Ron Dellums, forceful liberal in Congress for 27 years, dies at 82

Mr. Dellums was flanked by his wife, Roscoe (left), and Coretta Scott King as he campaigned for Congress in Oakland.
Associated Press/file 1970
Mr. Dellums was flanked by his wife, Roscoe (left), and Coretta Scott King as he campaigned for Congress in Oakland.

NEW YORK — Ron Dellums, the son of a longshoreman who became one of the United States’ best-known black congressmen, a California Democrat with a left-wing agenda that put civil rights and programs for people ahead of weapons systems and warfare, died early Monday at his home in Washington. He was 82.

His death was confirmed by Dan Lindheim, who was an aide to Mr. Dellums on Capitol Hill and was city manager of Oakland when Mr. Dellums was a one-term mayor there a decade ago. Mr. Dellums had cancer, he said.

A former social worker representing Oakland and Berkeley, perhaps the nation’s most liberal congressional district, Mr. Dellums went to Washington in 1971 as a fiercely liberal — some said radical — firebrand protesting the Vietnam War.


He demanded a House investigation into US war crimes in Vietnam. When his pleas were ignored, he held his own informal hearings, which drew national attention. As antiwar protests raged outside the Capitol, a former Army sergeant told in unsworn testimony how he and his platoon had massacred 30 men, women, and children in a Vietnamese village. It was a shocking beginning.

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But over the next 27 years, Mr. Dellums became a calmer voice, still defending principles as he saw them, but as a mellower graybeard spearheading the Congressional Black Caucus and conferring with the White House, the Pentagon, and leaders of Congress as a member and finally chairman of the powerful House Armed Services Committee.

By then, a lawmaker who had cut a striking figure on joining the House of Representatives — 6 feet 4, with a modified Afro and a drooping mustache, mod ties, Edwardian jackets, and bell-bottom trousers — was wearing three-piece suits.

Mr. Dellums introduced hundreds of bills and resolutions that went nowhere, and was rarely on the winning side of fights. But he was an outspoken critic of presidents, Republican and Democratic, and for many Americans beyond his tiny congressional district, he championed a progressive mantra: Stop war. Cut military spending. Help people. Address the nation’s social problems.

He won a dozen reelection campaigns and the sometimes grudging respect of colleagues on both sides of the aisle. His voting record also won virtually straight A’s from labor, consumer, women’s and environmental groups. Human rights organizations hailed his fights to restrict aid to African nations, like Zaire, Burundi, Liberia, and Sudan, whose regimes were openly repressive.


After a 14-year campaign against apartheid in South Africa, he wrote the 1986 legislation that mandated trade embargoes and divestment by US companies and citizens of holdings in South Africa. President Ronald Reagan’s veto was overridden by Congress, a 20th-century first in foreign policy. The sanctions were lifted in 1991, when South Africa repealed its apartheid laws.

Mr. Dellums appeared with then-Senator Hillary Clinton in Oakland in 2007.
Associated Press/file
Mr. Dellums appeared with then-Senator Hillary Clinton in Oakland in 2007.

Mr. Dellums opposed every major US military intervention of his tenure, except for emergency relief in Somalia in 1992.

He sued President George H.W. Bush unsuccessfully to stop the Persian Gulf War in 1990-91, saying the invasion did not have congressional authorization. And he voted against the new weapons programs and military budgets of all six presidents in his era.

His “alternative” budgets, written for the Congressional Black Caucus proposed spending instead for education, jobs, housing, health care, assistance for the poor, and programs to fight drug abuse.

Right-wing critics repeatedly labeled him a Communist, citing his 1970 talk to a world peace conference in Stockholm and his meeting with President Fidel Castro of Cuba in Havana in 1977.


He was unperturbed.

“If being an advocate of peace, justice, and humanity toward all humans is radical, then I’m glad to be called radical,” he told The Washington Post. “And if it is radical to oppose the use of 70 percent of federal monies for destruction and war, then I am a radical.”

Over time, congressional colleagues came to respect Mr. Dellums’s legislative and military expertise. In 1993, the House Democratic Caucus voted 198-10 to name him chairman of the Armed Services Committee, with oversight for defense appropriations and global military operations.

He was the first African-American and the first antiwar activist to hold that post.

“I disagree with him utterly and completely,” Baker Spring, a military analyst for the conservative Heritage Foundation, told USA Today. “But he’s upfront, open and honest, not in the least vindictive about the way he pursues his legislative agenda.”

During his two years as the committee chairman, Mr. Dellums conferred with President Bill Clinton and Defense Secretary Les Aspin on military policies. With the Cold War over, he achieved cutbacks in some weapons programs, notably the B-2 Spirit (Stealth) bomber. But he failed to make substantial progress in redirecting budget priorities from defense to domestic programs.

His decision to retire in 1998, halfway through his term, made headlines.

In the 1960s, Mr. Dellums worked for state and private social-work agencies in the Bay Area, aiding poor and troubled clients. It was an era of anarchic struggle against racism and police brutality in Oakland.

Shootouts cost dozens of lives. Mr. Dellums disowned violence and never joined the Black Panthers, the paramilitary black power group that had a large presence in Oakland, but he defended their struggle against racism.

His first foray into politics was a successful run for a seat on the City Council in 1967.

In 1970, backed by a coalition of minorities, students, and labor, he upset Representative Jeffery Cohelan, a more conventional liberal, in the Democratic primary for the Oakland-Berkeley seat in Congress, and easily defeated a Republican in the general election.

The district was redrawn twice, but his strength of victory reached up to 77 percent of the vote.

Mr. Dellums became a lobbyist after he left Congress, starting his own Washington firm and representing clients in transportation, pharmaceutical and health insurance.

Mr. Dellums lived in Washington until 2006, when in a last hurrah he won a three-way race for mayor of Oakland.

Serving one term, from 2007 to 2011, he hired more police officers to fight rising crime, and added teachers and new programs to cut truancy and dropout rates in troubled public schools.

In 2009, the IRS cited Mr. Dellums and his wife for failure to pay $239,000 in income taxes over several years and placed a lien on their property. Mr. Dellums denied any willful evasion of taxes, but did not run for reelection in 2010.