Feinstein in the Maze of South L.A.

There seems to be a plain, old-fashioned quality about the politics of Los Angeles' black community. But, as Dianne Feinstein found out, it's more complicated than that.

I'm always struck by the political customs of older times--Sunday visits by candidates to South L.A. churches, homage calls on local politicians and community leaders. Beneath the ceremony, however, politics have always been more complex and a candidate, especially a white one, needs a sponsor and guide to get through the maze.

Early in the spring, Feinstein turned to the black community when she needed help in her race against Atty. Gen. John K. Van de Kamp for the Democratic nomination for governor. As a former Los Angeles County district attorney, Van de Kamp has an advantage in the Los Angeles area. Feinstein wanted to counter that with a campaign among Los Angeles blacks. The African-American community had been supportive when she'd been mayor of San Francisco and she thought she might build a similar base here.

Seeking a sponsor, Feinstein made a phone call to a political power in South L.A., U.S. Rep. Mervyn M. Dymally (D-Compton), leader of an old and effective political organization that reaches from Compton to Inglewood.

Dymally didn't call back. He feared Feinstein was a dilettante, a loser. He wanted a winner, a serious politician who'd play the game his way. The congressman hungered for a campaign in the styles of the late Hubert H. Humphrey and Robert F. Kennedy.

Those were great political days in the black community. Humphrey and Kennedy campaigned on the streets of South L.A. They advertised in black newspapers. They wholeheartedly supported black causes. "They came into the ghetto and made you feel important," said Dymally.

Dymally and other leaders opened South L.A.'s political world to Kennedy in the 1968 presidential primary, and to Humphrey in the '68 fall campaign. South L.A. turned out again for Humphrey in his unsuccessful 1972 primary against George McGovern. The candidates bought advertisements in the community newspapers and visited the publishers. The papers endorsed Humphrey and Kennedy. The candidates were introduced to the local political powers who distribute slates of recommended candidates. The introductions, plus money to the slate makers, won a place for Kennedy and Humphrey on the slates. Humphrey and Kennedy campaigners sprinkled "street money" around, paying precinct workers to get out the vote on Election Day.

Feinstein wanted that kind of help. She phoned Dymally a second time. Again, he didn't return the call. Instead, he telephoned Assembly Speaker Willie Brown, California's most powerful black leader and a Feinstein supporter. He asked Brown's advice. Brown persuaded Dymally to talk to Feinstein. When they met, Dymally said: "I told her my conditions--she'd have to meet with the publishers, meet with the ministers. She'd already done that." Dymally joined the campaign.

Last weekend, almost 20 years after Humphrey's campaign, the results of the Dymally-Feinstein pact were on display. The demographics of the South Los Angeles area had changed. Many voting middle-class black families have moved out. Poor, non-citizen immigrant Latinos have moved in. Much of the '60s hope has been replaced by cynicism and despair.

Still, there was plenty of spirit. Choirs and congregations boomed out Gospel hymns. Organs and guitars played. Feinstein clapped her hands along with the congregants. Ministers referred to her as the next governor. Dymally, at her side all morning, introduced her at each church.

Her message echoed the earlier Democratic campaigns: "Black and white together. I still believe it. Do we still believe it here this morning?"

Between stops, I talked to Dymally and to Feinstein's black community coordinator, Percy Pinkney, about what kind of help Feinstein's getting.

She'll be on the oldest and most famous slate, that of Assemblyman Willard H. Murray Jr. (D-Paramount), Dymally's longtime ally. Dymally's chief aide, Ken Orduna, will put out another slate featuring Feinstein. In fact, said Dymally, Feinstein will appear on every major slate in the area. There'll be newspaper endorsements. Another campaign aide said 500 precinct workers will be on the streets Election Day.

Feinstein is counting on the political machinery of South Los Angeles. It's a combination of the spiritual and the material, the beauty of the choir, the hard-headed realism of the slate maker. Simple on the surface, a maze underneath.

On Tuesday night, she'll find out whether her guide, Merv Dymally, still knows the route to victory.

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