LOS ANGELES (AP) — Mervyn Dymally broke racial barriers during his more than four decades in California politics but also was dogged throughout his career by a variety of corruption allegations.
The Trinidad-born trailblazer who rose to become California’s highest-ranking Black politician died Sunday at age 86 in Los Angeles after a period of declining health, his wife said.
A self-described civil rights champion, Dymally decorated his Sacramento office with black-and-white pictures of Martin Luther King Jr. and Cesar Chavez. He introduced the bill that lowered the voting age in California to 18 and wrote the resolution by which California ratified the Equal Rights Amendment.
He became California’s first foreign-born Black assemblyman in 1962, its first Black state senator in 1966 and its first and only Black lieutenant governor in 1974. He won a congressional seat in 1980, representing Compton and its surrounding area, one of the most solidly Democratic bastions in Los Angeles County.
On Monday, Gov. Jerry Brown praised Dymally as an important leader.
“Mervyn Dymally was an extraordinary man who spent his life breaking new ground and advancing the cause of civil rights and equality,” the Democratic governor said in a statement. “He was both a thinker and a doer, bearing deep knowledge but never hesitating to take action where action was warranted.”
Despite his political highs, Dymally was never far from the whiff of scandal.
Numerous allegations of fraud, bribery and pay-for-play campaign contributions plagued him throughout his career, including a claim that he received a $10,000 bribe from a religious cult and misused money from a nonprofit institute that he founded.
Dymally maintained that he never acted illegally. In 1976, he wrote an op-ed piece in The Sacramento Bee saying he had been the victim of “sustained harassment and distortion” by the press and suggesting the negative coverage might be due to the color of his skin.
Such allegations, including unsubstantiated claims that he would be indicted by the federal government, eventually led to his defeat in his 1978 bid for re-election as lieutenant governor.
Dymally rebounded in 1980 when he won a seat in Congress, where he served as chairman of the Congressional Black Caucus and championed economic and humanitarian aid for Africa as chairman of the House Foreign Affairs Committee.
In 1990, the Washington Post reported that Dymally, a leading supporter of sanctions against South Africa’s racist White regime, had watered down a bill banning U.S. imports of South African diamonds at the urging of New York diamond importer. Two months later, the Post said, the same importer donated $34,200 to a Dymally scholarship program for minority students. Dymally denied any wrongdoing.
In 1992, Dymally announced he was retiring, saying he “didn’t get elected to stay in office forever.”
But 10 years later, he was running again at age 76 for the Assembly seat he held at the start of his political career, in part to ensure that the seat remained in the hands of a Black lawmaker.
Dymally won on the slogan “Experience counts” and served for six years before terming out of the Assembly and losing a Democratic state Senate primary to former Assemblyman Rod Wright, D-Los Angeles.
On Monday, Senate President Pro Tem Darrell Steinberg, D-Sacramento, said in a statement that Dymally “paved the way for the diversity of today’s Legislature.”
Dymally was born May 12, 1926, in Trinidad and worked as a janitor and union organizer before embarking on a political career in the 1960s that spanned more than 40 years.
He was a reporter for The Vanguard, a weekly newspaper published by a labor union, before coming to the U.S. to attend college. He earned a bachelor’s degree in education from Los Angeles State College, now California State University, Los Angeles, and later received a doctorate in human behavior from United States International University, now Alliant International University, in San Diego.
Dymally became involved in Democratic Party politics after graduating with his bachelor’s degree. He was vice chairman of the California Youth for Kennedy Committee during John F. Kennedy’s campaign for president in 1960.
In his final years, Dymally led a health institute at the Charles Drew University of Medicine and Science in South Los Angeles. The university’s nursing school bears his name.
In 2002, he told The Associated Press, “My legacy has not been my legislation. My legacy has been my openness.”
Besides his wife, Dymally was survived by his son, Mark, and daughter, Lynn. Plans for a memorial service were pending.