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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"It was more like an introductory, 'Hey, our firm is working on this,' " Dean recalled. " 'We hope we will be able to be useful in finding ways that are not the usual heads-on confrontation between the city and LBNL.' It was kind of more like a courtesy call than a discussion of issues." Still, Dean found it a little weird to be talking to Halterman as a representative of the lab. She also was taken aback to hear that Halterman's firm had been hired by San Francisco International Airport to negotiate with environmental groups opposed to its plan to dredge and fill in part of the bay to add new runways. Assembly candidate Loni Hancock, a longtime Dellums ally who was supported by Brauer during the primary, described the runway plan on the campaign trail as "a disaster for the San Francisco Bay." Dean was a bit more charitable: "Lee has always been a very left environmentalist, so I was kind of surprised."

Halterman recalls that SFO officials initially approached the firm to handle their "East Bay politics." Halterman suggested an alternative: Let us see if we can work out compromises with Save the Bay and other green groups opposed to the runway plan, often derided as "Pave the Bay" by environmentalists. "The way I think of it, either a good project will be built or no project will be built," Halterman reasoned. "In either event, by definition, those are positive outcomes."

In comparison, other Dellums, Brauer, Halterman clients are relatively benign stocking-stuffers. AC Transit and the Peralta Community College District hired the firm to redraw their electoral district lines to adjust for population shifts. Peralta also tapped the firm in June to lobby state and federal officials to help find money to refurbish surplus property from the defunct Naval Air Station to augment the district's Alameda campus. Of course, that property is now surplus because the government closed down the base on Dellums' watch.

Brauer, who also maintains a full-time job as assistant to the president of California State University, Hayward, said he views the trio's consulting work as a continuation of the work the three partners did in Congress. "A large part of it is seeing what we can do to help the community in some kind of way," he said. "We have the luxury and opportunity of doing it, I guess."

And, of course, the connections. An East Bay pol, who happens to be a longtime Dellums backer, said of the trio, "They're following the time-honored tradition of cashing in on their government experience and making some money."

For a man who led such an atypical life as a congressman, there is something just so typical about Dellums' resurrection as a lobbyist. Politician retires and returns as lobbyist; it's a story we've all heard a million times before. But it's a story that most people didn't expect to hear about Ron Dellums. When Dellums left Congress four years ago, he assured The Washington Post he would not become a high-paid lobbyist with a Town Car. He was right about the Town Car; DMV records show that he now owns a 1993 Mercedes 300 SL convertible.

Dellums likes to say he's "just a dude" who puts his pants on one leg at a time. But to his devoted supporters, Dellums was more than just a dude -- he was an icon, a shining light, a remnant of what was still decent about our corrupted political system. Which is why some of his old fans are so disappointed in Dellums now. James Love, director of Ralph Nader's Consumer Project on Technology, a group that advocates drug-pricing reforms, is among those who have soured on Dellums in recent years. Love said Dellums was "a big hero of mine" until he became a consultant for Bristol-Myers. "He was a real problem for a while, zipping around, pushing the drug company line. Some of us were disappointed. We were not happy with what he was up to. We didn't trust him."

Likewise, Doug Ireland, the progressive journalist who wrote "Dellums for Dollars" in POZ, said, "Ron has gone bad, I'm afraid. He talks the talk, but he doesn't walk the walk anymore."

There is no denying that Dellums' walk is different now. After all, someone else is paying for his wingtips. Still, some defenders say his current consulting work is consistent with his approach in Congress. "I think if you were to talk to him, he would say just because of the fact that I'm advocating for a company that may be paying me consulting fees, I'm not selling out my beliefs," Alameda County Supervisor Keith Carson said. "I'm challenging them from inside to put more money on the table or to make drugs that are much needed by the community that can't afford them." Carson noted that Congressman Dellums "never avoided having direct interaction, dialogue with people who were totally in opposition to his philosophical and political positions."

Could it really be that Dellums' evolution from "conscience of the Congress" to "corporate consultant" is a natural progression? It's telling that someone as close to Dellums as Keith Carson, a former employee and erstwhile protégé, believes it is.

For nearly three decades, Dellums and the East Bay had the political equivalent of a long-distance relationship. Dellums always could be counted on to keep up his end of the bargain -- to oppose increased military spending, protect abortion rights and the environment, and push a generally progressive agenda. His voting-record report cards were almost without exception straight As from groups such as the National Organization for Women, the Sierra Club, and the AFL-CIO. But looking at his voting record only told part of the Ron Dellums story.

During all those years he was away in Washington, Dellums' style changed, even if a lot of people in the East Bay didn't realize it. As some have argued, his district probably would have been happy sending an ideologue to the Capitol. To his credit, Dellums resisted demagoguery and refused to be marginalized. In spite of his unpopular leftist views, he managed to remain relevant, which is a lot more than can be said of ideological fellow travelers such as Vermont socialist Bernie Sanders.

Now, Dellums has moved on. And in utterly characteristic fashion, he still isn't justifying his actions. Once again, he's leaving the job of explanation to the very same people he counted on for 27 years in Congress. But if Dellums were to talk, he could certainly tell his old constituents a thing or two about the key to political relevance. In a congressional district that may be the most liberal in all the land, Congressman Dellums ultimately concluded that the way to get things done was working on the inside -- not storming the barricades, not throwing stones, not playing the role of principled but ineffectual gadfly. Ron Dellums isn't talking, but even so, he's got a message for the American left. His message is that the key to relevance lies at the center, not the fringe.

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