Julian R. Dugas, longtime D.C. government leader, dies at 95


From left,  John Risher, corporation counsel; Julian Dugas, city administrator; Mayor Walter Washington; and Comer Coppie in 1976. (James A. Parcell/The Washington Post)

Julian R. Dugas, a lawyer and civil rights activist who became a power broker in the administration of former D.C. mayor Walter E. Washington and helped guide the city’s transition to home rule in the 1970s, died April 12 at a hospital in the District. He was 95.

The cause was congestive heart failure, said his son Edwin H. Dugas.

Mr. Dugas (the “s” was silent) dedicated nearly his entire career to the governance of the District of Columbia and to advocacy on behalf of its poor and disenfranchised.

He was among the youngest lawyers involved with Bo lling v. Sharpe , a 1954 companion case to the landmark Brown v. Board of Education. In Bolling, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that segregation in D.C. public schools was unconstitutional.

Mr. Dugas began his government career at a time when District affairs were overseen by congressional committees and other federal authorities. A proponent of home rule, he was one of the closest advisers to Walter Washington, who served as the city’s presidentially appointed mayor-commissioner before, in 1975, becoming the District’s first elected mayor in more than a century.

A Washington Post reporter once wrote that “in the often intense competition for the ear of Walter Washington, two persons have the most success.” They were the mayor’s wife — and Mr. Dugas.

Described as a liberal Republican, Mr. Dugas worked for Mayor Washington before and after home rule in a variety of positions, including director of economic development, chairman of the Alcoholic Beverage Control Board, director of the office of licenses, inspections and investigations, and, most prominently, as city administrator.

In all his roles, Mr. Dugas developed a reputation as a fiercely loyal lieutenant to Washington.

Mr. Dugas assisted Washington during some of the most challenging moments of his leadership. In 1968, the mayor dispatched him to the scenes of rioting that followed the assassination of civil rights leader Martin Luther King Jr. Mr. Dugas was credited with helping to direct the policy that demonstrators would not be shot on sight and, later, that broken store windows would be replaced.

That same year, Mr. Dugas helped coordinate the city’s management of the Resurrection City encampment on the Mall during the Poor People’s Campaign.

Throughout his career, he was credited with bringing more African Americans into city jobs — part of the mayor’s broad campaign to make the government better reflect the community it served.

In his influence over city affairs, Mr. Dugas was at times described as having cultivated outsize power. On one occasion, when the mayor was away, Mr. Dugas stirred controversy by naming himself acting mayor and vetoing a city council bill.

In 1979, Marion Barry became mayor after defeating Washington in the primary. Mr. Dugas, who was reassigned after the transition, retired several months later from city government.

H. Patrick Swygert, president emeritus of Howard University, credited Mr. Dugas with having helped guide the city through the delicate “testing period” that preceded the granting of home rule.

“Had Mayor Washington and Julian Dugas failed in their administration,” he said, “I don’t think we would be where we are.”

Julian Riley Dugas was born June 1, 1918, in Greenwood, S.C. He grew up in segregated Augusta, Ga., where his parents ran a funeral parlor.

Mr. Dugas received a bachelor’s degree in 1940 from what is now South Carolina State University, a historically black institution in Orangeburg, S.C.

After Navy service during World War II, he graduated from Howard University’s law school in 1949 and began his career with the firm of Cobb, Howard and Hayes. An early milestone in his career was the Bolling v. Sharp case.

“I was the youngest man on this team,” he told Washingtonian magazine in 2004. “I always liked to think of it as walking in the valley of the giants because all of these people were extremely good lawyers, and I was just beginning.”

He also served as assistant corporation counsel in Washington and helped found Neighborhood Legal Services, which provides legal assistance to the poor in the District. His legal legwork was credited with securing greater rights for tenants and debtors.

Mr. Dugas was a special assistant to the president of Howard University, where he taught law for decades. He remained active in his private legal practice until his death and belonged to St. Luke’s Episcopal Church in Washington.

Survivors include his wife of 70 years, Thelma Chisholm Dugas of Washington; four sons, Julian R. Dugas Jr. of Las Vegas, John F. Dugas of Scottsdale, Ariz., and Edwin H. Dugas and Michael C. Dugas, both of Washington; a grandson; and three great-grandchildren.

Emily Langer is a reporter on The Washington Post’s obituaries desk. She has written about national and world leaders, celebrated figures in science and the arts, and heroes from all walks of life.