Mobutu Sese Seko is grabbing the spotlight in the 31st Congressional District Democratic primary, though he is not a candidate, or even an American citizen.
Mobutu is president of Zaire. One of the candidates for the congressional seat in the June 5 primary, Inglewood lawyer Lawrence A. Grigsby, is trying to persuade voters that Democratic incumbent Mervyn L. Dymally of Compton does more for the African leader than he does for the 31st.
"Your congressman works for a billionaire dictator. Not for you," say the flyers Grigsby has been handing out in the heavily Democratic district, which stretches south from Watts and Willowbrook to the northern edge of Long Beach, and includes Hawthorne, Carson, Compton, Lynwood and Bellflower.
Dymally split with his colleagues in the Congressional Black Caucus in 1987 and refused to support a move to cut U.S. aid to Mobutu, whose luxurious lifestyle--complete with palaces and private jets--stands in stark contrast to the impoverished existence of most Zairians.
Since the '87 split, Dymally has become known as a leading Mobutu defender in Congress. The congressman has traveled in Africa at Zairian government expense, written a book about the African president and sits on the advisory board of an organization that received $250,000 from Mobutu. Other black members of Congress, meanwhile, have been critical of Mobutu for supporting South Africa's role in the Angolan rebel war. They also have noted that the Zairian government is identified by the U.S. State Department as repressive and corrupt.
"I think it's just despicable," Grigsby said, "that a black congressman would stand up and defend a murderous dictator."
Dymally, when he cannot otherwise ignore his pesky opponent, charges that Grigsby and his Mobutu message are part of an elaborate plot by the New York-based New Alliance Party. Dymally characterizes the party as an opportunistic political cult that hopes to establish a base in Southern California, partially by discrediting him.
A five-term congressman and former lieutenant governor, Dymally is not likely to lose his grip on the 31st. Two years ago he overwhelmed a primary challenger by winning 85% of the vote.
Ignoring the odds, though, Grigsby and his supporters, many of whom belong to an anti-Mobutu group called the U.S.-Congo Friendship Committee, frequently dog Dymally as he campaigns in the district. They have overshadowed the other candidate in the Democratic primary, former Compton College Trustee Carl Robinson.
Eunice N. Sato, a former Long Beach city councilwoman, is the lone Republican seeking the congressional seat and will face the winner of the Democratic primary in November.
Grigsby supporters have staged a demonstration outside Dymally's district office, passed out leaflets critical of him at a Democratic Party gathering and picketed a ceremony naming a park for him. When Compton College recently tossed off its campus a forum on Zaire and Mobutu that the Congo committee was sponsoring, the committee sent a sound truck to Compton to broadcast a message accusing Dymally of orchestrating the ouster.
Dymally says all the activity swirling around him--the Grigsby campaign, its Mobutu message, the demonstrations--is a classic organizing attempt by the New Alliance Party, which he dismisses as a Lyndon LaRouche-like cult.
Some party members, in fact, were followers of LaRouche until he moved from the left to the right of the political spectrum in the 1970s. LaRouche has since been jailed in connection with a credit card fraud. The New Alliance Party, meanwhile, was founded in New York City in 1979. In 1988, its presidential candidate, psychologist Lenora Fulani, was on the ballot in every state and qualified for federal campaign funds.
The U.S.-Congo Friendship Committee is one of several groups created by the party, and Grigsby acknowledges that Fulani persuaded him to run against Dymally. Fulani, in turn, has campaigned in the district for Grigsby.
The party organizes in poor, largely black neighborhoods. Its leaders say the party represents an independent political movement that seeks to empower those whose concerns are ignored by the two major parties. But Dymally and other critics charge that the party plays on feelings of deprivation and discontent among inner-city residents, then takes their money.
Party critic Chip Berlet, who works for a nonprofit research group in Cambridge, Mass., said the party's leaders "use the campaigns to raise money and recruit. They always talk about how progressive they are, but in fact the people they run against are progressive."
Berlet questions the party's commitment to being pro-minority, pro-women and pro-gay because it is run by a white male and has been denounced by the nation's leading gay and lesbian organizations.
The party's founder and leader is Fred Newman, a former LaRouche disciple who broke with him when LaRouche moved to the right.