(Reuters) – Former California congressman Ron Dellums, who first won election to Capitol Hill as an anti-Vietnam War candidate and later led a 15-year effort to enact U.S. sanctions against South Africa’s apartheid government, died on Monday at age 82.
Dellums’ death, at his home in Washington following a battle with cancer, was confirmed in statements from his family and his successor in the U.S. House of Representatives, fellow Democrat Barbara Lee, who got her start in Congress as an intern in his office.
Dellums, a co-founder of the Congressional Black Caucus and one of Capitol Hill’s most unabashed and tenacious liberal voices, retired from the U.S. House of Representatives in early 1998 after 27 years.
He re-entered elective politics a decade later to serve four years as mayor of his native Oakland, California, starting in 2007. Dellums began his political career on the Berkeley City Council in 1967.
A former U.S. Marine, he was recruited by peace activists in 1970 to challenge incumbent U.S. Representative Jeffery Cohelan, a liberal Democrat seen by critics on the left as having failed to take a strong enough stance against the Vietnam War.
Dellums defeated Cohelan in the primary and went on to become the first African-American elected from a white-majority congressional district, California’s 7th, then 71 percent white. He won 12 more consecutive elections to the Oakland-based House seat.
Branded “an out and out radical” during his first congressional campaign by Republican U.S. Vice President Spiro Agnew, Dellums accepted the label as a badge of honor, as recounted by the San Francisco Chronicle.
“If it’s radical to oppose the insanity and cruelty of the Vietnam War, if it’s radical to oppose racism and sexism and all other forms of oppression, if it’s radical to want to alleviate poverty, hunger, disease, homelessness and other forms of human misery, then I’m proud to be called a radical,” Dellums told reporters at the time.
One of Dellums’ greatest political triumphs was congressional enactment in 1986, over the veto of Republican President Ronald Reagan, of U.S. economic sanctions against the apartheid policy of racial separation by South Africa’s white minority government.
Lee, according to the Chronicle, recalled Dellums telling his staffers that “the only question we should ask when we made decisions about anything is, ‘Is this the right thing to do?’”
Despite his reputation for being one of the Pentagon’s harshest critics, Dellums became chairman of the House Armed Services Committee in January 1993 when Les Aspin resigned to become President Bill Clinton’s defense secretary. Dellums was forced to relinquish the post two years later, after Republicans
regained control of the House.