Oakland’s third Black mayor and congressman, Ron Dellums, dies at 82

August 2, 2018

Ron Dellums

Ronald V. Dellums, the son of a West Oakland longshoreman who as a liberal Congressman never forgot his roots as an anti-war activist and human rights champion, died early Monday, July 30, 2018, at his Washington, DC, home. He was 82.

Dellums, who ended his political career as mayor of Oakland, recently battled prostate cancer, said Rep. Barbara Lee, who succeeded him in Congress.

In 27 years representing Oakland and Berkeley in the House of Representatives, Dellums put spending on education, jobs and social programs ahead of military conflicts and armed forces expansion. His fierce opposition to the Vietnam War and relentless campaign against apartheid in South Africa made him a beloved figure in the East Bay, if also a radical elsewhere.

He embraced the label, in his own way.

“If it’s radical to oppose the insanity and cruelty of the Vietnam War, if it’s radical to oppose racism and sexism and other forms of oppression, if it’s radical to want to alleviate poverty, hunger, disease, homelessness, and other forms of humanity, misery, then I’m proud to be called a radical,” Dellums said in 1970 after Vice President Spiro Agnew labeled him “an out and out radical.”

Born Nov. 24, 1935, Dellums was raised in West Oakland, the first stop for African Americans migrating from the South during the buildup to World War II. He knew political activism at a young age: His uncle, C.L. Dellums, was a labor organizer with the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters, the first African American-led trade union in the U.S.

After graduating from Oakland Technical High School, Dellums served two years in the Marine Corps, attended Laney College, received a bachelor’s degree in psychology from San Francisco State University and then a master’s degree in social work at UC Berkeley. Dellums was a social worker when he launched his political career in 1967 by winning a seat on the Berkeley City Council and drawing attention for his outspoken opposition to the Vietnam War. Three years later, anti-war activists recruited him to run against incumbent Congressman Jeffery Cohelan, a more moderate liberal Democrat who supported the war.

Dellums won the seat and never looked back, winning re-election a dozen times, including with a 77 percent margin in 1996.

In 1971, he stormed into Washington DC — sporting an Afro, facial hair and bell bottoms — and became an agitator. Dellums held informal hearings on the Vietnam War when his calls for a House investigation went unheeded. His efforts in Congress landed Dellums on President Richard Nixon’s “Enemies List,” the informal name given to the president’s lineup of major political opponents.

In 1986, he authored legislation to divest American companies and residents of holdings in South Africa, after more than a dozen years decrying apartheid. President Ronald Reagan vetoed the bill, but Congress overrode it, the first override in the 20th century of a presidential veto on foreign policy.

South Africa repealed its apartheid laws in 1991, ending the sanctions. Dellums’ aggressive anti-apartheid stance earned praise from Nelson Mandela, recalled Dan Lindheim, who worked for Dellums in Washington and Oakland.

Over the years, Dellums became known for working across the political aisle, even as the first African American and anti-war activist to become chairman of the Armed Services Committee. In 1997, Dellums announced his retirement from Congress. In a special election, Lee, a state senator at the time, won the election with the support of her former boss, Dellums. She’s held the seat ever since.

After retirement, Dellums ran a lobbying firm representing Rolls Royce, AT&T and Jean-Bertrand Aristide, the former president of Haiti. In 2005, Oakland came calling, looking for someone to replace outgoing Mayor Jerry Brown. At a summer dinner event Dellums attended, the crowd began chanting, “Run, Ron, run.” A “Draft Dellums for Mayor” committee formed, collecting more than 8,000 signatures urging him to enter the campaign.

As Lindheim recalled, the 70-year-old Dellums emerged to address a crowd of hundreds at Laney College in October 2005, intending to disappoint them. “He got overcome by all the people demanding that he run and he somehow decided that he should,” said Lindheim.

Dellums’ decades in national politics did not easily translate to Oakland City Hall. Though he grew the police force, reduced crime, helped negotiate an end to the 2007 garbage strike and won federal funding through his D.C. connections, critics viewed his administration as ineffective, and he a reluctant and absent mayor. Oakland, like the rest of the country, was hit hard by the Great Recession. In 2010, he announced his first term would be his last.

According to a statement from Dellums’ family, he is preceded in death by his daughter Pamela Holmes and survived by his wife, Cynthia, his children Rachel Chapman, R. Brandon Dellums, Erik Todd Dellums, Piper Monique Dellums, stepson Kai Lewis, six grandchildren and two great-grandchildren.

Memorial services are pending.

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