It’s not often that members of Congress from both sides of the aisle come together to celebrate the life and legacy of a single member. Yet, after the death of our beloved colleague Rep. Donald Payne, Republicans and Democrats coalesced in a bittersweet tribute to honor his extraordinary work as a committed public servant for his constituents in New Jersey and as a steadfast ally with top global leaders in Africa.
As the ranking member of the Subcommittee on Africa, Global Health and Human Rights, Payne served as a quiet and courageous champion for millions of people on the continent whose voices were not strong enough to be heard in the halls of Capitol Hill.
During his tenure as the ranking member of the subcommittee, I had the distinct honor to serve with Mr. Payne and learn directly from his exceptional wealth of knowledge on issues concerning Africa. Through his work, he exhibited a laser-like focus and unflinching commitment to Africa, which was evident in his active stance condemning the conflict in the Darfur region of Sudan as well an unparalleled command of issues that ranged from post-genocide Rwanda to HIV/AIDS, human rights violations, conflict minerals and so much more.
Rep. Payne was recognized by African dignitaries and our own presidents as a reliable source of critical information in the region. Payne led a presidential mission to war-torn Rwanda in the ’90s during President Bill Clinton’s administration and also helped to secure $100 million to help prevent and treat AIDS, tuberculosis and malaria. While he tirelessly advocated for the rights of the vulnerable populations of the world and condemned the injustices against them, somehow Payne also had the same incredible fervor for his constituents in New Jersey. As a former teacher, he remained a leading advocate of education and was instrumental in funding critical programs including Head Start, the Pell Grant Program and other student loan programs.
What’s clear is that Rep. Payne led by example and embodied the type and quality of leadership that is increasingly missing in the United States Congress. He understood that the U.S. must harness the full might of our development and diplomacy apparatus before opting for military action. He understood what gender equality and empowerment are to societies. He understood that investing in women and girls, peace and democratic institutions should have a prominent role within a carefully balanced foreign policy. I will continue the path Rep. Payne created as I step up to serve as a devoted liaison between the House of Representatives and Africa.
While we reflect upon Rep. Payne’s life and his contributions to our world, I am saddened that many of the people he fought for over the years may never know the extent of his devotion to ensuring this world be a better place for all. He left an incredible legacy to fulfill and it is an honor to be able to continue the great work he began. His love of the world and all of its people took us far beyond where anyone thought we’d be. A most fitting thank-you for a job well done is to pick up and continue down the path to which he guided us.
I know it’s what he would have wanted.
Rep. Karen Bass represents the 33rd Congressional District, which includes Los Angeles, Hollywood and Culver City, and was the 67th Speaker of the California Assembly. She serves as the ranking member of the House Foreign Affairs Subcommittee on Africa, Global Health and Human Rights.