Tuesday, March 13, 2012

Congressman Donald Payne has Joined the Ancestors

                            - The Profound Pain of Losing Don Payne

By Gloria Dulan-Wilson

Hello All:

Last Tuesday when I received the tragic news of Congressman Donald Payne's death, I felt as if I a cement mixer dumped a pile of wet concrete onto me. There was this sudden lack of oxygen, and the feeling of being crushed. I just couldn't wrap my mind around it. Don Payne can't be dead! I was stunned, and in so much angst that I started crying every time I broached the subject.

My frenzied thoughts immediately went to: what is the world going to do, or be, with out Don Payne???

More to the point, what is Newark, NJ going to be/do without Don Payne to champion their concerns.

Even more frightening is what is Africa going to do without her greatest advocate to convene the wonderful panel discussions and action groups to address life and death issues without Don Payne there to make sure it's done and done correctly??

And what are Black people and the Congressional Black Caucus going to be/do now this great, but genteel iconic brother has made his official transition to the ancestors????

As I'm writing this, I wonder if the latter two, Newark and Africa fully grasp the seriousness of the situation. This is not just some elected official who has died in office; this is not just some nice Black man who did some good and has gone on to his reward. This is Donald Payne – the first and only (yes "ONLY" – by the way, what's up with that?) Black man ever elected to Congress from New Jersey. Not only was he the first and the only, he was one of a hand full of elected officials were elected to Congress with a mandate; kept his promises, did more and better than what he originally promised; and continued to up the ante as he progressed. His 23 years in Congress were devoted to his constituents, his fellow congressmen and women, and Africa.

Perhaps the pain of losing Don Payne hasn't really set in for you, but it has for me. And I'm sure his staff and supporters are beginning to feel the pain as well. Where do you find a man like that? To whom will the baton be passed? And who is going to make sure it is passed into the right hands, and not to some self serving miscreant who will reverse all the good he's accomplished (and those who watched Clarence Thomas “replace” Thurgood Marshall know exactly what I mean).

It's time for a wake up call! The alarm should have gone off by now, but just in case it hasn't, let me also say that we have a very narrow window for grief. We have to honor this great man by making sure all the citizens who are part of his constituency are really on guard against being handed someone who is more glory than guts. It takes ethics, pride, courage, intelligence, savvy, as well as dedication, discipline and integrity to be a Don Payne clone. And yes, I'm raising the bar very high, as so should all of Jersey - especially Newark's 10th Congressional District. You've had the best, you cannot afford, nor should you settle for less. You MUST NOT settle for less than the best. Also, if I didn't say it already, I'm saying it now - register to vote, there will be an election for his seat - don't get caught napping.

The sad thing about the media coverage of Don Payne's passing is the penchant for sound bites and brevity. It seems we have the attention span of a gnat! We can't be given too much information, because we can't handle it. We need to change that. This brother has a body of accomplishments that should be emblazoned on buildings and monuments; inscribed in neon and written in lights, as on the marquee of a theatre - from Newark to DC to Africa and beyond.

He is the stuff legends and bio's are made of. He is the example we should want our sons and daughters to follow. What's kind of sad is that, while we know everything about Whitney Houston and Don Cornelius all the way to their last breath, we don't get the same coverage for Don Payne. They were each wonderful icons in their own right. They brought a great deal of pleasure and entertainment to the American public; they blazed trails, took risks - hence they have a fan base that will continue to revere and immortalize them.

But Don Payne, who made major decisions, voted on legislations that impacted the very core of the lives of people = foreign and domestic, does not get the recognition he deserves. I want to hear sound bites every fifteen minutes from his key speeches on every TV and radio statiion. I want to see videos of his tours of Africa, of him chairing the panels on Africa at the CBC, or education or health programs he's sponsored mentioned on the TV stations - at least throughout the tri-state area of New York, New Jersey and Connecticut.

I expect to see Donald Payne memorabilia - a color photo, his official seal. Let Oprah Winfrey interview his family about the Pain of losing Don Payne. I expect to see/hear Don Payne imitated (in a positive way) and Don Payne moments re-enacted in school plays, spoken word and on stage. If we're going to become a fan, let's be a fan of someone who was there for us. Our priorities are upside down and backwards.

Time for a paradigm shift. Time to write definitive How-To Books on how to be an exemplary congressman, using him as the example. Give it to everyone of those currently in office, or seeking to be, regardless of whether they're Black or White! Yes, he was that good! It's time others learn to do what works from a master.

Some of his accomplishments among many are as follows:

1. Don Payne was a member of the Foreign Affairs Committee, where he served as Chairman of the Subcommittee on Africa and Global Health and as a member of the Subcommittee on the Western Hemisphere and the Subcommittee on International Organizations, Human Rights, and Oversight.

Every year at the annually held Congressional Black Caucus, Congressman Payne would convene leaders and experts from Africa, who were actively engaged in African affairs, progress, education and technology, for a series of roundtable discussions for and about Africa. The event usually took the better part of 5 hours, with leaders sitting alongside educators, decision makers, investors, etc., coming up with workable solutions to the most pressing problems on the Continent.

