When U.S. Rep. Donald Payne Sr. won in the 10th Congressional District on his third try in 1988, he became the first African-American congressman ever elected from New Jersey.
A generation later, U.S. Rep. Donald Payne Jr. holds the seat virtually without opposition. The elder Payne died of cancer in 2012, leaving his son a progressive legacy in a district struggling to find its economic footing after the Great Recession.
Seeking his third term, the younger Payne is opposed by three candidates with no money: independents Aaron Walter Fraser of Jersey City and Joanne Miller of Newark, along with Republican David Pinckney of Irvington. All three have run for office before, but only Fraser has so much as a campaign website.
Payne’s October 1 filing with the Federal Election Commission reported that he raised $84,540 during the third quarter and has $116,451 on hand. His opponents did not report any fund-raising.
Covering much of Newark and half of Jersey City as well as neighboring communities, with the notable exception of Elizabeth, the 10th is New Jersey’s poorest congressional district. More than 19 percent of residents live below the poverty line, and 25.7 percent of households with children under 18, according to the U.S. Census Bureau.
The census puts median household income at $47,184; it’s $102,225 in the 11th District, whose inner ring of suburbs brushes against the 10th’s western border. Although Newark and Jersey City are employment centers, census data suggest a relatively low percentage of jobs go to local residents.
Predatory lending followed by legally dubious foreclosures have taken a noticeable toll in many neighborhoods in the 10th. Roughly 17 percent of housing units are vacant, and renters outnumber homeowners seven to four, according to the census.
But there are some hopeful signs. Local housing has a median value of $276,100, roughly $100,000 above the national average, according to the census. The location in the greater New York metropolitan area continues to be a magnet: just over one-third of residents are foreign born.
Representing this majority African-American area, the younger Payne has followed the moderately progressive path forged by his father.
Payne, 57, touts a “comprehensive plan” for reviving the economy while addressing some of the most pressing needs in the district and state. Federal policy should focus on “rebuilding our roads and bridges, investing in education and jobs training, creating incentives for clean energy innovation, encouraging companies to ‘Make It in America,’ and reforming our tax code so that everyone pays their fair share,” he said.
A member of the House Committee on Small Business, Payne favors a national sick leave policy to ensure workers paid time off. Noting that already is the policy in six towns in the district, Payne said data show it improves productivity.
Payne has pushed “green jobs,” saying the state “has a tremendous opportunity to lead the country in alternative energy innovation, which will create jobs in emerging green energy fields, reduce our dependency on foreign oil, and protect our environment.” The former Newark city councilman has also promoted other types of business development, saying he was “instrumental in brokering a deal” for Panasonic to move its headquarters from Secaucus to Newark. The company received a $102 million state tax credit to stay in New Jersey.
In December, Payne introduced the Safer Neighborhoods Gun Buyback Act, which would establish a two-year, $360 million Department of Justice grant program. It would give smart debit cards to state and local governments, as well as gun dealers, who can then distribute the cards to gun owners in exchange for firearms.
“Although no one piece of legislation will eliminate all gun violence, this bill will get guns off the streets and keep them out of the hands of people who wish to cause harm,” Payne said when introducing the bill. “If we can get one gun off the street, if we can save one life, then we have to take action.”
In June, Payne participated in a one-day sit-in with Democratic colleagues in the House, attempting to force majority Republicans to address gun violence. “What do I tell my son who says, ‘You know, Dad, why do you even go to Washington? It doesn’t seem like Congress can get anything done,'” Payne said at the time.
Fraser, 45, who owns a social networking company, is a Harlem native. His colorful résumé includes clusters of academic degrees, media management, and student-loan debt — along with prison terms stemming in part from robbery and drug dealing.
His criminal convictions also include fraud, based on passages he wrote in a novel, “The Birth of a Criminal,” ostensibly drawn from his previous career. In court, Fraser described the book as showing the futility of that life. Fraser has written several other books, some available at commercial websites, and over the years has been profiled on TV and in newspapers.
As he did in a 2014 challenge, Fraser describes Payne as an ineffective legislator. Visitors to his website can request an issues statement, in which Fraser critiques the incumbent’s legislative record. “He has authored amendments to existing useless bills to keep from having to author one from inception himself,” Fraser said. “A slick way of taking credit for someone else’s work.”
Where Payne has sponsored legislation, the potential effects are minimal, according to Fraser. He described the gun buy-back as a vehicle to reward gun sellers as opposed to taking guns from criminals.
A Payne bill which would provide federal grants to non-profits that partner with local schools requires matching funds, Fraser noted, asking, “How many institutions in low-income areas can afford to do that?
Far less colorful but even more persistent, Miller, 67, is a widowed Newark substitute teacher who has become known for her shoestring campaigns emphasizing social issues. Miller is running under the banner of “Women of Power.” This civic activist is a one-woman political organization, regularly running for state Assembly in the 29th District, as well as for Newark city council in 2010 and 2014.
In 2010, Miller also mounted an independent challenge against Payne’s father, on a platform emphasizing jobs, education, senior services and housing. She credits her mother, who attended the March on Washington in 1963, for sparking her interest in bringing about positive change.
Pinckney, 58, an Irvington teacher, also has made several unsuccessful attempts for office in the past several years. But neither he nor Al Barlas, the Essex County Republican chairman, responded to questions about this campaign.
Running as a Democrat, Pinckney sought to challenge Payne’s father in the 2010 primary under the slogan “More Jobs Less Spending Save Medicare.” But the Payne campaign successfully challenged nominating petitions filed by both Pinckney and Cathy Wright of Newark.
Pinckney returned to run unsuccessfully for state Assembly as a Republican in the 28th District in 2011 and 2015. This year, he was on presidential nominee Donald Trump’s delegate slate to the Republican national convention.