WASHINGTON — An African Methodist Episcopal pastor and former NAACP official is preparing a Democratic primary challenge against New Jersey incumbent, Rep. Donald Payne Jr., arguing Congress needs more young progressives who are staunchly opposed to President Donald Trump.
Stephen Green, the pastor of Heard AME Church in Roselle, New Jersey told BuzzFeed News he will run against Payne in part because he feels the current political moment is highlighting a dearth of young, progressive leadership in Congress.
Green, 27, pointed directly to the “squad,” Reps. Ayanna Pressley, Ilhan Omar, Rashida Tlaib, and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, as his inspiration for mounting a challenge to Payne.
“It’s the sense that the nation relies on courageous leadership. People want to know who’s going to go to bat and fight for us,” Green said.
Payne, 60, was first elected in 2012, taking over as representative in the seat that had belonged to his father, Donald M. Payne Sr. since the 1980s. Payne garnered 91% of the vote in 2018, and hasn’t yet faced a serious primary challenge, but that could change as Green’s bourgeoning national profile is certain to bring plenty of local and national media attention to the race. A spokesperson for Payne did not respond to an email seeking comment.
In his young career, Green, who is a graduate of Morehouse College, has stood out with a “protest-to-policy” approach to advocacy. It’s meant as a nod to both the tactics of the civil rights era generation and to the larger, more recent direct-action tactics of Black Lives Matter and other racial justice movements.
As the NAACP’s youth director in 2016, Green organized a voter registration effort in partnership with Chance the Rapper’s nationwide tour. That summer, Green led off-site demonstrations at the 2016 general conference of the AME Church in Philadelphia, which Hillary Clinton addressed weeks before she was nominated.
Green was often a fixture in a series of high-profile protests that drew national headlines, including a sit-in at the Mobile, Ala. office of then-Sen. Jeff Sessions. The protesters arrested were demanding Sessions withdraw his name from consideration to lead the Department of Justice.
A dynamic orator, Green had a coveted speaking slot at a ceremony commemorating the anniversary of the Bloody Sunday march from Selma to Montgomery, at Brown Chapel AME Church in March. The service was attended by Hillary Clinton and New Jersey Sen. Cory Booker.
Needing to raise about $1 million, Green plans to map out a grassroots strategy during August and officially announce his candidacy around Labor Day.
He said Democrats have more than enough material from the Mueller report on the Russians’ effort to meddle in the 2016 election to open an impeachment inquiry into President Trump. (Payne also supports an impeachment inquiry.)
Green may face a hard time finding outside help for his campaign: in March, the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee issued a warning to Democratic party insiders and strategists that they could face isolation if they supported candidates challenging incumbent House Democrats.
Green said the new lawmakers in Congress came in with a mandate to represent marginalized communities, and he’s hoping that his incumbent challenge in New Jersey’s 10th Congressional district inspires black millennials to run for office at the local, state and federal level in an effort to drive up turnout in places where Democrats struggled to excite black voters in 2016.
For his part, Green believes a lack of accountability is eroding trust in the system — ultimately, he’s motivated by a desire for young people to clearly see where their priorities can fit in the party’s legislative agenda. He hopes his run will inspire other young people to run for political office.
Pressley, who ousted longtime incumbent Rep. Mike Capuano in 2018, emphasized during her race that she wasn’t interested in bringing a chair “to a new table.” At this year’s Netroots conference, she further signaled what many interpreted as a jab at the Congressional Black Caucus. It’s "time to shake that table," Pressley said. "We don’t need any more brown faces that don’t want to be a brown voice," she said, according to the Washington Post. “We don’t need any more black faces that don’t want to be a black voice.”
Green said he has nothing against Payne but added that he agreed with Pressley that black voices speaking for the most marginalized communities adopt a new justice-focused posture, in order for the Congressional Black Caucus to “really be the conscience of the Congress.” He has spoken to the Justice Democrats, the new group that helped to elect Ocasio-Cortez in 2018, but says it has so far yielded little more than a suggestion that he support the Green New Deal.
To Green, Democrats can best engage black millennials by supporting more candidates like him: "If Stacey Abrams and Andrew Gillum were on the ticket in 2016 I think the outcome could have been a different story."