Payne personally set up video streaming between the Roundtable and other African countries so that those who could not travel to the US could still participate in the conversation. He made it his business to personally go to Africa each year and investigate issues that seemed to factionalize countries, with the view toward a peaceful positive solution. He took his mission seriously, following in the foot steps of the late, great Mickey Leland to forge even greater footsteps of his own.

He escorted President Obama and the First Lady on a tour of Ghana. Each and every year, Don Payne, along with members of his staff would personally visit key African countries to learn first hand what their problems and concerns were; and to offer real workable solutions. He as also been instrumental in assisting families needing political asylum safe harbor here in the US.

2. He served on the board of directors of the National Endowment for Democracy, TransAfrica, Discovery Channel Global Education Fund, the Congressional Award Foundation, the Boys and Girls Clubs of Newark, the Newark Day Center, the Fighting Back Initiative and the Newark YMCA. As an educator, Payne was hands on in most of his endeavors, as opposed to just being a figurehead or a prestigious name on the letterhead. You could count on his input, feedback, support and presence.

3.Served as Chairman of the Congressional Black Caucus. Many say that that was one of the best Caucus events ever. Attention to details and the concerns of the participants as well as the Caucus Members were the priority of his staff. For the uninitiated, The Congressional Black Caucus takes place every year in Washington DC, and has done so for 40 years. It is an event which brings Black elected officials, businesses, community based organizations, locally and nationally elected officials, as well as constituents and supporters to collectively discuss and address the issues and concerns facing Black Americans, with a view towards setting an Agenda for the most pressing issues to be focused on in the future.

4. Don Payne supported Bill 1106, The Helping Families Save Their Homes Act, is a bill passed by the House that would allow bankruptcy judges to restructure mortgages on family homes to make them more affordable. Judicial modification is already possible in bankruptcy for loans covering luxury yachts and the vacation homes of the wealthy. If the terms of those sorts of loans can be restructured during bankruptcy proceedings, then why shouldn't the mortgages on the homes they live in be similarly protected? H.R. 1106 includes a number of protections against mortgage fraud and limits coverage to those who have made good-faith efforts to stay current on their mortgage payments. This sort of policy would be beneficial to bankers as much as to homeowners, maximizing the likelihood that home loans will be repaid rather than abandoned and restoring stability to the U.S. housing market. A YES vote is cast in the direction of fairness. A NO vote preserves renegotiation for yachts and luxury villas but denies it to everyday Americans just trying to get by.

5. As a leading advocate of education, he was instrumental in the passage of key legislation, including the Goals 2000 initiative to improve elementary and secondary schools; the School-to-Work Opportunities Act; the National Service Act and the Student Loan Bill.

6. He was re-elected to Congress 11 times, with the highest mandate for any candidate for a Congressional seat.

7. He was one of the few congressmen who, when you placed a call to him, spoke with you personally, or returned your can if he was unavailable at the time. He was highly visible, and part of the community scene on a regular basis.

8. He took a strong, decisive stand in leading the debate against the invasion of Iraq after 9/11.

9. Essential to the structure of the Constitution is the concept of the balance of powers between the three branches of government. That balance was disturbed in November of 2001, when George W. Bush issued Executive Order No. 13233, which undermined the law by declaring that sitting presidents, former presidents, and even the heirs of former presidents, would have the power to deny the release of public White House records. It meant Congress and the Judicial Branch could not check the power of the White House without knowledge of the Executive apparatus that the White House has put into place. Bush executive order interfered with the system of government oversight and review the Constitution had originally put into place. The Presidential Records Act Amendments of 2009, H.R. 35 was passed with Congressman Payne's help and support; and ended Bush's interference by specifically counteracting Executive Order No. 13233.

10. While Don Payne's first two runs for Congress ended in defeat; on the third try, he defeated his candidate by one of the widest margins ever.

11. He was always mild mannered, soft spoken, but incisive and direct. He was a stickler for details, and making sure that his constituents were totally informed about situations, concerns and circumstances. It was clear that he loved what he did, loved his district, and enjoyed that same love in return.

12. Those of you in the construction industry would be especially gratified call Don Payne hero, because he voted against the Mack Amendment to H.R. 1262 on March 12, 2009. If it had passed, it would have slapped aside the usual rule that require federally-funded projects to pay construction workers at least the prevailing wage of the area in compensation for their labor. That prevailing wage standard is not high to begin with, at poverty-level compensation in many places. But for 140 members of the House of Representatives, poverty-level pay for wasn’t low enough. In the middle of the worst economic recession in over a generation, those who voted for the Mack Amendment acted to slash the wages of working-class Americans. They tried to push construction workers’ wages further down at the historical moment when their economic security was at its lowest. Rep. Payne has acted progressively by voting NO, against this regressive measure, sending a clear signal to the opposition that he stood on the side of his constituents when it came to wages and employment.

