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Right on Ron

Remembering the former California Congressman

Ron Dellums was elected to Congress during my first few months in Berkeley, where I was studying for a Ph.D. in American History. For someone who had grown up very involved in electoral politics, and then had his commitment soured by the horror of Vietnam, Dellums provided an extraordinary transition into the blending of progressivism and traditional politics.

Even then, as a city councilman running for the House, Dellums was something larger than life. Both in his stunning personal appearance and riveting style of oration, Dellums could easily have either been before a movie camera or on the floor of Congress. He ended up in both places.

In a city that barely contained its utter contempt at anything smacking of conventionality, let alone the contamination that was Democratic politics in the wake of Vietnam, Dellums somehow pulled off a blending of outraged activist and serious politician. Many who were veering off to the emotionally satisfying, if electorally irrelevant, fringe were helplessly drawn to this former marine turned anti-war activist. And Dellums had a very realistic streak despite the rhetorical flourishes that gave him the unshakable nickname “Right on Ron.” When Dellums decided to make the move into national politics, he did not opt for the Peace and Freedom Party; he went after long-time incumbent Democrat Jeffrey Cohelan who had unwisely remained a supporter of the war in Southeast Asia. Not unlike the phenomenon in some House primaries this year, Dellums’ 1970 upset proved that voters, when organized and focused, can have far greater impact than the cynics would have you believe.

In his second term in Congress, Dellums and Pat Schroeder, a freshman from Colorado, requested to be appointed to the Armed Services Committee. Dellums, noting that a disproportionate percentage of Vietnam casualties were African American, asserted it was high time minorities were represented on the Committee. The chairman, F. Edward Hébert, who tolerated no criticism of his pro-war sentiments, attempted to blackball both of them, but they maneuvered their way on anyway. When Hébert was assigning seats on the dais in January 1973, he told Schroeder and Dellums, the two newest members, that they would have to share a single chair because he did not consider them full members of the committee.

Ron Dellums did not accept a second-class role. Two years later, Democrats threw Hébert out as chairman, and the incident involving Dellums and Schroeder was heavily cited as illustrative of his autocratic abuse of power. Dellums went on to serve on the committee for over two decades, often as a forceful critics of Pentagon policy and U.S. military affairs. He was a highly regarded leader in the fight against Pentagon waste including weapons systems like the MX-missile, the B-2 bomber and the Strategic Defense Initiative, and a vigorous proponent of denuclearization. There might be a greater irony in congressional history – although I doubt it — than Ron Dellums rising, through the seniority system that had once empowered segregationist white southerners, to become chairman of the committee he had once nearly been prevented from joining.

After helping to lead the successful fight against apartheid in South Africa and seeing Nelson Mandela installed as president, Dellums – to the surprise of many – retired from Congress in 1998, choosing to become a lobbyist with some clients who raised eyebrows, as many lobbyists’ client list have a tendency to do. But electoral politics proved an inescapable lure to the charismatic Dellums, and in 2006, he improbably entered the race to become mayor of Oakland to succeed the equally improbable Jerry Brown. Shortly after he entered that race, I encountered Dellums in the Capitol and asked him what prompted him to take on such a grueling job. “Well, you know, I was introduced to speak at the convention, and I was saying, “I’m not running, I’m not running,” he recalled. “But then I got up there and there’s all this cheering, and I heard myself say, “OK, I going to run!’” And so he did.

People felt strongly about Ron, and even those with whom he strongly disagreed (perhaps other than Hébert) generally found themselves liking him. He could be blunt and cutting, he was almost always self-assured and erudite, but he also would collapse into laughs, often with an air of disbelief about the story he was relating. “Can you believe that?” he would incredulously ask when relating an inane comment or action by one of his colleagues, before regaining his slightly formal composure and seriousness.

It was a long arc, from social worker, to Berkeley city councilman, to congressman, to chairman, to mayor that Ron Dellums traveled. But throughout the journey, which ended yesterday at the age of 82, he never lost his style, his passion or his conviction. His passing is deeply missed among his colleagues, staff and friends.

Right on, Ron.

John Lawrence, a visiting professor at the University of California Washington Center, worked for 38 years in the House of Representatives, the last 8 as chief of staff to Speaker/Democratic Leader Nancy Pelosi. This post was originally published by John’s blog, Domeocracy.

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