Ron Dellums, 'Conscience of Congress' and Progressive Icon, Dies at 82

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Ron Dellums, pictured during his tenure as mayor of Oakland. (Justin Sullivan/Getty Images)

Ron Dellums, an icon of Bay Area progressive politics who served on the Berkeley City Council, in Congress and as mayor of Oakland, has died at the age of 82.

Dellums' nephew, Berkeley City Councilman Ben Bartlett, said Monday morning Dellums died Sunday night in Washington, D.C. The cause is reported to have been prostate cancer.

Sandre Swanson, a former Dellums staffer who went on the represent Oakland in the state Assembly, said Monday his late boss “was considered the conscience of the Congress because he was uncompromising in his quest for peace and for social and economic justice.”

“The contributions that Congressman Dellums made to our East Bay community, the nation, and the world are too innumerable to count," Rep. Barbara Lee, D-Oakland, said in a statement.

Lee, also a former Dellums aide, was elected after he abruptly resigned his seat in 1998.

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“I feel blessed to have called Congressman Dellums my dear friend, predecessor, and mentor," Lee said. "I will miss him tremendously, and I will hold dear to my heart the many lessons I learned from this great public servant. My condolences are with the Dellums family, friends, and loved ones. His legacy and spirit will be forever with us.”

Oakland Mayor Libby Schaaf issued a statement calling Dellums “a true American hero.”

“Ron Dellums governed from a place of morality and compassion, and his political activism shed light on injustices within our country and all over the world,” Schaaf said. “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 fixture in East Bay politics for more than 40 years, serving briefly on the City Council in Berkeley before winning 14 terms in Congress. He closed out his political career with a single term as mayor of Oakland.

Ronald Vernie Dellums was born in Oakland on Nov. 24, 1935, the son of Verney and Willa Dellums. His uncle, C.L. Dellums, served as president of the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters and was an early leader in the Bay Area civil rights movement.

Dellums wrote in his 2000 autobiography, "Lying Down With the Lions," that his uncle encouraged his father to come to California from Texas to enroll at UC Berkeley. Before that happened, Dellums said, his parents met and married.

"After marriage and children, they knew that some of their dreams would be fulfilled only through the lives of their children," Dellums wrote.

He attended St. Patrick's, a Roman Catholic elementary school in West Oakland, then Westlake Junior High School, McClymonds and Oakland Tech high schools. In his autobiography, Dellums said that though he succeeded at Tech at first, he lost interest in school after he was rejected, twice, for a spot on the school's varsity baseball squad. He enrolled in an engineering program at the City College of San Francisco, but soon dropped out.

At loose ends, Dellums enlisted in the Marine Corps in 1954, serving two years. He wrote that he found basic training to be "shockingly strenuous and sometimes brutal. I thought it was the most horrible thing I had ever gotten into." But over time, he said, he adapted to the Corps' demand for discipline and found it helped him mature.

But he said one incident turned him against the idea of serving beyond his original enlistment. Despite receiving the highest score on a battery of tests given to his training battalion, he was rejected for Officer Candidate School only because he was black.

"From that day forward, I counted down every day and hour until my discharge," Dellums wrote.

Taking advantage of the GI Bill after leaving the service, he received a bachelor's degree from San Francisco State University and a master's in social work from UC Berkeley in the early 1960s, just as the college city was coming to national attention as a center of civil rights activism and opposition to the Vietnam War.

Dellums was elected to the Berkeley City Council in 1967. He had served less than a full term when he ran against six-term incumbent Democratic Rep. Jeffery Cohelan. Dellums beat Cohelan, whom he accused of "expedient liberalism" for switching from support of war to an antiwar stance, in the primary.

Dellums then became something of a national figure in the general election as Vice President Spiro Agnew singled him out as "a political extremist who has no qualms about hobnobbing with political fanatics” — including the Black Panthers.

As the San Francisco Chronicle recalls, Dellums was quick with his riposte.

“If it’s radical to oppose the insanity and cruelty of the Vietnam War, if it’s radical to oppose racism and sexism and all other forms of oppression, if it’s radical to want to alleviate poverty, hunger, disease, homelessness, and other forms of human misery, then I’m proud to be called a radical,” he said.

Dellums beat Republican challenger John E. Healy, a 25-year old Vietnam veteran, in the November election, getting 60 percent of the vote. He maintained a firm hold on the seat for the rest of his congressional tenure.

Dellums was in the vanguard of a series of liberal causes during his 14 terms:

  • He was a leading voice in opposing the Vietnam War and drawing attention to U.S. atrocities against Vietnamese civilians.
  • He was one of the first in Congress to call for U.S. action to end South Africa's racist policy of apartheid.
  • He campaigned against expansion of Department of Defense spending and major new weapons programs, including the B-2 bomber and MX nuclear missile system.
  • He launched a legal challenge questioning President George H.W. Bush's authority to order the major U.S. military buildup that followed Iraq's invasion of Kuwait and preceded the Gulf War of 1991.
  • He was among those in Congress who tried to persuade the Clinton administration to lift the ban of gays and lesbians serving in the military.

Former Dellums staffer Sandre Swanson said the struggle to end apartheid consumed Dellums.

“I remember when Ron took up the cause of Nelson Mandela and the Free South African movement, that's when he he grew a beard," Swanson said. "He said, 'I'm going to shave this beard when Nelson Mandela is free,' although he did keep his beard after Nelson Mandela was free.”

After Mandela was released from prison, in 1990, he received a rapturous welcome during an appearance at the Oakland Coliseum. Swanson said Mandela came to the East Bay "specifically to thank Ron Dellums for his his words in Congress and every year put a resolution against apartheid."

"He was the voice, he was the soldier crying out in the wilderness alone on those issues," said Piper Dellums, one of Dellums' five children, on KQED's "Forum" program Monday. "But he was also ... a hero to the invisible, to the oppressed, to the lost and shattered, the marginalized, the despised, the abused and the faceless. ... There was not one area of progressive ideology, of peace, of human dignities and rights, that he didn't cover.

Beyond his signature progressive campaigns, Dellums was also noted for delivering for his district. He was credited with securing a $55 million federal grant for Oakland's Chabot Space and Science Center and leaning on the Federal Emergency Management Agency to deliver on millions of dollars in aid due to Oakland after the catastrophic Oakland Hills Fire of 1991.

Dellums resigned from Congress in February 1998, just over halfway through his final term, and embarked on a career as a private consultant and lobbyist. That career was interrupted in 2007, when Dellums entered the race to succeed Jerry Brown as mayor of Oakland. He won that race, his last. His tenure coincided with a troubled period, occurring at the same time as the onset of a deep national recession that hit the city hard. His term was also marked by unrest related to the BART police killing of Oscar Grant.

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KQED's Guy Marzorati contributed to this post.