NEWARK, N.J. — Rep. Donald Payne was a modest man who favored quiet persuasion over bombast, qualities that didn't detract from his effectiveness as an advocate for the most vulnerable in the U.S. and abroad, former friends and colleagues recalled at his funeral Wednesday.
Former President Bill Clinton called Payne, who died last week of colon cancer at age 77, "a dear friend" who "made me a better president" for his humanitarian efforts in Africa and elsewhere.
A who's who of current and former politicians attended Payne's funeral at Newark's Metropolitan Baptist Church, a place the 12-term congressman returned to often during his years in office.
"What made him loved was that he was not only global, he was grounded," the Rev. Al Sharpton said. "Donald Payne never forgot why people sent him to Trenton and to Washington."
Clinton, who received a standing ovation when he was introduced, sat next to Republican Gov. Chris Christie during the service, and the two talked together and shared a few chuckles.
"Donald Payne believed peace was better than war, that it was better to build than to break down, better to reconcile than to resent," Clinton said during his remarks. "You know when he grew up; he could have been an angry man, a resenter rather than a builder. But then this church wouldn't be filled today."
Payne became New Jersey's first black congressional member in 1988. He served as a member of House committees on education, foreign affairs and a subcommittee on Africa. He is considered one of the first U.S. officials to speak out on atrocities in war-torn Sudan.
He started out as a public school teacher in Newark, and went on to serve on the city council and as a county freeholder before being elected to Congress on his third try. He replaced former Rep. Peter Rodino, who had retired after 40 years in Congress.
U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder said Payne brought his teacher's perspective to Washington and succeeded "in a city where progress can too often be stalled by bureaucracy and big egos." He also credited Payne with helping to pave the way for Barack Obama, the nation's first black president, as well as for a black attorney general – Holder himself.
"We stood upon his shoulders," he said, before reading a letter from the president that praised Payne for his efforts on behalf of working class families.
The famously blunt Christie lauded Payne's "gentle power" and drew laughter from the crowd when he said that in terms of personality, "Congressman Payne and I complemented each other."
Others who attended included the Rev. Jesse Jackson, boxing promoter Don King, Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood, Environmental Protection Agency head Lisa Jackson, Rep. John Lewis, and other congressional members and state politicians.
Payne had announced in February that he was undergoing treatment for colon cancer and would continue to represent his district. He was flown home to New Jersey from Georgetown University Hospital as his health took a sudden turn for the worse, and died four days later, on March 6.