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Democratic Rep. Donald M. Payne, the first black congressman to represent New Jersey in Washington, has died, NBC New York has confirmed. He was 77.
Payne died early Tuesday in Essex County after a brief battle with colon cancer, according to a member of his staff.
The Newark-born politician announced last month that he had colon cancer. He had been undergoing treatment in Washington and returned to New Jersey on Friday as his condition worsened.
President Barack Obama said in a statement Tuesday that he and first lady Michelle Obama were "saddened" by the news of Payne's death.
"In Washington, he made it his mission to fight for working families, increase the minimum wage, ensure worker safety, guarantee affordable health care and improve the educational system... Don will be missed, and our thoughts and prayers go out to his family and friends during this difficult time."
Payne was a 12-term Democrat active in foreign affairs policy. He is a former chairman of the Congressional Black Caucus and served New Jersey's 10th congressional district, which includes most of Newark, parts of Jersey City and Elizabeth and some suburban areas in Essex and Union counties.
There was a moment of silence for him Tuesday afternoon on the House floor.
Dr. Clement Price, professor of history at Rutgers-Newark, called Payne a "class act" and a "diamond in the rough."
"His most important legacy was the extraordinary insight and concern he had over African issues, especially warfare, famine and civil unrest," Price said.
Payne had served as chairman of the House subcommittee on Africa, and had traveled many times to the continent on foreign affairs matters.
During an April 2009, mortar shells were fired toward Mogadishu airport as a plane carrying Payne took off safely from the Somali capital. Officials at the time said 19 civilians were injured in residential areas. Payne had met with Somalia's president and prime minister during his one-day visit to Mogadishu to discuss piracy, security and cooperation between Somalia and the United States.
Payne had been a congressional delegate to the United Nations. He also was a member of the Newark City Council from 1982 until 1988 and was a teacher in Newark for 15 years. He also served as president of the national YMCA. He earned a bachelor's degree from Seton Hall University in 1957.
A leading education advocate, Payne played crucial roles in the passage of key legislation, including the National Service Act, and helped secure funding for Head Start and Pell Grants, among other initiatives.
Payne was remembered by his congressional colleagues for his work on human rights and on behalf of the poor.
"Congressman Payne spoke out on behalf of suffering people in some of the most difficult situations around the world: from Rwanda to Sudan to the peace process in Northern Ireland," said House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif.
New Jersey Rep. Bill Pascrell, Jr., whose district to the north of Newark bordered Payne's, called him a "champion for education and civil rights who sought to combat injustice all over the world."
Payne was a widower with three children and four grandchildren. His son, Donald Payne Jr., is a Newark city councilman.