Ron Dellums, influential congressman and self-described ‘commie pinko from Berkeley’, dies at 82

Ron Dellums, whose ant-Vietnam War and social justice platform began a 27-year run representing the East Bay in Congress that included tireless advocacy for decreasing defense spending and ending apartheid in South Africa, in addition, to  later being elected mayor of Oakland, died Monday after a battle with prostate cancer. He was 82.

Although Dellums’s connection to Oakland was clear, his political career began on the Berkeley City Council, when he was first elected in 1967. Amid a wave of anti-war candidates starting in 1970, Dellums notched an upset in the Democratic primary against Rep. Jerry Cohelan, who was viewed as a more conventional liberal, but who had not registered opposition to the Vietnam War until late in the campaign.

Once in Washington, Dellums unleashed a flurry of legislation, most of it went nowhere. But he also established his unwillingness to toe the party line if doing so stood in the way of his convictions. When Congress refused to hold hearings on alleged war crimes by American soldier during the Vietnam War, he instead, held his own. Dellums’ rhetoric was branded so radical that he received a place on President Richard Nixon’s infamous “Enemies List.”

Dellums, bella abzug
Dellums, right, with another noted 1970s activists in the Congress, New York Rep. Bella Abzug.

Paradoxically, at first glance, Dellums sought and received a seat on the House Armed Services Committee. Eventually rising to the rank of chair, Dellums used the seat to reduce military spending. To the surprise of his critics on the right, Dellums was less the radical anti-war activist and more of an open-minded politician. In 1993, he pushed for the integration of gays and lesbians into the U.S. military. Dellums was also a founding member of the Congressional Black Caucus.

Meanwhile, his tireless push for social and economic justice paid off in 1986 when Congress approved his bill calling for an U.S. embargo of South Africa in opposition of apartheid, along with divestment of American companies from South Africa. Dellums also championed statehood for Washington, D.C., arguing it was treated like a colony.  However, Dellums caught much flak for visiting Cuba and meeting with Fidel Castro

Controversy followed in the early 1980s after a House doorkeeper alleged that Dellums and two other congressman had used cocaine and marijuana. But an eight-month investigation in 1983 yielded no evidence of impropriety. Dellums was also ensnared in the widespread House overdraft scandal in 1992 that included more than 300 other members who also bounced checks from their congressional bank accounts. Dellums, however, was the worst offender, bouncing 851 checks. Again, Dellums and his colleagues were cleared on any wrongdoing.

When Dellums announced his retirement from Congress during the middle of his term in 1998, the move rocked the East Bay political scene, triggering a major reshuffling of five elected seat as politicians made moves for higher offices. The biggest winner was Dellums’s former aide and Oakland state senator, Barbara Lee, were succeeded her former boss in Congress.

During Lee’s 20 years in Washington, Dellums’s legacy has continued. Most notably, a strand of Dellums’s anti-war DNA can seen in Lee’s lone vote against what she called an “endless war” in Afghanistan. Lee, herself, even made a trip to meet with Castro, again to the consternation of Republicans, who labeled her a communist.

“I feel blessed to have called Congressman Dellums my dear friend, predecessor, and mentor,” Lee, said in a statement Monday.  “I will miss him tremendously, and I will hold dear to my heart the many lessons I learned from this great public servant,”

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Dellums returned to political office after winning a three-way race for Oakland mayor in 2006. He did not seek re-election after one term.

Dellums’ post-congressional career, however, was somewhat spotty, but highlighted with a return to his political roots in the East Bay. Dellums, then 70, was elected Oakland mayor in 2006.

Although his administration is credited with hiring a bevy on new cops on the beat, his time in the mayor’s office, in the end, added little to his legacy. Personal financial issues weighed on Dellums during his tenure as mayor before he announced he would not seek re-election after one term. He later went on to work as a government lobbyist.

In a statement Monday, Oakland Mayor Libby Schaaf called Dellums a “true American hero.” “Congressman Ron Dellums governed from a place of morality and compassion, and his political activism shed light on injustices within out country and all over the world,” said Schaaf. “His progressive values set the bedrock for Oakland values, and his life of public service will continue to inspire all of us to fight for a more just and equitable society.”

Dellums was a native son of Oakland. He attended Oakland Tech and McClymonds and earned a degrees from San Francisco State College and U.C. Berkeley, before joining the Marines.

“The story of Ron Dellums’s 27 years in Congress is not just about a wild-eyed radical, a self-described ‘commie pinko Afro-topped bell-bottomed dude from Berkeley’ who earned the love of friends and the respect of enemies,” a Washington Post columnist wrote in 1998, upon Dellums’s retirement.

“It is about a man who made strategic and deliberate decisions about how and when and for how long to promote his causes, to ignore insult and outlast exclusion, to be a gentleman rather than a firebrand. ‘At the end of the day,’ as he likes to say, he found he cares as much that ideas be discussed freely and fairly as he does about the issues themselves.”

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