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James Flournoy dies at 93; pioneering African American politician

March 05, 2009|Jon Thurber
  • Republican James Flournoy, an L.A. lawyer, ran for California secretary of state in 1970.
Republican James Flournoy, an L.A. lawyer, ran for California secretary… (Los Angeles Times )

James Flournoy, the Republican candidate for California secretary of state in 1970 who was the first African American nominated by either major party for a partisan statewide office, has died. He was 93.

Flournoy died Feb. 21 of heart failure at his home in Moreno Valley, his wife, Marilyn, said Tuesday. He had been in failing health for the last year, she said.

Flournoy, a prominent lawyer in Los Angeles for decades, was one of the few black politicians in the GOP at the time.

"He was fairly moderate, pragmatic and a delightful person to be around with a great sense of humor," said Stuart K. Spencer, a political consultant who has been involved in nearly every California election since the 1960s.

Flournoy came to statewide attention when he gained the GOP nomination for secretary of state and ran against a young member of the Los Angeles Community College board of trustees, Jerry Brown.

Brown beat Flournoy by nearly 300,000 votes to win his first statewide election. He went on to forge a diverse political career that has included two terms as California governor, two terms as mayor of Oakland and unsuccessful runs for the Democratic nomination for president and the U.S. Senate. Now the state attorney general, he is campaigning for a third term as governor.

"He was a wonderful man and a true gentleman," Brown told The Times on Tuesday.

Although Flournoy lost the 1970 race, California history was made in that same election when Wilson C. Riles became the first African American to be elected to the nonpartisan post of state superintendent of public instruction.

Political observers remembered Flournoy as always willing to carry the Republican banner in difficult races. After losing to Brown in 1970, he ran for state controller in 1974 but lost the nomination.

Flournoy's 1974 primary campaign was marked by seemingly intentional name confusion as he ran for the same post that was being vacated after two terms by fellow Republican Houston Flournoy, who was running for governor against Brown.

"To say we didn't think about it would be kidding you," James Flournoy commented to The Times on the name issue.

But running in the wake of voter distrust over the Watergate scandal, he told The Times' George Skelton, "The name may cancel itself out. Being an incumbent this year is not necessarily an advantage. There's a feeling to throw all the incumbents out."

Flournoy never got to the general election, however, losing to former Assemblyman Bill Bagley by nearly 350,000 votes in the June primary. Bagley lost to Ken Cory in the general election.

James Flournoy did better in 1982, gaining the GOP nomination for controller but losing to incumbent Cory by more than 1.5 million votes.

Flournoy was born on his father's farm in Como, Texas, on Dec. 12, 1915. After completing high school in Texarkana, Ark., he graduated from Bishop College in Marshall, Texas, with a degree in chemistry.

He was a high school math and science teacher and basketball coach in Texas and married his first wife, Lovelia Johnson.

They were married 40 years, until her death in 1981. The Los Angeles school where she served as principal was subsequently named after her.

Flournoy served in the Army during World War II, and the couple moved to Southern California after the war. He earned a law degree at Southwestern University Law School and went into private law practice specializing in workers' compensation issues.

In 1962, he ran unsuccessfully for a seat on the state Board of Equalization. In 1966, he lost in the GOP primary for the 31st Congressional District.

After Flournoy lost to Brown in 1970, then-Gov. Ronald Reagan appointed him to what was then called the Workman's Compensation Appeals Board. He later served as deputy director of the state Department of Motor Vehicles.

Active in community affairs, Flournoy was one of the founders and served as board chairman of the Watts YMCA and served on the board of trustees of his alma mater, Bishop College.

He was also active in voter education projects.

After retirement, Flournoy and his second wife moved to Moreno Valley in 1994 and he became a member of the Riverside County Lincoln Club.

In addition to his wife, he is survived by his daughter, Alicia Haynes; son, George Jackson; and four grandchildren.

A visitation service will be held Friday at 7 p.m. at Calvary Baptist Church, 4911 W. 59th St., Los Angeles. The funeral will be held there Saturday at 11 a.m. Flowers may be sent to Harrison Ross Mortuary, 4601 S. Crenshaw Blvd., Los Angeles, CA 90043.

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jon.thurber@latimes.com

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