US Rep. Donald Payne Jr., a Democrat from New Jersey, has died at 65 after a heart attack

TRENTON, N.J. (AP) — U.S. Rep. Donald Payne Jr., a New Jersey Democrat and a member of the Congressional Black Caucus who replaced his father in the seat, died Wednesday after a heart attack this month that left him hospitalized, officials said. He was 65.

Gov. Phil Murphy called his fellow Democrat a “steadfast champion for the people of New Jersey” in a statement confirming Payne’s death.

Payne served for 12 years in the Newark-area seat his father had held for more than two decades. Representing a heavily Democratic and majority Black district, Payne drew strong marks from liberal organizations for his voting record.

“With his signature bowtie, big heart, and tenacious spirit, Donald embodied the very best of public service," Murphy said. “As a former union worker and toll collector, he deeply understood the struggles our working families face, and he fought valiantly to serve their needs, every single day.”

New Jersey's Democratic Party chair, LeRoy Jones Jr., called Payne a “towering figure in both our party and our community.”

The Congressional Black Caucus said Payne would be remembered for his kindness and generosity and called him an advocate for progressive causes including making college tuition free, expanding voting rights and fighting climate change.

Payne had previously served as City Council president in Newark, New Jersey's largest city, and on the Essex County Board of Commissioners.

Payne's office had said his heart attack was connected to complications from diabetes. Payne’s father, Donald Milford Payne, held the congressional seat before him. When the elder Payne died in 2012, the younger ran successfully in a special election to succeed him.

Payne had won reelection six times since. The district covers parts of Newark and its heavily populated suburbs.

Murphy's office declined to comment Wednesday on the governor's plans to order a special election to fill the rest of Payne's current term, which ends Jan. 3, 2025.

Payne already filed paperwork by the March deadline to run for reelection and is to appear uncontested on the June 4 primary ballot. Should he remain on the primary ballot and win the nomination, Democratic Party committee members in his district could choose a replacement candidate to run in the November general election.

The district is likely to remain in Democratic hands, with registered Democrats outnumbering Republicans there more than 6 to 1.

A New Jersey colleague, Democratic U.S. Rep. Frank Pallone, called Payne a “truly great public servant" who liked to call him “Uncle Frank" and had fought to raise awareness for diabetes and colorectal cancer prevention and to replace lead pipes in Newark.

Another colleague, Democratic U.S. Rep. Bennie Thompson, of Mississippi, called Payne a “thoughtful legislator, a dear friend, and a man of such a kind and affable nature that he was well-liked and respected" by both Democrats and Republicans.

“Most importantly, he was a devoted family man, and it was this role that drove his passion for the policies he pursued,” Thompson said.

As a member of the Committee on Homeland Security, Payne made school security a priority, helping to establish a School Safety Task Force at the Department of Homeland Security and pressing for federal agencies to take extra precautions for children and schools during emergencies, Thompson said.

“He leaves behind an important legacy through his congressional service: making children safer. In his honor, we will continue that legacy," Thompson said.

Payne's survivors include his wife, Beatrice, and their three children, Murphy said.