recent successes in Newark, including the relocation of Panasonic’s North American headquarters from Secaucus and the opening of the Courtyard by Marriott Newark Downtown.

Both required cooperation and persistence, “a common thread” necessary to succeed with revitalization efforts elsewhere in the district and across the nation, Payne said.

That background has prepared him to work on economic and labor issues in Washington, he said.

Like his father, Payne emphasizes a number of education issues. In particular, he pledged to push for more federal support for early childhood education. He also favors reducing interest rates on college loans, and increasing the funds available to students through Pell grants.

But unlike the Democratic Party’s Wall Street wing, Payne is skeptical of some measures pushed as education “reform.”

The federal No Child Left Behind has punished schools for failing to meet “unrealistic expectations,” he said. The Obama administration has granted waivers from parts of the law to many states, including New Jersey. But Payne also criticized the law’s “obsession with testing,” promoted by Obama and Education Secretary Arne Duncan.

In Payne’s view, the emphasis on testing has resulted in “terrorized schools” teaching students test answers instead of providing more well-rounded instruction that prepares them to think and act in the real world.

That is one area of agreement between Payne and Miller, a former teacher and sometime substitute. While city and state officials have often portrayed teachers’ unions as part of the problem, Miller said the reverse is true in Newark.

“The union hasn’t stood up enough for teachers” as the district reorganizes, closes schools or turns public schools into charters, she said, adding that while some measures may be worthwhile, the process has been faulty.

But Miller also praises some of Superintendent Cami Anderson’s measures, including a youth summer program. Those sorts of initiatives can extend the schools’ impact in the community, but providing more services to students year-round, Miller said.

Before she gets typecast as a liberal, though, Miller also sees capital punishment as part of the solution to crime. New Jersey created problems for itself by abolishing the statute in 2007, she said.

Miller said she is running a shoestring campaign, but is handing out literature and helping residents register to vote. She especially hopes to make a good showing in a much lower-profile election -- to fill the remainder of Payne Sr.'s unexpired term in the current 10th District through early January. Miller is the only other candidate besides Payne Jr. seeking both of those seats.

“It would just be for a couple of months, but I hope to inspire other working people, to show them what is possible if they get involved,” she said.

While minorities are often skeptical of the Libertarian Party, "the message of liberty really resonates" when he talks to voters, Erickson said.

The 10th District is three-quarters minority, mostly African-American, according to the 2011 U.S. Census American Community Survey.

Erickson said the war on drugs "is the new Jim Crow," disproportionately targeting black people and depriving them of their rights.

That has happened even in liberal Democratic areas like the 10th District, and local political leaders are indifferent, Erickson said

The Paynes "are part of a status quo establishment" that may say the right things during campaigns, but has failed to follow through once in office, said Erickson, who testified before the state Assembly earlier this year in support of decriminalizing marijuana.

He said he would eliminate the federal Department of Education, turning responsibilities back to the states, which he described as "incubators for innovation." On a local level, Erickson favors vouchers to give parents more control over where to send their children.

Truly ending foreign wars -- instead of President Obama's plans to leave large concentrations of troops overseas -- should lead to cost cuts that will give taxpayers more money for private investments.

Erickson recently updated his website with a blog post spoofing hypocrisy in post-Cold War policies, and urging trade instead of war.

The U.S. continues to carry out its lone blockade of Cuba, while “we love communist China so much that we buy 90 percent of our crap from them, with money we borrowed from them. While they team up with Walmart and others to put lead in our toys, exploit workers, pollute the environment, increase the rate of global warming,” he wrote.

"I worked for two trucking companies that failed due to deregulation and regulation," said Erickson, who now sells real-estate and stages events at the Jacob Javits Center in New York. "Regulation doesn't accomplish anything, because companies just move to China and continue to pollute our air with even less control."

Kelemen, the Republican candidate, ignored or turned down numerous requests for comment.

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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