Influential politician Ron Dellums, who got his start as a Berkeley City Council member, died Monday from cancer, at age 82. Photo: Alex Handy/Flickr

The death of Ron Dellums, an unwavering anti-Vietnam War activist who went on to represent the East Bay in Congress for decades, shook the many loved ones and political offspring he left behind Monday.

The outspoken 82-year-old had the ability to both drum up political energy and calm an agitated crowd. Later, as Oakland mayor, he worked alongside many officials and activists who began their careers as his loyal staffers, including his successor Congresswoman Barbara Lee, who started as Dellums’ intern.

But before all that, Dellums was just an activist and a social worker with a degree from UC Berkeley who reluctantly ran for a Berkeley City Council seat at the behest of Maudelle Shirek in 1967.

A progressive at a time when Berkeley had a Republican mayor, Dellums won with the endorsement of the more moderate Berkeley Democratic Club, who had pledged to support the “black unity” choice, as well as with progressive backing. Dellums was a deeply ambivalent candidate, warning voters that he would never be the kind of politician who simply said what he was supposed to say, or made compromises and deals to the detriment of social justice.

“I was determined to be the kind of council member who was plugged into the community,” Dellums wrote in his autobiography, Lying Down with the Lions.

Though many young, idealistic politicians make such promises, few stick to their word as closely as Dellums did throughout his long career, friends and colleagues say.

Dellums had run for council against a backdrop of fierce protests and social unrest, which reached a peak during the three years he was in office. During the era of the Black Panthers and Martin Luther King Jr.’s assassination, People’s Park clashes and Governor Ronald Reagan’s summoning of the National Guard to Berkeley, the disability rights movement, and the integration of Berkeley schools, Dellums emerged as a strong leader who had an extraordinary ability to defuse tension and forge connections.

Even so, he was labeled by some as a dirty Berkeley anti-war Commie — and famously by Vice President Spiro Agnew an “out-and-out radical” — and he received so many threats that his supporters began escorting him and his family to work and school. Ironically, longtime staffer Lee Halterman noted to the San Francisco Chronicle, Dellums would later go on to chair the House Armed Services Committee, earning the respect of colleagues across the aisle.

Dellums’ experience in Berkeley, wrote the late leader, “honed my political skills and helped me broaden my vision.” Berkeleyside asked Berkeley figures past and present to share memories from Dellums’ time in our town before he rose to the national stage.

Roberta Brooks: “He really helped keep Berkeley from blowing up”

Roberta Brooks was involved in Dellums’ first Congressional campaign in Berkeley, then worked on his staff for decades and later stayed on as Lee’s aide.

I started working for his campaign because I was pretty much done with national politics at that point, but he had been so important when Dr. Martin Luther King was killed. He really helped keep Berkeley from blowing up. He went out on the streets and just kept people calm. He helped Berkeley get through some really hard times. I got a babysitter and went to work for the campaign twice a week.

By the time of the primary election, the university had shut down because the U.S. had started bombing Cambodia. Students had walked out. On primary day, we had 2,000 students out on the streets, getting out the vote. It was the most extraordinary campaign I had ever seen, so much energy.

I didn’t know him personally then [but I was asked to work on his staff]. I was fearful because I didn’t want to watch someone lose their principles. I never, never felt that for a moment. He was probably the most principled person in body politic.

I was 27-years-old — we were all kind of babies on his staff. He was an extraordinary teacher to all of us. I refer to things he said all the time, like “Always put your arms around your enemy. Nobody’s ever been killed by being beaten on their back. Bring somebody close, it’s the only way to reach them. There’s a lot of power in these offices — I want you to use it and do the right thing.”

We weren’t staff, we were family. Most of us worked for him the entire time. There was a lot of laughter. He was very funny. He could hear a Richard Pryor routine and could do it hands-down.

Carole Kennerly: “He was a force to be reckoned with”

Carole Kennerly served on the city council in the 1970s and was supported and inspired by Dellums, who was the first black person elected to Congress from Northern California. 

Ron Dellums was a force to be reckoned with. He was always engaged with, listening to and heard the people. And, as a leader, always willing to help form consensus.

After my historic election as Berkeley’s first African American woman elected to the City Council in 1975, Congressman Dellums was very helpful in my orientation and learning the “ropes.” He understood what it meant to be the “first” as an elected official. He reached out to me, which I will always appreciate.

The Dellums staff arranged and Mr. Dellums personally conducted my Washington D.C. political orientation tour as a locally elected official. During my political career, I was able to put to good use the persons and information to which I was introduced. The Dellums local staff and volunteers were always supportive and helpful to me as a council member and vice mayor. Ron Dellums was fearless, committed, always speaking truth to power. May he rest in peace; his legacy will live on. My condolences to the Dellums family, his loved ones and friends.

Congressman Ron Dellums celebrates at the Berkeley Citizens Action headquarters on election night in 1982. Left is then-wife Roscoe Dellums, right center is then-Mayor Gus Newport. Photo: Ken Stein

Matthew Weinberg: “He was one of a kind”

Matthew Weinberg was the lawyer who worked with Dellums and others on the successful effort to underground BART in South Berkeley. The advocates believed the plans to build above ground would further racial divides in the city and have environmental consequences. Filmmaker Pam Uzzell interviewed Weinberg and Dellums about the experience in “Welcome to the Neighborhood.”

