Ronald Dellums, who entered Congress as a firebrand and left as a statesman, dies at 82
By T.R. GOLDMAN | Special To The Washington Post | Published: July 30, 2018
Ronald V. Dellums, who entered the U.S. House of Representatives in 1971 as a fiery anti-war activist from Berkeley and grew over 14 terms into a deft and respected legislator, becoming the first African-American to chair the Armed Services Committee and helping win the fight to impose economic sanctions on apartheid South Africa, died July 30. He was 82.
The office of Libby Schaaf, mayor of Oakland, California, confirmed the death. Additional details were not immediately available.
Dellums was raised in blue-collar Oakland where his early political ideas were shaped by an uncle, who was a prominent trade unionist and intimate of the civil rights eminence A. Philip Randolph. A Marine Corps veteran, Dellums was a psychiatric social worker before joining the Berkeley City Council in 1967.
Amid the Vietnam War and counterculture movement, a community of anti-establishment leftists helped propel Dellums to Congress three years later. A skilled orator — and, at 6-foot-7, an imposing figure — he was attacked by Vice President Spiro T. Agnew during his first election campaign as an "out-and-out radical" who could not be trusted to hold power over admirals and generals.
"If it is radical to be against war and poverty," Dellums responded, "then Ron Dellums is a radical."
He arrived in Washington trailed by the image popularized by Agnew and other right-wing opponents: an "Afro-topped, bell-bottomed radical" from the "commie-pinko left-wing community of 'Berzerkeley,' " as Dellums noted in his 2000 memoir.
Vowing to take on the military-industrial complex, he introduced a resolution in his freshman term calling for an investigation into possible U.S. war crimes in Indochina. When he was rebuffed, he helped conduct unofficial hearings on the controversial subject, a move that garnered national attention as well as scorn from many House colleagues.
Dellums quickly realized that without a seat on the Armed Services Committee, which had no black members, he could accomplish very little. The newly formed Congressional Black Caucus advocated for Dellums, but House leadership made clear that Dellums' leftist views were incompatible with the influential oversight body and that he was not the African American they had in mind.
Rep. Louis Stokes, D-Ohio, chairman of the black caucus, later told The Washington Post: "I dropped my lunch right then and there and went over to where the committee was meeting. I reminded [then-Speaker] Carl Albert that white people don't tell black people who their leaders are."
Dellums got the seat. But the hard-line conservative committee chairman, F. Edward Hébert, D-La., forced also to accept Patricia Schroeder, D-Colo., opposed having a woman as well as a black man on his panel and made his displeasure known by reportedly forcing them to share one chair.
"Everything in me wanted to rage against this indignity," Dellums later said. "But I thought, let's not give these folks the luxury of seeing that... . We sat cheek to cheek in the chair for the entire meeting." (A second chair arrived at the next meeting.)
As his seniority and expertise grew, he adapted in manner and dress. He dropped the confrontational approach in favor of courtly persuasion. He became one of the House's nattiest dressers, with a preference for pinstripe suits and polished shoes. He did not, however, curb his devotion to antiwar and liberal causes, trying to scissor the Pentagon budget and stamp out the MX missile, President Ronald Reagan's "Star Wars" anti-missile program and other military projects.
Even ideological opponents such as then-defense secretary and future vice president Richard Cheney expressed admiration for Dellums' work ethic and congenial persona, and that reputation earned him an appointment to the House Intelligence Committee. "Although we would violently disagree on most of the issues of the day," Cheney told CNN in 1992, "he has been a good member of Congress, a straight shooter."
Although he supported peacekeeping efforts in Africa and the Caribbean, Dellums remained a vociferous opponent of U.S. military interventions. He gave one of his more impassioned floor speeches in 1991 on the eve of the congressional vote granting President George H.W. Bush authority to wage war in the Persian Gulf against Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein.
"We must have the audacity to think beyond war. That is what this debate is all about," he said. "We have all this incredible power massed, and there is no way we could lose in a shooting war... . But we do not need to use it. Our power lies in our capacity to get beyond it."
In 1993, the Democratic caucus overwhelmingly elected him Armed Service Committee chairman when his predecessor, Rep. Les Aspin, D-Wis., was tapped as President Bill Clinton's defense secretary.
Mr. Dellums' ascension unnerved the defense establishment, which was already reeling from post-Cold War budget cutting and base closings. But many Republicans defended him as an impartial leader who made clear where he stood but did not seek to stifle his opponents.
