U.S. Rep. Donald Payne, Jr. is expected to cruise to an easy reelection victory over his Republican challenger, Yolanda Dentley, a school administrator from Roselle who is running for office for the first time in the strongly Democratic 10th Congressional District.
Payne, 55, a former Newark councilman and Essex County freeholder, was elected to the 10th District seat in 2012 to succeed his late father Donald Payne, who was New Jersey’s first African-American congressman and held the office for 13 years.
The younger Payne has won all his congressional races by wide margins and earned 91 percent of the vote in his primary earlier this year, besting three little-known challengers.
The 10th District covers portions of Essex, Hudson, and Union counties, including parts of Newark, Jersey City, East Orange, Bayonne, and Union Township. With 52 percent of voters registered as Democrats, 43 percent unaffiliated and 5 percent Republicans, the Democratic primary generally determines the election winner.
“I love serving in Congress, never really thought I would do it, but circumstances have put me in this position. I take it with a great sense of responsibility and don't take it for granted,” Payne said in an interview. “I just want to continue to serve as I saw my father serve. I saw what it means when you have someone that really cares about people, and I'm just trying to follow that tradition.”
Dentley, 50, is a longtime educator who lives in Roselle and is vice principal of an elementary school in Irvington. She holds some moderate views close to Payne’s, opposing repeal of the Affordable Care Act and saying that the minimum wage may need to be raised, but argues that the congressman has done little for the district and voters deserve another choice.
“The people I meet are saying, ‘Wow, we have an alternative.’ They are a little taken aback that it's a Republican alternative, but when they talk to me they are willing to give me a chance,” Dentley said. “They realize that Payne is not the answer.”
Payne is far ahead of Dentley in fundraising. He has received $512,000 in campaign contributions since January 2013, most of it from business, union, and political PACs. He has spent about $400,000 in that period, half of it this year. A large part has gone toward fundraising consultants, event expenses, campaign materials, and donations to local Democratic organizations.
Dentley has not filed finance reports with the Federal Election Commission, but said she has raised about $1,000 for campaign literature and signage and was planning a fundraiser for November 1.
With the incumbent expected to win, the 10th District race has received almost no attention, though the congressman and his father have surfaced in two news reports unrelated to the election recently.
In October the Star-Ledger reported that the elder Payne wasin 1988 for allegedly taking money from a Newark businessman who wanted help resolving a problem with city inspectors, though no help was ever provided. Rep. Payne, who has not previously commented on the report, said he and his late father’s supporters were outraged by what he described as a smear, timed to come out just before the election.
“It shows how low the media can be in this country, to besmirch a person that had a stellar record, never any accusations or innuendo of this type,” Payne said. “If the FBI had something on an African-American congressman in this country, believe me, they would have acted on it. There was nothing there. For the Star-Ledger to try to make that a story, we're very disappointed and angered by it.”
Payne also dismissed a report that anmade it into a secure backstage area of a Washington event in September attended by President Barack Obama. Payne said no one impersonated him, but his uncle, former state Assemblyman William Payne, did go backstage to talk to the president and First Lady about a charitable foundation being started in honor of Payne’s late father. Payne said reporters seized on a piece of misinformation in their eagerness to report on recent problems with Secret Service protection of the president.
With the election approaching, Payne said he is concerned about expected low turnout. As he and other Democratic officials campaign, they have been reminding constituents of the importance of voting, even in a nonpresidential-election year, he said. Campaign events he has attended recently include a victory breakfast for Union County candidates and a rally in Newark’s South Ward with his supporters.
He said he has also been visiting other states to help rally black voters, who are seen as crucial to keeping Democratic control of the Senate. He was just in Kentucky to campaign for Alison Lundergan Grimes, who is trying to unseat House Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, and will be visiting North Carolina to help Sen. Kay Hagan in her tough reelection bid.
Issues he is campaigning on locally include his proposal to expand Obama’s Promise Zone initiative, which aims to revitalize high-poverty neighborhoods in Newark and 19 other cities around the country. He’s also been talking about hiking the minimum wage and fighting efforts in several states to create new voting requirements.
“In the House of Representatives there's a move afoot to turn the clock back to the good old days. When I hear that, it means less African-American participation in the process, voting rights being attacked, and going back to a time that wasn't very inclusive in this nation's history,” he said. “I'm fighting those issues to make sure every individual in this country has the same rights.”
Dentley argues that Payne has not written many successful bills, but Payne said a number of his proposals have recently made it through Congress and been signed by the president, some of them related to his membership on the House Homeland Security committee.
They include laws that require subagencies of the Department of Homeland Security to have radio systems that communicate with each one another; that fund a study of ways to improve the nation’s electric grid; and that strengthen safety standards for tank cars that move flammable liquids.
On the economic front, Payne touts his proposed Green Jobs incentive program, his efforts to help community colleges and other local schools create technical training programs that anticipate future industry needs, seminars he has hosted to help entrepreneurs build their businesses, and his exploration of possibilities for training workers for the growing fracking industry.
Dentley said that, as she began contemplating retiring within a few years, she looked for ways to continue serving her community and settled on running for Congress. The 10th District has too much violence and unemployment, and she has not seen Payne push through measures that address those problems, she said.
“Congressman Payne has not put forth significant legislation. He's not aggressive enough to get things moved forward. Our situations have not changed,” she said. “And I believe our public officials should be more involved in the community.”
“We need more legislation that would generate jobs, that would have more severe penalties for criminals, and things that would directly impact the community,” she said.
Dentley said she did not have specific legislative proposals ready, but would work from a position of fiscal conservatism, focusing for example on reducing fraud and waste in federal programs.
Dentley takes the middle ground on a number of issues. She supports having welfare programs but said they should provide temporary rather than perpetual assistance. She opposes repealing the Affordable Care Act because of the effect on those who gained insurance through the law. She tentatively supports a higher minimum wage, while arguing that too large of an increase would lead to higher prices for consumers and possibly job losses.
“There is a clamoring for a raise in minimum wage,” she said. “I personally think we should concentrate on job skills, so that (people) don't have to have jobs that require minimum wage. They should be reserved for college, high school kids, that need to find work. You cannot live on minimum wage. That's no argument. But raising the minimum wage is putting a Band-Aid on the problem.”
Dentley said her parents were Republicans and she grew up a Republican in the 1980s, when there “wasn’t this bickering and fighting and just mean-spiritedness” of the party now. She acknowledged that African-Americans like herself overwhelmingly identify with the Democratic party, and jokingly called herself “the California condor of the moderate Republicans.”
“Historically the Republican party has lost its way, in terms of representing the minority population. I for one had to really decide whether I was going to stay with the party or look elsewhere, either as an undeclared or a Democrat,” she said. “But I felt that change had to come from within. Leaving the party would not allow me a voice to try to change it. I want to try to do my part in bringing it back to the middle.”