I was saddened to read that Congressman Donald Payne (D-NJ) died yesterday from colon cancer. Just a month ago, the 77-year old Member of Congress announced he was undergoing treatment for the disease. An estimated 51,700 individuals in the U.S. will die this year from cancers of the colon and rectum.
“I am heartbroken to learn of Congressman Payne’s passing,” said Congressman George Miller (D-CA) in a statement. The two served together for several years on the House Education and the Workforce Committee. Miller’s statement continues:
“Donald served his constituents and this nation with honor, distinction and a deep sense of justice. He was an uncompromising voice on the committee for the disadvantaged and the powerless. He did his work with humility, and, when he spoke, people listened. He championed human rights and workers’ rights both here and around the world. Working people across the country could always count on Donald to stand up for them when it came to their health, safety and fair treatment on the job.”
Naturally, his commitment to issues of social justice was reflected in the wide-range of legislation he authored and co-sponsored, including most recently the Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Act, James Zadroga 9/11 Health and Compensation Act, and the Robert C. Byrd Mine Safety Protection Act of 2011.
A few years ago when the House of Representatives was actively considering improvements to our nation’s safety law for mine workers, I heard about Congressman Payne’s field trip to an underground coal mine. It wasn’t one of those staged photo-ops, oh no. Mr. Payne wanted a little taste for himself of a day-in-the-life of a coal miner.
The Congressman wore coveralls and metatarsal boots borrowed from a federal mine inspector, practiced using a self-contained self-rescue breathing device as part of the mandatory safety training session, and tucked himself into the mantrip for the ride underground to the working section of the coal mine. When given the opportunity to operate the continuous mining machine, I understand he took reign of the joy stick to try his hand at cutting coal.
I’ve no doubt that by standing in the shoes of a coal miner Mr. Payne became an even stronger advocate for working people, just as his visits to Sudan, Rwanda, Uganda and other nations made him a more effective human rights advocate. His Capitol Hill colleagues are remembering him as a defender of the powerless and a seeker of social justice. Congresswoman Barbara Lee (D-CA) said:
“Don was truly a world renowned leader. …. His dedication to global health issues and Africa saved and improved the lives of many and inspired all of those around him. Today, Congress lost its best teacher on Africa. Don was also committed to the underserved in our society, and I benefited greatly from his tremendous wisdom, insight and counsel. ….I will deeply miss Don, and believe that his legacy will inspire many to speak for the voiceless and stand up for justice across the globe.”
May Congressman Donald Payne rest in peace.