Ronald V. Dellums sat with his hands neatly tented in front of his bearded chin -- the beard he first grew in jail almost twenty years ago after being arrested while protesting apartheid in front of the South African embassy. The 66-year-old congressman emeritus looked regal, a statesman among the dozens of politicians on hand to witness the swearing-in of incoming California Assembly Speaker Herb Wesson. Dellums flew in from his Washington, DC home to be Wesson's honored guest. He is the man Wesson credits with inspiring him, three decades earlier, to enter public service.
As a freshman member of Congress, Dellums once spoke at Wesson's college, Lincoln State University in Pennsylvania. His appearance at Lincoln brought out the usual mix of converts and curiosity seekers, who came to hear the man that then-Vice President Spiro Agnew had branded as a radical who needed to be "purged from the body politic."
"He spoke with a passion about the human rights that all of us are entitled to," Wesson said of his hero's speech. "And the energy he spoke with, and the courage of his convictions, remain with me to this very day. That was the moment I knew what I wanted to do with my life." Motioning from the podium toward the man in the tailored navy blue suit with the silk handkerchief in his breast pocket, Wesson added, "Ron Dellums changed my life and I am so lucky to have him here today joining us, so I can thank him for the inspiration he gave me."
The state Capitol audience responded to Wesson's cue with a twenty-second standing ovation. Dellums rose graciously to accept the applause. Once standing, he towered over those around him, occupying his own rarefied atmosphere.
After the ceremony concluded, a procession of admirers approached Dellums. Many of the well-wishers respectfully addressed him as "Congressman Dellums," even though he retired from the House of Representatives in midterm four years ago for mysterious personal reasons. Assemblywoman Pat Wiggins of Santa Rosa walked up with her hand extended and gushed, "I just wanted to shake the hand of the man who showed you can stand on principle."
Assemblyman Gil Cedillo of Los Angeles maneuvered his way next to the wise man for some sage advice. Dellums encouraged the young lawmaker to keep pushing for change from inside the system. "Somebody has got to step inside and bring something to the table and say, 'Okay, pour me a cup of coffee, what's the agenda, and let's get on with it,' " Dellums explained to his eager pupil.
Fifteen minutes after Wesson's speech, Dellums was still shaking hands and posing for pictures with admiring strangers. Wesson's handlers eyed him impatiently: he was running late for the new speaker's first press conference. But Dellums didn't seem to be in any rush. After all, it was probably the last time he could walk freely through this hallowed chamber.
Lobbyists, you see, aren't usually allowed on the Assembly floor.
Throughout his 27 years representing Berkeley, Oakland, and Alameda in Congress, Dellums never seemed to compromise his progressive politics, even as he steadily rose up the ranks to become chair of the powerful Armed Services Committee. Along the way he earned the oft-repeated moniker "the Conscience of the Congress."
But it's always overlooked in the typical narrative of Ron Dellums' political career that the idealistic congressman ultimately became a Beltway fixture. He lived in Washington DC for nearly thirty years, raised his kids there, and attended parties with other political glitterati. By the end of his distinguished congressional career he was an insider -- a status he had worked hard to attain.
Nor did Dellums stray far from the corridors of power after leaving Congress in 1998. He remarried and bought a $700,000 townhouse in Washington's tony Foxhall Crescent neighborhood. He also took over as president of a fledgling international health-care company based in DC.
On the surface, Dellums' health-care work seemed a logical continuation of his moralist congressional persona. He used his new post as a bully pulpit to bring attention to the AIDS crisis in South Africa, where his new company was focusing its efforts. Dellums' AIDS activism eventually attracted the attention of President Clinton, who named Dellums chair of the Presidential Advisory Council on HIV and AIDS in March 2000.
But Dellums' new job was a clear departure from his work in Congress. His company was for-profit, and its goal was to establish HMOs in Third World countries such as South Africa. This was from the same man who year after year vainly attempted to pass the National Health Service Act to establish universal, not-for-profit health care. Conservatives called it "socialized medicine."
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