Ben Dillingham, a retired Marine who became a political power broker clearing a path for pioneering gay office holders in Southern California, has died at his home in San Diego. He was 72.
“He was the lodestar for those of us aspiring to serve in politics,” said state Sen. Toni Atkins (D-San Diego), who in 2014 became the first lesbian speaker of the state Assembly.
Dillingham died Thursday after battling pancreatic cancer.
Dillingham became the top aide for San Diego Mayor Maureen O’Connor after her election in 1986 and soon was “a beacon” to others, according to Christine Kehoe, a City Hall staffer elected to the City Council in 1993, the first acknowledged gay elected official in city history and later a state legislator.
“He was a role model,” Kehoe said in a statement. “Ben never lost his Marine bearing, no matter what controversy swept through his office.”
Dillingham later became a leader in community organizations dedicated to LGBT rights and to the fight against AIDS, which claimed the lives of three of his partners.
“Until we all come out of the closet,” he once said, “it will not be safe for any of us.”
Benjamin Franklin Dillingham III was born on May 23, 1945, in Honolulu, the descendant of a wealthy railroad and construction family.
He went to boarding school in Massachusetts and then to Harvard, where he got a degree in economics and an MBA.
During the Vietnam War, he served in the Marines as a reconnaissance platoon leader and was awarded a Bronze Star. He continued his military career at the Marine Corps Recruit Depot in San Diego, eventually retiring after eight years as a captain.
He went to work for General Dynamics and then became the chief financial officer for the Metropolitan Transit Development Board, which is where he met O’Connor.
In a statement, the former mayor called him “a dear friend and soul mate for over 35 years” and said his contributions to the community “are dwarfed only by his humility.”
As O’Connor’s gatekeeper, Dillingham had a reputation for toughness in his dealings with people trying to win the mayor’s favor on various issues.
But he also was loyal to his co-workers, once taking a cut in pay so that others in the office could get raises.
“I can still keep my image as an SOB,” he told a reporter at the time. “If I’m really a pussycat, that’s between me and God and maybe it will help me get into heaven.”
Among his honors: grand marshal of the Pride parade, the Harvey Milk Civil Rights Award, and the Crystal Torch from the Human Rights Campaign. The Veterans Wall at the LGBT Community Center is co-named after him.
“Ben was truly one of a kind,” county Supervisor Ron Roberts said in a statement, “a dedicated, principled and driven man whose tireless work ethic was unmatched, and whose generosity to our community and loyalty to friends were endless and unwavering.”
Dillingham is survived by his mother, Mrs. Andrew Dillingham; sisters Ceseli Foster and Lorie Rosenwald; and brother Henry Dillingham II.
Wilkens writes for the San Diego Union-Tribune.