There were a number of stars that helped to win the case against BART in Berkeley. Mable Howard, T.Y. Linn and of course then-City Councilman Ron Dellums. When I worked up the theory of my case that BART’s original plan divided South Berkeley from the hills of Berkeley, it was with the input of Mable and Ron. Ron took the brave step to go against his City Council to become a lead plaintiff in the case. Of course, there is nothing like victory and we won. It resulted in a lifelong friendship with Ron which included my becoming his personal attorney. While in Congress I would get 4 a.m. calls to consult on votes in Congress.

I will miss Ron. He was one of a kind and did so much for Berkeley, Oakland and our nation that he should have a special place in everyone’s heart as we mourn his passing.

Ben Bartlett: “A superforce. A human dynamo”

Dellums with his nephew, current city councilman in South Berkeley, Ben Bartlett. Photo: courtesy Bartlett
Dellums with his nephew, Berkeley City Councilman Ben Bartlett. Photo: Courtesy Ben Bartlett

Current City Councilman Ben Bartlett is Dellums’ nephew. He wrote a tribute to his uncle on Facebook.

RIP Hon. Ron Dellums. Poet, Statesman, Liberator. Superforce. Human Dynamo. My uncle and second father. I thank you for guiding me and being there every step of the way. You taught me to be a friend to all people.

You taught me how to forgive, and to transform anger into love. Pride into presence. You taught me that suffering is a choice. And that our purpose is to end suffering, first in our own lives, then in the world. The whole world. You are my Champion. It’s not over. The Righteous Never Die!

Loni Hancock: “He inspired a generation”

Loni Hancock has held many political roles, from Berkeley mayor to state legislator to presidential staffer, and through it all counted Dellums as a central inspiration.

It’s so symbolic of the passing of an era. He supported and inspired a generation of elected people and community activists.

Ron was just [barely] elected. I really met him during the campaign and after. He opened his office to community input. It was an amazing experience — as Berkeley continues to be one of the most forward-looking cities on earth, that’s very much part of his legacy.

In Congress, he really went into the belly of the beast at that time, maintaining his clarity of voice and moral vision. He had absolute fearlessness in a situation where he was considered an outsider. Thinking about Ron, you can’t help but think of the importance of being a great orator. He didn’t write speeches, he just talked. He was a brilliant speaker. Like Martin Luther King, he could crystalize the moral dilemma and point the direction.

Tom Dalzell: “A steady voice”

Tom Dalzell writes the “How Quirky is Berkeley?” series

Tensions were high in Berkeley in late May 1969. On May 15, Governor Reagan had ordered law enforcement to occupy and fence off People’s Park. Alameda County deputies had killed James Rector, blinded Alan Blanchard and mortally wounded Donovan Rundle. National Guardsmen had Berkeley under military occupation, a National Guard helicopter had tear-gassed the city, and hundreds had been arrested on Shattuck Avenue for the crime of shopping on Shattuck. People’s Park supporters were planning a march for May 30, were predicting tens of thousands of marchers, and were vowing to take down the fence around People’s Park.

To defuse the very real possibility of serious violence, Fred Cody, Roy Kepler (of Kepler’s Books, Menlo Park), and Berkeley Quakers organized a program to keep the march peaceful. They brought in Peter Bergel, a trained peace activist, to train march monitors. The night before the march, 700 volunteers underwent non-violent training at LeConte School on Russell Street. The training went all night, and at some point in the evening, Ron Dellums stopped by. At that point, he was the most progressive member of the City Council, which was still dominated by Republicans. He spent several hours observing the training and talking to the volunteers, urging a radical pacifism in response to provocations from law enforcement and military occupation. Those who heard him speak that night remember a steady, powerful message and voice.

It all paid off the next day — 30,000 people marched under the watchful eye of National Guardsmen behind machine-gun mounts and barbed wire and Alameda County snipers on rooftops, without incident. No violence, no arrests, no problems. 

California National Guard troops occupied the intersection of Telegraph Avenue and Channing Way during the People’s Park riots in 1969. Photo: William Crouch/Oakland Tribune Archives
California National Guard troops occupied the intersection of Telegraph Avenue and Channing Way during the People’s Park riots in 1969. Photo: William Crouch/Oakland Tribune Archives

Bob Brauer: “Deeply respected”

Bob Brauer was a longtime staffer and policy advisor to Congressman Dellums, who first served as Dellums’ appointee to the Parks Commission in Berkeley. 

It’s a tremendous loss. I was with him from the start. He ran with Bernice May for the City Council seat, and that was the beginning of reorienting Berkeley. He was an amazing guy — obviously very bright, very committed and great to work with.

We helped facilitate bringing restaurants along the Bay. And it was at the point in time when the governor sent troops into Berkeley. We went through all of that and got involved in the struggles. Ronnie had a lot of background with community work, and he framed things well.

He became the chair of the Armed Services Committee. He was deeply respected but didn’t give up anything. He was an extraordinary man and somebody who as early as I knew him was interested in doing things to take care of people.

Lee Halterman: “One of the most significant legislators of his time”

Lee Halterman was Dellums’ longtime staffer, spokesman and co-author, who knew him since the Berkeley days.

Ron was one of the most significant legislators of his time. As a legislator and an orator and an activist he was unparalleled in his success. His contributions to human rights, economic justice and peace will always be profoundly significant. He was able to move the political needle through his vision and eloquence.

Natalie Orenstein reports on housing and homelessness for The Oaklandside. Natalie was a Berkeleyside staff reporter from early 2017 to May 2020. She had previously contributed to the site since 2012,...