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He dared to dream long before Obama

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by J. Scott Orr, Star-Ledger

donald_payne_medIt was a chilly November day in Newark and Donald Payne was reflecting on dreams, both his and those of black America.

“Nothing is as powerful as a dream whose time has come,” Payne said of a political victory that had taken longer than many expected, but nonetheless signaled a breakthrough for African-Americans and their representation in Washington.

“Sometimes a political leader is marching a little in front or a little behind the people, but once in a while the marcher and the drumbeat are in exactly the same cadence, and then, finally, good things happen,” he said.

Coming as it did, on Nov. 9, 1988, Payne’s statement had nothing to with President-elect Barack Obama and his history-making ascent to the White House. Still, 20 years later, the Newark Democrat’s thoughts are as valid and reasoned as they were on that day in 1988, the day after Payne was elected to Congress as New Jersey’s first African-American House member.

At the time, Obama was in his first year at Harvard Law School, his historic destiny unimaginable to anyone.

But Payne — who sat for an interview on race, politics and the Obama presidency in his Capitol Hill office the other day — said the seeds of Obama’s historic victory were already being sown even as voters in New Jersey’s 10th Congressional District were sending Payne to Washington.

Jesse Jackson, after all, had just captured 6.9 million votes in the 1988 Democratic presidential primaries and was for a time considered a favorite for the Democratic nomination. Earlier, in 1972, New York’s Shirley Chisholm had blazed that trail as the first black major party candidate for president.

“Those races were historic, even though both Chisholm and Jackson knew they had very little chance of winning,” Payne said. “They were still important because … they showed the potential … of the African-American vote on a national stage,” he said.

Like most African-American politicians, Payne said he could hardly have imagined an African-American being elected president during his lifetime. Still, he said, there were factors unrelated to race that came together to create Obama’s perfect electoral storm.

Foremost, he said, was Obama himself, his blackness notwithstanding.

“He is quite an extraordinary person,” said Payne, who first met the future president when Obama was recruited to run for the Senate from Illinois in 2003.

“From the very outset, Barack Obama was able to connect with people. It was not because he was a black candidate, but because he was a superior candidate. People felt they could trust Barack Obama,” he said.

Obama’s personal magnetism alone was not enough though, Payne said. It also took the round-the-clock exposure of cable news and the Internet to present Obama to a broad national audience. Then came perhaps the most essential factor, the collapse of the U.S. economy, which created a thirst for change and gave many voters leave to overcome their feelings about race to consider an African-American candidate.

“The economic situation allowed him to intensify his focus on change and to tie (Republican) John McCain to the failed policies of the current administration,” Payne said.

Payne acknowledged he was caught off guard as Obama surged in the primaries. An early backer of New York Sen. Hillary Clinton, Payne refused to campaign for her as the Obama campaign gathered steam. In March, with the race still undetermined, Payne abandoned his loyalty to the Clintons to back Obama.

“That was really troubling for me because once he began gaining momentum, I started to reconsider that decision. Eventually, I had to make a change,” he said.

Having captured the White House, Obama now must tend to the hard work of governing a country facing the parallel challenges of war and an economy in peril, Payne said. The early outcome, he said, could have lasting impacts on both race and politics.

“This is a historic opportunity,” Payne said, adding that those who overcame reservations about Obama’s race to vote for him might not remain loyal if his administration founders. “If his administration does not succeed early on, there are those who will use that as a reason not to vote for future African-American candidates,” Payne said.

Twenty years after breaking the color barrier in New Jersey, Payne is well entrenched as a senior Democrat on Capitol Hill, so much so that his seniority has finally earned him coveted office space with a splendid view of the Capitol.

As he spoke last week, Payne’s old office had been reduced to piles of boxes in preparation for the move, faded paint framing spots on his walls that once held pictures and other mementos of his time in office. But one picture remained: a shot of Payne smiling with the president-elect.


Written by Symphony

November 30, 2008 at 9:38 am

2 Responses

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  1. papua


    June 28, 2009 at 1:32 am


    June 28, 2009 at 1:33 am

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