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An Interview with Congressman Donald Payne, Jr.


Nearly everyone in the community had faith in Donald Payne, Sr. and his work. He was constantly working for African nations in addition to the local community. He was well-respected in the house of Congress, and was as influential a political powerhouse in Washington, D.C. as he was locally. After his untimely death, his son Donald Payne, Jr. started representing his father's constituents in Congress. For our readers, I interview Congressman Payne, Jr. to get insight into his ideas and work.

Dhiren Shah: Welcome to this interview, congressman. How was your transition from councilman and freeholder to congressman?

Donald Payne, Jr.: I was freeholder in Essex County, which is a legislative branch. I was a municipal council member, which is a legislative branch at the city level, and now I am member of congress, which is a legislative branch at the federal level. It is a continuity just understanding the process and protocol of that it's just a matter of learning the rules and understanding how the functionality of a new entity works. It was a fairly smooth transition. I brought three of my staff from city hall and the rest were my father's staff prior, so it made the transition very smooth in November 2012.

DS: You talked about the local economy. What legislations do you propose to help the local economy?

DP: I am on the committee of the house for small business. I have done several forms and I deal with entrepreneurs all the time. I have done listen and walk tours in several communities. Orange, Rahway, Newark. I work with small businesses and learn what their challenges are...The growth has not been extended to the small businesses as we would like. We are working on several pieces of legislation for the participation of minority businesses. Last year, we had a seminar where we brought a lot of stakeholders and small businesses together. It was really useful. The main issue was access to minorities.

DS: The majority of the small businesses, you mentioned, are afraid of dealing with the government due to the lengthy process. How can you make it easier for them?

DP: We are working on dealing with the federal government, trying to streamline the process and make it easier.

DS: Seniors are an important part of our society, as they built our economy today. Some seniors are unhappy with republicans, as they are trying to change our Social Security and Medicare system. Many scams has taken place with the system. What do you suggest to stop the fraud and continuing satisfy our seniors?

DP: I think the Social Security system, the way some people are looking at it, is in trouble, but it's not in trouble. It will be solvent for some time...I don't think the majority of the people in this country will allow republicans to make changes...I think social security will be fine.

DS: How are you working with local mayors, especially Ras Baraka, when you supported his opponent in the election?

DP: We were colleagues. He was a South Ward Councilman and I live in the South Ward. He was my councilman. Now he is the mayor. I can see what he is trying to accomplish. I think he did a great job, negotiating with the governor for the removal of Cami Anderson. Like I said, a campaign is about choices. I made the decision to support someone else. People chose Mayor Baraka as their leader. Now I have a duty to work with the mayor. He's doing well. He spent a day with me, when the highest-ranking African American in Congress James Clyburn came. I asked the mayor to join me at my congressional ball. Things are moving forward just fine. We are working together on a few issues we discussed. I don't hold grudges. I have an obligation to do work for this community and I am doing that.

DS: What legislation have you proposed so far?

DP: Can I talk about a positive one. I like to say in the 114th Congress, I am a ranking member on the emergency preparedness and communications sub-committee. Newark and its surrounding area of 2 miles are the most dangerous miles in the country. Because of the seaport, airport, interstate highways, chemical plants (Linden), railroad, all being in a radius of two miles here. There was not a representative on Homeland Security, and I asked for an opportunity to sit on that. My work around that is very important. The 9/11 terrorist attack was in New York. But Newark is considered tier one as well with Los Angeles, Chicago, and Washington. There was a plot to do something with the Prudential building at one time.

I had worked on a piece of legislation after Sandy, which is called my smart grid bill. We talked about resiliency in a natural disaster. It was a large issue with a transformer at Newark Bay that submerged and knocked down power all the way out to Bound Brook, New Jersey. I drove out on 22 one night at the height of the Sandy aftermath, and realized how serious it was. This legislation talked about smart grid technology. Now they have it if there is an issue. Before this, some had to call or they have to go to see, but smart grid technology can notify the electric company, "hey there is a problem in this part of the grid," rather than someone calling to say my lights are out. Electric companies do not need to wait for humans to respond. That technology exists. My legislation was a standalone bill, and I worked a year and a half on it. Then it became an amendment with the cybersecurity bill and passed by Congress.

My second piece of legislation which I am really proud of was in Homeland again, interoperable communication. This is the communication for entities to communicate when there is a disaster. Separate entities, say the Newark Fire Department for example, is on the scene and they need Bloomfield and East Orange to assist, they all communicate in one band. Three different people, three different phones, in a disaster communicate with each other. They will know what's going on the fifth floor, as they tell others "don't come on the fifth floor; it's about to cave in." This is something they were working on for 13 years, and had not achieved yet, so my legislation says it's time to achieve it. I proposed it in the 113th Congress, and there was some difficulty in the Senate and it died as the 113th Congress ended. In the 114th Congress, we proposed it again, and it passed through the house with not a single vote against it. About 350 to 370 congresspersons voted in favor and not a one vote was against it. That's unprecedented. It is one of 46 bills of legislation signed by the President in this Congress. Of 435, only 46 bills have passed, and one of them was proposed by Donald Payne, Jr.

DS: What problems do you see with this community and what would you like to change?

DP: There are quite a few problems. Education is the key. The mayor did a favor to the community to shake things up for the departure of Cami Anderson. I helped at the congressional level. Under the leadership of Ronald Rice, community clergy, educators, legislators from New Jersey went to Washington to meet the department of education, and discuss the issue about the One Newark Plan. I had never seen something where parents and the community were not taken into consideration. Naturally, it is housing. All of the issues of the urban centers, some move forward in certain degrees.

DS: Drones are the latest technology. They should not fly above 400 ft. Are they a threat to commercial airlines and security?

DP: There are some regulations now, but I think it's such a new area and has really taken off. It's definitely something to be looked at. There are privacy issues, as these drones have cameras connected to them, can fly to the height to your bedroom and invade your privacy.

DS: You supported our President for the Iran treaty. What is your reasoning?

DP: I choose diplomacy over war any day. Our President went to great lengths to secure a good deal. President Nixon went to China in the 70s, normalized relations and discussions there, President Reagan went to Russia and Gorbachev knocked down the Berlin Wall.

Congressman Payne, Jr. added further, "Anytime that I am back in the community, I make sure that I get copies of Local Talk, even a few back issues, so I know what's going on in the community. I am in Washington four days a week, so Local Talk really allows me to catch up on topics or issues in the community for the time I have been gone. I always have my heads up for Local Talk when I come back to Newark."


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