Rep. Julian C. Dixon of Los Angeles, a veteran Democrat who championed causes ranging from the city’s subway project to civil rights and was an influential lawmaker on national security issues, died Friday. He was 66.
Officials at Daniel Freeman Marina Hospital in Marina del Rey, where Dixon died after surgery Friday morning, declined to release information on the cause of death. His aides in Congress said he suffered an apparent heart attack.
Dixon had undergone what an aide described as minor surgery unrelated to his heart about a week ago at the hospital. He returned to the hospital and underwent additional surgery Monday.
Gov. Gray Davis is expected to call a special election to choose a successor for Dixon in the solidly Democratic 32nd House District, which straddles the Santa Monica Freeway roughly between the Harbor and San Diego freeways, taking in the USC area, the Crenshaw district, Culver City, Koreatown, Ladera Heights, Baldwin Hills, Leimert Park, Cheviot Hills and Mar Vista. Dixon first won election to his seat in 1978; he was reelected last month with nearly 84% of the vote.
From Washington to his congressional district, the well-liked, soft-spoken Dixon was remembered as the consummate gentleman politician who rose above partisanship during a career in state and national politics dating to 1972.
Although he kept a low public profile, Dixon was well-known in Capitol Hill’s corridors of power and among Los Angeles-area community leaders.
He was widely respected in Congress for taking on thankless but important jobs, including a sensitive ethics investigation in 1989 of then-House Speaker Jim Wright (D-Texas), who ultimately resigned.
A onetime chairman of the Congressional Black Caucus, Dixon was a leader in the mid-1980s in efforts to impose economic sanctions against South Africa because of its racial segregation policy. He was arrested in an anti-apartheid protest at the South African Embassy.
In recent years, he used his position as the senior California Democrat on the House Appropriations Committee to not only funnel federal largess to Los Angeles but to fend off efforts to cut funding for the much-maligned Los Angeles subway.
“We would not have Metro Rail in Los Angeles--it would have died midway through--were it not for Julian Dixon,” said Rep. Howard L. Berman (D-Mission Hills). “He held it together, more than any single person.”
President Clinton praised Dixon as a legislator who “worked tirelessly for his district” and “worked hard to make sure that the voices of the less fortunate could always be heard.”
Berman, a close friend who was elected to the state Assembly with Dixon in 1972, called him “a consummate institutional person. He was unique for the political class because he had his ego under control. He wanted to get it done rather than get his name or his face in front of the public. His interest was in accomplishing things and in loyalty to the institution.”
Berman added: “When you had a political crisis, a personal problem, going out to dinner with Julian and having a couple of drinks was the best therapy you could get.”
Rep. Jerry Lewis (R-Redlands) recalled Dixon as “an inside player who understood the importance of getting things done” in Congress.
“He wasn’t one who used demagoguery or went out of the way to get the credit,” Lewis added. “He was more interested in the accomplishment.”
In the early 1980s, Dixon led the fight to undertake subway construction in Los Angeles, over the opposition of the Reagan administration. In later years, he became the go-to man in Congress when the project ran into political trouble because of cost overruns and other scandals.
After Rep. Henry A. Waxman (D-Los Angeles) objected to routing the subway down Wilshire Boulevard in his district because of concerns about underground methane gas, Dixon pushed to move the route south into his district.
The subway extension was never built because of the high cost and political opposition. But Dixon secured money this year for studying mass-transit alternatives in the Mid-City area and on the city’s Eastside.
Dixon also sought money for Los Angeles for projects big and small--from $1 million for an exhibit of dinosaur eggs at the County Museum of Natural History in Exposition Park to the $565 million he helped add to a pending bill to reimburse states for jailing criminal illegal immigrants. He helped to secure federal aid for Los Angeles after the 1992 riots and the 1994 Northridge earthquake.
At the Simon Wiesenthal Center Museum of Tolerance in Los Angeles, Dixon was remembered for helping secure about $5 million in federal grants for diversity training and lessons in tolerance for underprivileged youths, teachers and law enforcement officials.
“There isn’t a single time where the Museum of Tolerance called upon him when he wasn’t there,” said Rabbi Marvin Hier, the center’s dean and founder.
But aside from such legislative accomplishments, Dixon was lauded for the attitude he brought to politics.
Los Angeles County Supervisor Zev Yaroslavsky said Dixon was a bridge-builder among Los Angeles’ diverse communities and had proved especially effective at healing sometimes strained relations between African American and Jewish groups.
One of Dixon’s constituents, Democratic activist Howard Welinsky, said, “We have a district that includes a large African American population, a significant Jewish population, but Julian was everybody’s congressman.”
Rep. Maxine Waters (D-Los Angeles), who represents a neighboring district, called Dixon “a stabilizing force in L.A. politics. He was a very calm, dependable and solid person.”
As a member of the House Appropriations defense subcommittee, Dixon secured funds to aid communities hit by base closings and other defense cutbacks.
