There’s not a lot of room for someone to credibly challenge Rep. Donald Payne, Jr. (D-Newark) from the left in the June 7 Democratic primary in New Jersey’s 10th district.
Payne has voted 97% of the time with Rep. Rep. Alexandra Ocasio-Cortez (D-New York), the hero of the national progressive movement, during the 117th Congress. No other New Jersey House member has voted with Ocasio-Cortez more frequently than Payne.
Last week, Payne won the endorsement of another megastar of the left, Rep. Pramila Jayapal (D-Washington), the Congressional Caucus Chair.
If Payne has any weakness at all, it’s an uncommon modesty and serenity that keeps him from showing off what supporters insist is a solid progressive record.
“Payne checks all of the boxes — Medicare for All, Green New Deal, Racial Justice, Equal Rights for all, Reproductive Freedom, public transportation, infrastructure,” said Hetty Rosenstein, the former state director of the Communications Workers of America (CWA) who has unabashedly been at the forefront of New Jersey’s left wing for decades.
That puts his two challengers, Imani Oakley and Akil Khalfani, into an incredibly narrow lane in a primary that is tantamount to election in one of the nation’s bluest House districts.
“There is nothing that Oakley would do in Congress that would be substantively different from Payne,” Rosenstein explained. “We would be exchanging someone with seniority, who chairs an incredibly important (sub) committee for New Jersey, for someone with virtually no experience in the workforce, who isn’t going to vote substantially differently on anything.”
Payne has voted for the Build Back Better Act that seeks to make childcare, housing and prescription drugs more affordable and to fight climate change. He’s supported legislation to expand the Voting Rights Act, to provide to citizenship for undocumented immigrants, and the George Floyd Justice in Policing Act.
“Despite what Oakley says about Payne, he’s one of the most progressive members of Congress in the country,” said Rosenstein, who is one of Payne’s constituents.
Jayapal said that she s fought “side-by-side” with Payne on “affordable healthcare, free college tuition, and to improve the federal response to flooding and other climate-related disasters.”
“As a sponsor of Medicare for All, the College for All Act of 2022, and the Climate Resilience Workforce Act, Congressman Payne has been an incredible ally on Capitol Hill,” Jayapal said in her endorsement.
And the record shows Payne voting to raise the minimum wage and to help labor unions organize through the PRO Act. He gets an “A” rating from Progressive Punch, which tracks House voting records, and has a lifetime score of 97% on voting for progressive legislation.
Among Payne’s validators is Rep. Bonnie Watson Coleman (D-Ewing), whose lifetime progressive score is 99%.
“Donald Payne, Jr. has been as strong a partner as we have in Congress when it comes to the fight to advance our progressive values,” Watson Coleman told the New Jersey Globe. “He has stood side by side with me against Trump Republicans and has been a true ally for progressive Democrats throughout the state and across the country.”
To boost his own re-election chances, Payne has won endorsements from unions that might typically be allied with liberal causes– the New Jersey Education Association, AFCME, and the CWA – as well as Planned Parenthood, Gov. Phil Murphy, U.S. Senators Bob Menendez and Cory Booker, Lt. Gov. Sheila Oliver, and Mayors Ras Baraka of Newark and Steve Fulop of Jersey City.
In February, Vice President Kamala Harris joined Payne and other Democratic officials in Newark to mark the completion of a $190 million project to replace more than 24,000 lead pipes that endangered the city’s water system.
Payne became a national leader in a move to fund clean drinking water projects across the nation that resulted in the passage of a House infrastructure bill that include $55 billion for the national replacement of led pipes.
That leaves Oakley, who has held a series of short-term gigs working for New Jersey elected officials and causes, looking like a mountebank candidate with a small just a handful of lower-tier endorsements as she raises money online from progressives who may not fully understand Payne’s record.
“New Jersey’s 10th district deserves a representative in Congress who isn’t afraid to take on the establishment, stand up for democracy, and fight for marginalized communities,” Oakley said in a July 2021 press release announcing her candidacy. “Despite pressing issues around health, housing, and safety, we haven’t had that.”
Oakley’s hyperbolical statements didn’t impress Rosenstein, whose been around the block plenty during a career of more than four decades as a union leader and activist.
“The goal of what progressives are doing is progress. Not change for the sake of change,” We are trying to make things better, more equitable, cleaner, safer,” Rosenstein stated. “We want to change members of Congress who push us backwards, we aren’t trying to push forward individuals for the sake of their own ambition or opportunism.”
Oakley, a law school graduate who has let her law license lapse, now faces criticism from legitimate progressive leaders and activists who don’t view her as comparable to Ocasio-Cortez, or candidates like Cori Bush (D-Missouri) and Jamaal Bowman (D-New York), who toppled more moderate veteran congressmen two years ago.
She’s become a bit of a coattail rider, pushing the accomplishments of others – like a recent bid by Amazon to unionize or President Joe Biden’s signing of a law that will make lynching a federal hate crime – legislation Payne co-sponsored – as her own issues.
“I thought Oakley could have a future in politics in New Jersey, but she’s a divider, not a uniter, and I think she hurt herself going after New Jersey’s only Black Congressman and someone with a progressive record like Donald Payne’s,” said Rosenstein. “I’m disappointed in her.”