Now, if it sounds like I'm taking Don Payne's transition personally, I am. And I reserve the right to do so. I had the honor of covering those African Roundtables for at least 10 years. I still have a great deal of the information provided by Congressman Payne's office. During the time I resided in Jersey City, Don Payne was my congressman (yes, another one of those gerrymandering fiascos, that actually linked Jersey City, Newark and Eliabeth together - but this one worked in my favor). He was always dapper, smiling, friendly – but under that you knew he had something serious he was contemplating. The report said he was 77 years old at his transition, but most would put Don Payne in his late fifties to mid-sixties. He maintained a youthful look about him.

While, historically speaking, he was the first Black man ever elected to Congress from New Jersey, I originally met him before he was elected to Congress, after Sharpe James was first elected mayor of Newark, in 1985. I have always found Congressman Payne to be highly principled. He was the kind of person you could reach out and touch when you needed help, information, support. A brother you could depend on. He never got too important to take time and talk with “regular” folks. Don Payne didn't hide behind titles or accolades. He was totally involved in working with and for his constituents, and enjoyed being with them as well. So that in and of itself made him somewhat of a hero and an icon.

An educator, he always made sure that you were clear on what he was trying to convey, so he was always heavy on the documentation. His staff especially had to have it together, because he didn't accept half measures. He believed in research and results; was an excellent communicator, and when you left his roundtable or his office, you left loaded down with tons of info.

When I say we have lost a giant among men, I'm not only speaking of a Congressional seat – of which we should and must be totally concerned – I am also speaking in terms of a good Black man who took principled stands and backed them up. I totally admired Don Payne, and his brother William (former member of the New Jersey State Assembly), who together, fostered programs that were distinctively supportive of African, African American and Afrocentric culture -- like the Amistad Legislation which makes it mandatory to teach Black History in all the New Jersey Schools (which means a course in Congressman Donald M. Payne 101 should be forthcoming immediately).

To my brothers and sisters in New Jersey, pain of losing Don Payne can only be remedied by making sure that you fill that void with someone who walks the walk and talks the talk. If you don't have a criteria for a Congressman, I suggest you seriously sit down and look at Donald Payne's track record, and make it the standard bearer for anyone coming behind him.

And need I say it? I guess I have to, because sometimes we assume, and you know what happens when you assume: Make sure that the person you select and ELECT to follow Don Payne is Black!!

There! I said it! That's the 800 pound gorilla in the room. Some of you would have alluded to it; some of you would have skirted around it. Some of you would have tried to be politically correct. But I need only point to your neighbor, Jersey City, who lost their first (maybe only???) Black mayor, Glenn D. Cunningham via a tragic “heart attack.” They couldn't quite seem to get it together to elect another Black mayor. They played grudge games, and divide and conquer; In the end they're back to the margins – a cautionary tale for those of you who want to talk “diversity.” When you've had caviar, there is absolutely no reason to go for sardines; or worse yet, rotten fish.

To the rest of my readers who are reading this blog, take some time out and email a note of condolence to your friends in Newark, Jersey City and Elizabeth – the 10 Congressional District (at least it was when I lived there; who knows what the latest census may have done to change this). Hit them up on Facebook and Twitter and let them know how sympathetic you feel toward their plight. At the same time, tell them to make sure they are registered to vote, because they are going to have to all turn out to make sure the Congressional Seat Don Payne held down for 23 years continues to stand for them.

Just as you watched and followed every little thing that happened before during and after Whitney Houston's home going (by the way Don Payne was her congressman), you must now give that same attention, concern, love, and support to another great one who has made his transition to the ancestors, but in so doing left a wealth of accomplishments, and a legacy to be followed and fulfilled.

My condolences to his brother William “Bill” Payne, his family, staff, co-workers, fellow congress members, and the entire state of New Jersey, and the 10th Congressional District in Newark. My profound condolences to all the Brothers and sisters in Africa as well as throughout the Dispora, for losing your best friend - the most dedicated supporters you've ever had.

To our new Ancestor Donald M. Payne: We know you're up there with some of the greats – Thurgood Marshall, Jomo Kenyatta, Kwame Nkrumah, Namde Azikewe, Stokely Carmichael, John Garang, Ron Brown, Carolyn Hamilton, Rosa Parks, Shirley Chisolm, Ossie Davis, Frederick Douglass, Harriet Tubman, Parren Mitchell, among others. That's gotta be some pantheon. I know you're watching over and guiding us as we persevere in making the impossible real. Thanks for showing us the way.

With gratitude for the years of service, hard work and dedication you've given us all,

Stay Blessed &
Gloria Dulan-Wilson
NOTE:  Congressman Donald Payne's Homegoing services will be held at Metropolitan Baptist Church on Wednesday, March 14, at 11:00 AM; 149 Springfield, Ave, Newark New Jersey
His body lies in state at the Essex County Courthouse on Martin Luther King Drive, Newark, NJ
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