The Radical Insider 

As a congressman, Ron Dellums could be counted on to advance a progressive agenda. But his voting record only told part of the story.

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Indeed, Dellums' politics remained remarkably consistent throughout his tenure in Congress. But his personal style evolved considerably. At the start of his political career, Dellums was a firebrand who once called his colleagues "mediocre prima donnas," a statement he later regretted. In a 1976 interview with the now-defunct East Bay Voice, Dellums said, "I am not a machine, I am not a hack politician, and people around us are not hack politicians. ... I don't kiss anybody's ass in this community." It's hard to imagine the Ron Dellums of later years -- the man who once discussed writing a book with his friendly adversary Newt Gingrich, the man described by one local progressive as "the imperial congressman" -- making such unrefined statements.

Dellums eventually discovered that if he wanted to change things in Washington, he couldn't be a crude ideologue, berating his foes for not thinking his way. An axiom he learned as a psychiatric social worker guided his political style: You have to start by dealing with people as they are and seek to change their views from where they start, not from where you want them to be. In that spirit, he learned to speak "militarese" when dissecting the military budget instead of simply talking in generalities about human rights. He adopted the archaic vernacular of the House and referred to his colleagues as the "distinguished gentleman" from "so-and-so."

Even though he initially rode a wave of antiwar sentiment into Congress, Dellums ultimately believed in the system. True, he believed the system needed improvement. But he was going to improve it from the inside, not by hurling Molotov cocktails from across the street.

Long before he rose to become chairman of Armed Services, Dellums was widely credited as the lawmaker who put the brakes on funding for the MX missile and B-2 stealth bomber. His congressional victories were often like that -- he was much better known for stopping other people's proposals than for winning approval for his own legislative programs. Even his ultimately successful effort to impose economic sanctions against the apartheid government of South Africa arguably fit into the mold of stopping rather than starting something. Of course, as every congressman must, Dellums did deliver pork-barrel projects to his district, including tens of millions of dollars to dredge Oakland Harbor and improve the competitiveness of the Port of Oakland.

But most typically, his victories were only moral ones, such as when he spearheaded a 1991 congressional debate over the Gulf War. Dellums' stubborn refusal to compromise didn't help his final win-loss record in Congress. He often groused when his liberal colleagues agreed to compromises instead of sticking to what they knew was right. For instance, Dellums remained so true to his own defense-spending priorities that he didn't protest when the government shut down the Alameda Naval Air Station in the early 1990s.

As is often the case during the breakup of any long-term relationship, Ron Dellums terminated his affair with the voters of the ninth congressional district by omitting certain unflattering facts about his motives for leaving. Dellums, you see, had a professional mistress awaiting him in the form of a private-sector job.

His February 6, 1998 letter of resignation -- which initiated a domino effect of costly special elections in the East Bay -- mentioned nothing about his new job. As so many politicians do when they make sudden exits, Dellums expressed his desire to spend more time with his family: "After so many years of watching my family's sacrifice in the interest of public service, I find that the requirements of being more available to them now press very hard upon me. Therefore, I will leave the House and turn my attention to these pressing matters."

Few reporters took Dellums' official explanation for his resignation at face value. It was well known on the hill that Dellums didn't much like being in the minority party after Republicans took over the House in 1995. Still, after he made public his decision to call it quits, Dellums told the San Francisco Chronicle he didn't know what he was going to do next.

It was a lie. In fact, Dellums had lined up a job for himself in the private sector several months before he announced his retirement from Congress. Just three days after he finished cleaning out his congressional offices, Dellums flew to Memphis on a business trip. The purpose of the trip: To formalize the verbal agreement he already had worked out to become president of Healthcare International Management Company, a black-owned for-profit company trying to establish HMOs in South Africa.

If Dellums had done the honest thing and disclosed his plans -- a reasonable expectation considering he had a job offer on the table while still serving in Congress -- his loving constituents might have asked some tough questions he probably didn't want to answer: When exactly did this company offer you the job? Who offered it? In what context was it offered? Did the company or its owners have any business on Capitol Hill while you were still in Congress? Why are you going to work for a for-profit health-care firm after spending your whole career arguing for the need to eliminate profits from health care?

In his aptly titled memoir, Lying Down with the Lions, Dellums admitted to having lined up the job before leaving Congress -- albeit in vague terms. As Dellums tells the story in his book, he woke up one morning in the spring of 1997 and realized that he had spent nearly half his life in public office: "At that point I ... realized that this would be my last term in the US House of Representatives; if I did not make plans to leave after my current term, the chances were I would never leave on my own." Within days of his epiphany, he wrote, he got a phone call "out of the blue" from former congressman Harold Ford, a well-known Tennessee arm-twister.

Dellums didn't mention in his book that Ford was now a lobbyist for Medical Care Management Company, a private for-profit company that managed Access MedPlus, Tennessee's second-largest state-supported health-care plan for the poor. Medical Care Management chief Anthony Cebrun was looking for a prominent figure to head up the company's fledgling international subsidiary, the aforementioned Healthcare International Management. According to Ford, Dellums' famous legislative battles against apartheid made him an attractive candidate, since Cebrun wanted to establish a presence in South Africa. Ford, however, insists that he had no idea that Dellums already had one foot out the door of Congress when he called his former colleague about the job proposal. "They didn't even think he would have any interest," Ford told the Express. "Then I called him up and said, 'Hey, I don't know if you had any interest at all, but would you consider looking at another company?' "

Ford put the two men in touch with each other. Dellums later wrote that he eagerly agreed to lead the company because its initial focus "would be on improving the quality of life in Southern Africa through the provision of coordinated, accessible, and comprehensive health care based upon the strategy of wellness." Somehow Dellums forgot to include the phrase "for-profit" in his description of the firm's business plan.

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