Former California Lieutenant Governor Mervyn Dymally.
Former California Lieutenant Governor Mervyn Dymally.

The death of former Lt. Gov. Mervyn Dymally was a blow to a number of local politicians and activists who remembered him as an inspiration, mentor and consensus builder.

Dymally, the first and only black lieutenant governor of California and a trailblazer among blacks in politics, died Sunday. He was 86.

Former Congresswoman Diane Watson was a protege of Dymally who followed his footsteps into the U.S. House of Representatives, where she served for 10 years until 2011.

"He was responsible for my success in politics," said Watson, who represented the 33rd district in central Los Angeles. "Merv was the force that sent me upward."

Watson fondly remembers that those who couldn't catch up or cut through Dymally's thick Trinidadian accent, which he never lost, were often left behind.

He was a native of Trinidad and Tobago, and served as California's 41st lieutenant governor from 1975 to 1979 after serving in the state Assembly from 1963 to 1966 and the state Senate from 1967 to 1975.

Dymally was also was dogged throughout his career by a variety of corruption allegations, including fraud, bribery and pay-for-play campaign contributions.

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 suggested 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.

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 a 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.

But many, including Watson, said he will be remembered for working hard to help blacks throughout the state get elected at all levels of government.

Felton Williams, president of the Long Beach Unified School District, said: "To have him endorse you was a major endorsement. He was that well thought of in the African-American community."

Compton's Doris Davis, herself a trailblazer in politics as the first African-American woman elected as mayor to a metropolitan city in 1973 and also the first black woman to be elected as a city clerk, remembers Dymally as a mentor and her hero.

"I admired the man," Davis said. "He knew how to make politics work and make each level interact. He got things done."

Davis said she saw Dymally at his best during the Watts riots in 1965. A state assemblyman at the time, Dymally was able to organize area churches to deliver milk and medicine into the riot zone where outsiders couldn't safely go.

"It was a beautiful thing," Davis said. "He was my champion."

Davis said when she was mayor and needed help to get the governmental bureaucracy moving, Dymally was the go-to guy.

"He knew all the agencies we needed to get programs going," Davis said. "A phone call to Merv and you'd see the gears start moving."

Current members of government were also sending along messages of condolence. 

Isadore Hall III, who succeeded Dymally in the 52nd District of the State Assembly, said in a statement: "Merv's legacy helped open the doors of opportunity for his and future generations and his spirit will live on in the lives of the many leaders he inspired. Our state and country are a better place because of his lifetime of work. I am honored to have called him my friend and mentor."

Congresswoman Janice Hahn, who represents the South Bay's 36th district, described Dymally as "an icon, a legend, and one of the most loved and revered leaders in all of California."

Williams dates his relationship to when Dymally was lieutenant governor and Williams was head of the San Pedro Branch for the NAACP.

Williams recalls Dymally primarily as a person who could bring groups together.

"He was a coalition builder," Williams said. "He really thought outside of himself. He didn't focus on Merv, which is unique for a politician."

Davis said Dymally was the "master politician" in the positive sense of the term in that he used resources to provide services to the people and advance democratic ideals and unity.

"It was his lifeblood. He just really loved the body politic," Davis said.

Dymally also never forgot those whom he served, Williams said.

To underscore that, Williams said he recalled several years ago attending a dedication to a playground in Watts, and there on stage among the dignitaries was Dymally, lending his support and stature to the event.

"Here he was in the neighborhood," Williams said. "The fact that he was here to support it epitomized what he was about."

Williams said Dymally was particularly keen on strong education, which he said is exemplified by Dymally's daughter, Lynn, who taught at Long Beach City College and is now with Cal State Long Beach.

Watson said Dymally gave her an advance draft of his memoirs earlier this year and it reminded her of all he had achieved since coming to the U.S. as a penniless third-world immigrant hustling magazines on street corners.

She said his intellect and reason helped him truly grasp the larger picture of America and what it could and should be.

Or as Williams put it: "His life was a living legacy. He was a living monument to developing harmonious relationships."

Dymally is survived by his wife, a daughter, a son and three sisters. Funeral arrangements were pending.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

greg.mellen@presstelegram.com, 562-714-2093, twitter.com/gregmellen