Then-Rep. Jon Kyl, R-Ariz., told The New York Times that Dellums was "almost two different people," because he can "sublimate his own liberal ideology to the needs of the committee."
Despite his personal objections, Mr. Dellums presided over committee votes in favor of an increase in anti-missile defense funding and a ban on gays from serving openly in the armed forces.
A political realist, he fought unsuccessfully against the closure of his district's Alameda Naval Air Station and formed an unlikely coalition with fiscal conservatives that eventually led to a sharp curtailment in the production of the B-2 stealth bomber as the Soviet Union collapsed.
When Republicans took control of the House in a landslide election in 1994, Mr. Dellums' brief tenure as chairman came to an end.
Citing personal difficulties, he resigned from Congress in 1998, in the middle of his 14th term. In a demonstration of the roles he straddled, he received a lifetime achievement award from the disarmament group Peace Action and the Defense Department's Medal for Distinguished Public Service.
Outside military affairs, Dellums devoted himself to bringing sanctions against the apartheid government of South Africa. For 15 years, he battled Democratic and Republican administrations that saw the right-wing leadership in Pretoria as a bulwark against Soviet influence on the continent.
By the early 1980s, as crackdowns against South African blacks intensified, the anti-apartheid lobby and protests in Washington gained momentum.
To Dellums' astonishment, the House passed a bill he sponsored in June 1986 calling for a trade embargo and complete divestment by U.S. companies and citizens of their holdings in South Africa.
In a modified form, prohibiting new financial activity but not halting existing investments, it passed the Senate as the Comprehensive Anti-Apartheid Act. The measure became law when Congress overrode Reagan's veto.
Dellums told The Post when his measure passed the House: "It has been personally painful to be considered just a gadfly, a maverick, a strong speaker, but outside the mainstream of power. What yesterday was about is that people have to see me in a serious way. This has been an exonerating factor."
Ronald Vernie Dellums was born in Oakland on Nov. 24, 1935. His father was a Pullman porter and later became a longshoreman; his mother was a beautician and government clerk. His paternal uncle C.L. Dellums helped start and eventually became president of the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters union.
After two years of Marine Corps service, Dellums graduated in 1960 from San Francisco State College and two years later received a master's degree in social work from the University of California at Berkeley.
As a psychiatric social worker for the state of California, Dellums helped patients reenter society after their release from mental institutions.
His social-work background and outspokenness against what he called police brutality helped him stage an upset victory over the six-term incumbent congressman, Jeffery Cohelan, a liberal Democrat whose early support for the Vietnam War appeared to cost him his seat. Mr. Dellums won overwhelmingly in the general election against a Republican opponent who tried to link him to the Black Panthers militant group.
In Congress, Mr. Dellums charted an independent course. He opposed the 1980 Olympic boycott in response to the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan, noting that "athletics ought to go beyond politics." He chaired the House committee overseeing the District of Columbia from 1979 to 1993 and was a staunch advocate for D.C. statehood. Dellums became chairman of the Congressional Black Caucus in 1989.
After resigning from Congress, Dellums worked as a lobbyist in Washington and represented clients such as Rolls-Royce, AT&T and the government of Haiti during the presidency of Jean-Bertrand Aristide.
In 2006, Dellums was persuaded to run for mayor of Oakland, where he replaced former (and future) California governor Jerry Brown, D. His four-year tenure was rife with tensions over crime and union contracts, but he was praised by some supporters for enhancing the local port and securing hundreds of millions of dollars in federal stimulus funds.
His leadership was markedly subdued, earning him the moniker "the Quiet Mayor" and prompting even his backers to bemoan his lack of enthusiasm to trumpet civic achievements.
"When he came back to Oakland, his heart wasn't in it, his energy level wasn't very high, and he stepped on his legacy," said Bruce Cain, a political-science professor at Stanford University. "People who saw only Version 2 will have a puzzled reaction as to why he was such an icon."
His marriages to Arthurine Dellums and Leola "Roscoe" Higgs ended in divorce. In 2000, he married Cynthia Lewis. He had a daughter from his first marriage and three children from his second marriage. He was estranged from a son from his first marriage, Michael Dellums, whose long string of arrests culminated in a conviction for second-degree murder in 1979. A complete list of survivors was not immediately available.
In his farewell speech from Congress, Dellums appraised his career this way: "To get up every day and put on your uniform and put on your tie and march on the floor of Congress knowing that, in your hands, in that card, in your very being, you have life and death in your hands, it is an incredible thing."