Former California lawmaker, US Rep. Mervyn Dymally dies

 Assemblyman Mervyn Dymally during an appearance at California State University, Dominguez Hills, Thursday, Aug. 14, 2003, at the campus in Carson, Calif.
Assemblyman Mervyn Dymally during an appearance at California State University, Dominguez Hills, Thursday, Aug. 14, 2003, at the campus in Carson, Calif. Damian Dovarganes

Mervyn Dymally, the former California assemblyman, senator and lieutenant governor who also served in Congress for more than a decade, has died.

A former press secretary for the Democratic lawmaker said Dymally died Sunday in Los Angeles. He was 86.

Jasmine Cannick said Dymally's health had been in decline.

Born in Trinidad in 1926, Mervyn Dymally came to the United States at 19. He got a degree at Cal State University Los Angeles, became a U.S. citizen and a teacher. He also got involved in Democratic politics, winning election as assemblyman in 1962.

He went on to mentor a generation of Democratic politicians and helped build African-American political power in California through the 1960s and 70s.

Congresswoman Maxine Waters (D-Calif.) recalled walking into his campaign office when he was running for state senator. She knew little about politics but wanted to get involved. He asked her to host a coffee for him and that was her political start.

Waters came to see him as a pioneer who helped black politicians establish independent bases of community support apart from white power brokers, like his ally Jess Unruh, a political gatekeeper who could make or break a campaign.

"If you are a politician that has to depend on any one person for your money and for your directions, that means that they own you, they have your vote, they can tell you what to do," Waters said. "He created independence for black elected officials."

And while he worked to build a network of working class African-American voters, it was a rival -- Tom Bradley --- who ascended to become the first African-American mayor of Los Angeles.

Dymally became the state's first black state senator in 1966, and was elected California lieutenant governor in 1974, He recalled that election in a 2006 interview with Patt Morrison.

"George Brown of Colorado and I became the first two African Americans to be elected lieutenant governor in the history of the United States. There was a lieutenant governor in Louisiana, P.B.S. Pinchback, during the reconstruction era, but he was appointed not elected."

He lost his reelection bid four years later, hurt by an unsubstantiated rumor that he was about to be indicted. His integrity would come under frequent attack during his political career, but he was never charged with any crime.

In 1980, he won a seat in Congress in an election that illustrated his political acumen. Dymally entered the race, anticipating -- correctly -- that the two white candidates would split the white vote in the Hawthorne-Compton area district, giving him the win on the combined black-Asian-Latino vote.

In Congress, Dymally advocated for other immigrants. He asked that Japanese-Americans be compensated for their World War II internment and introduced legislation to permit Filipino-Americans who were veterans of that war to stay in the U.S. and become citizens.

Dymally also advocated for Haitian immigrants, for Russian Jews in the former Soviet Union, for the creation of a Palestinian state and the dismantling of apartheid in South Africa; and against U.S. aid to oppressive regimes in Latin America. He held that Congressional seat until retiring in 1992.

He staged a political comeback in 2002, running for the same Compton area Assembly seat he won in the early 60s. He was termed out of his Assembly post in 2008 and ran for state Senate, but lost at age 82 to Rod Wright in the Democratic primary.

He was a key advocate for the Charles Drew University, and its nursing school is named for him.

Dymally was survived by his wife Alice, a son and a daughter.

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