Mervyn M. Dymally dies; former California congressman was 86

October 8, 2012

Mervyn M. Dymally, a native of Trinidad whose groundbreaking if sometimes controversial political career spanned more than four decades and included stints as a member of the U.S. House of Representatives and as California’s only black lieutenant governor, died Oct. 7 in Los Angeles. He was 86.

His death was confirmed by his family. The cause was not reported.

Dr. Dymally became a leader in the Los Angeles area’s ascendant African American political establishment in the early 1960s. He served in both houses of the California legislature and as the state’s lieutenant governor before being elected to Congress in 1980.

During his career, Dr. Dymally worked to improve education and access to health care for his largely working-class, minority constituents. In Washington, he chaired the Congressional Black Caucus and served on the House foreign affairs committee. He focused on issues involving U.S. relations with African nations, supported sanctions against South Africa and worked on other international human rights issues.

Dr. Dymally did not seek reelection to the U.S. House in 1992. In 2002, dissatisfied with the potential candidates for the Compton-area California State Assembly seat he had first won in 1962, and dismayed at the dropping numbers of blacks in the legislature, Dr. Dymally jumped into the race and won.

The controversies that surrounded him with some regularity over the years never permanently derailed his political career, as several corruption investigations ended without charges being filed. Dr. Dymally always said the probes were baseless and politically motivated.

The end came instead at the hands of a rival nearly 30 years his junior. Termed out of the California State Assembly in 2008, Dr. Dymally, then 82, lost a Democratic primary election for a state Senate seat to Rod Wright.

Dr. Dymally never really left politics, however, and continued to advise others from the sidelines. He led a health institute at the Charles R. Drew University of Medicine and Science in Los Angeles. The university’s nursing school bears his name.

Raphael J. Sonenshein, a political scientist who has written extensively about race and politics in the Los Angeles area, called Dr. Dymally “a very significant figure” who helped forge an effective state political organization with its base in the southern neighborhoods and suburbs of the state’s largest city.

In 1990, while serving in the House, he came under scrutiny when it was learned that a diamond merchant had given $34,000 to a scholarship fund Dr. Dymally had founded after the congressman softened his stance on sanctions against South African diamonds.

It was not his first brush with controversy. In the late 1970s, investigators looked into allegations that leaders of a Long Beach church had conspired to pay the then-lieutenant governor $10,000 to shield them from a state probe. In the 1980s, questions arose over how he used part of a $100,000 university grant for a research institute he headed. None of those inquiries resulted in criminal charges.

Mervyn Malcolm Dymally was born May 12, 1926, in Cedros, Trinidad, West Indies. He once told the Los Angeles Sentinel that he had been drifting toward a life as a ne’er-do-well when a book he found about Booker T. Washington, the influential African American writer and orator, inspired him to come to the United States, at age 19, for his education.

He received a bachelor’s degree from California State University at Los Angeles in 1954, a master’s degree from California State at Sacramento in 1969 and a PhD from the United States International University in San Diego (which later became part of Alliant International University) in 1978. He became a U.S. citizen in 1957.

A special-education teacher for Los Angeles schools, he got involved in local Democratic Party politics. When he won election to the Assembly in 1962, he became the first foreign-born black lawmaker elected to California’s lower house.

Other firsts followed: first black elected to the state Senate, in 1966, and, when he won the lieutenant governor’s race in 1974, first black to serve in a nonpartisan statewide elected office.

In 1978, he was defeated for reelection by Republican music industry mogul Mike Curb. Dr. Dymally bounced back two years later by defeating scandal-plagued U.S. Rep. Charles H. Wilson and former Rep. Mark Hannaford in the Democratic primary and then handily winning election to Congress that fall.

After his retirement, Dr. Dymally’s daughter, Lynn Dymally, then a Compton school board member, lost a primary race to succeed him.

Besides his daughter, Dr. Dymally’s survivors include his wife of 44 years, Alice Gueno Dymally; a son, Mark; and three sisters.

— Los Angeles Times and staff reports

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