Dixon also was the ranking Democrat on the House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence. CIA Director George J. Tenet, who frequently appears before that panel, said Dixon displayed “a deep understanding and appreciation of our work, and an even deeper caring for the men and women who devote their lives to national security.”
Indeed, his colleagues said he had a reputation--unusual for many in Washington--for refusing to leak sensitive information.
NAACP President Kweisi Mfume, a former House member from Maryland, called Dixon a mentor who was “well-known for his efforts to maintain the nation’s commitment to civil rights.” Dixon recently worked to pass legislation to establish a memorial to the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. in Washington.
Dixon sometimes was criticized by fellow black Democrats as too conciliatory. When he was chairman of the Congressional Black Caucus in 1983, he angered several black colleagues by refusing to force a vote on the caucus’ alternative to the House Budget Committee’s budget proposal.
Dixon said that behind-the-scenes negotiations would prove more effective than a confrontation on the House floor. “Our purpose, hopefully, is not to go down to defeat with honor,” he said at the time. “Our purpose is to have some success.”
On tough votes, Dixon kept his cards close to the vest. Last May, on the eve of the House vote to normalize trade with China, California union leaders met with Dixon to urge him to vote against the bill. After the meeting, Dixon declined to say how he would vote. The next day he voted for the bill--breaking with many liberal Democrats.
Perhaps his biggest moment in the national spotlight came in 1989 when, as chairman of the House Ethics Committee, Dixon oversaw the inquiry of Wright. The inquiry began after complaints were lodged by a group of Republicans led by then-Rep. Newt Gingrich (R-Ga.), and the dispute sparked intense anger within both parties.
Dixon, though, won praise for conducting the inquiry in a judicious, evenhanded manner that kept committee members from dividing along partisan lines as they found that Wright had violated House rules on obtaining outside income. Wright resigned from the House shortly after the panel’s findings.
In another job that required hard work and few rewards for a lawmaker from Los Angeles, Dixon headed the House appropriations subcommittee for the District of Columbia. During his tenure in that post he helped the city weather the turmoil caused by scandals involving then-Mayor Marion Berry.
Dixon was born in Washington, D.C., on Aug. 8, 1934, the son of a postal worker. He was 11 when his family moved to Los Angeles. After graduating from Dorsey High School, he served in the Army. He continued his education after military service, graduating from what is now Cal State L.A. before earning a law degree from Los Angeles’ Southwestern University.
He was an aide to then-state Sen. Mervyn Dymally, when he decided to run for the state Assembly seat vacated by Yvonne Brathwaite Burke, who was running for the House. Dixon won handily.
In 1978, when Burke gave up her House seat to run unsuccessfully for California attorney general, Dixon entered the race to succeed her. With help from the political organization headed by Berman and Waxman, Dixon won a bruising primary campaign over then-state Sen. Nate Holden and then-Los Angeles Councilman Dave Cunningham.
Dixon is survived by his wife, Bettye, and a son, Cary, of Santa Barbara.
Funeral services will be held at noon Wednesday at First African Methodist Episcopal Church at 2270 S. Harvard Blvd., Los Angeles.
“The shock [of Dixon’s death] will linger for a while,” said the Rev. Cecil Murray of First AME Church. “But a great person always stands taller than his tombstone.”
Times staff writer Gina Piccalo in Los Angeles contributed to this story.
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Dixon Career Highlights
1957-60: Military service as a sergeant in the Army.
1967: Graduates from Southwestern University School of Law and goes to work for state Sen. Mervyn Dymally. 1972: Elected to California Assembly, serving until 1978.
1978: Elected to Congress. Early in his tenure he becomes a member of the House Appropriations Committee, which recommends funding for all federal programs.
1983-2000: Key strategist in obtaining federal funding for the $3.8-billion Los Angeles Metro Rail subway project.
1984: As head of the Rules Committee of the Democratic National Convention, deals with Jesse Jackson’s challenges to the rules.
1986-90: President of the Congressional Black Caucus Foundation; he was a member of the organization’s board at the time of his death.
1980s: Works in congressional subcommittees to help Los Angeles-area defense contractors and sponsors a loan guarantee act for small businesses hurt by military base closings and defense contract terminations.
1989: As House Ethics Committee chairman, supervises the delicate task of passing judgment on Speaker Jim Wright. Pursued by Rep. Newt Gingrich and other Republicans over financial dealings, Wright resigns in June.
1992: When Democratic Rep. Henry A. Waxman objects to subway tunneling near methane deposits along the densely populated Wilshire corridor, Dixon works to have the route moved south, into his own congressional district.
1992: Introduces a ‘dire emergency’ supplemental appropriations bill after the Los Angeles riots to meet emergency needs in his district and other affected areas. He introduces a similar bill after the 1994 Northridge earthquake.
1999: Becomes ranking Democrat on the House Select Intelligence Committee.
Sources: L.A. Times news files; The Almanac of American Politics 2000.
Researched by TRACY THOMAS / Los Angeles Times