Mervyn M. Dymally, the Trinidad-born former teacher whose ground-breaking if sometimes controversial political career spanned more than four decades and included a stint as California’s only black lieutenant governor, has died. He was 86.
Dymally, who became a leader in the Los Angeles area’s ascendant African American political establishment in the early 1960s and served in both houses of the Legislature and in Congress, died Sunday October 7th, in Los Angeles, after a period of declining health, his family said.
“He’s opened so many doors. A lot of people have walked through those doors,” then-Assembly Speaker Herb Wesson told The Times in early 2003, shortly after Dymally, a decade into his retirement from Congress, returned to the Assembly as its elder statesman. Wesson, now a Los Angeles City Council president, was one of several generations of area Democratic politicians mentored by the man with salt-and-pepper hair and lilting West Indies accent.
Dymally’s political longevity and ability to return time and again to public office had him winning elections well into what for many would have been their retirement years. His latest comeback, at age 76, was perhaps his most dramatic. In 2002, dissatisfied with the potential candidates for the Compton-area Assembly seat he had first won in 1962 and dismayed at the dropping numbers of blacks in the Legislature, Dymally jumped into the race himself and won.
“You can accomplish things here,” Dymally told The Times when he returned to Sacramento shortly before budget crises and extreme partisanship hamstrung state government. “You can see the results of your work.”
The controversies that surrounded him with some regularity over the years could never permanently derail his political career, as several corruption investigations all ended without charges ever being filed. 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 when, termed out of the Assembly in 2008, Dymally, then 82, lost a grueling Democratic primary election for a state Senate seat to Rod Wright. Dymally never really left politics, though, and he continued to advise others from the sidelines and led a health institute at the Charles R. Drew University of Medicine and Science in South Los Angeles. The university’s School of Nursing bears his name.
Cal State L.A. political scientist Raphael J. Sonenshein, who has written extensively about race and politics in the Los Angeles area, called Dymally “a very significant figure” who helped then-Speaker Jesse Unruh forge an effective state political organization with its base in the southern neighborhoods and suburbs of the state’s largest city.
Throughout the 1960s and 1970s, Dymally worked with Unruh and used such tools as direct mail, organizing and fundraising to build a political network of working-class blacks that helped send generations of budding Democratic politicians to Sacramento. Sonenshein said Dymally’s main rival was Tom Bradley, who won a breakthrough election as mayor of Los Angeles with the help of middle-class blacks and liberal white voters. One of Bradley’s competitors in that 1973 election was Unruh.
“Dymally built one of the most important black political organizations in Los Angeles,” Sonenshein said. “He was a very shrewd politician.”
During his career, Dymally worked to improve education and access to healthcare for his largely working-class, minority constituents. In Congress, he chaired the Congressional Black Caucus and served on the Foreign Affairs Committee. He focused on issues involving U.S. relations with African nations, strongly supported sanctions against South Africa and worked on other international human rights issues.