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.”
Dellums also soon launched a consulting firm — Dellums, Brauer, Halterman & Associates — which now boasts clients such as:
* Bristol-Myers Squibb: The pharmaceutical giant has been trying to improve its image in Africa with a controversial $100 million initiative to combat AIDS.
* Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory: The scientific lab, which has been known to store and generate radioactive waste, has long had a combative relationship with Berkeley’s city government and its residential neighbors. Dellums, Brauer, Halterman was hired a year ago at a $1,500 daily rate for community- and government-relations work.
* San Francisco International Airport: Over the objections of Bay Area environmentalists, the busy airport has been trying to build new runways in San Francisco Bay. Spokeswoman Kandace Bender said it is paying the firm $4,500 a month to advance its cause.
* The Republic of Haiti: Dellums fought for better US treatment of Haiti while in Congress. Now his firm is being paid a $30,000 monthly retainer to help secure financial aid and improve Haiti’s lousy image on Capitol Hill.
* Peralta Community College District: The school district hired the firm last year to lobby Congress and federal defense and education officials to convert surplus Navy property for its Alameda campus. Under the $50,000 contract, Dellums commands a $300-an-hour fee.
* IKON Public Affairs: A lobbyist for real estate mogul Donald Trump, IKON Public Affairs took an interest in Oakland Mayor Jerry Brown’s proposal to build a casino at the city’s old army base.
The firm also recently added a Sacramento practice to its offices in Washington DC and Oakland and hired William Schlitz, a former aide to then-State Senator Barbara Lee and ex-Assembly Speaker Bob Hertzberg, as an associate. With Schlitz as their man in the state capital, the firm’s partners plan to recruit new clients and register soon as state lobbyists.
Ron Dellums declined an invitation from the Express to discuss his post-congressional work. His colleagues and close friends argue that his current consulting work must be viewed within the context of his history of changing things from the inside. But his surprising reappearance through the revolving door — representing the very interests he opposed in several notable instances — begs the question: While Dellums was away from us all those years, did the inside change him?
Dellums always resented being labeled “the radical black dude from Berkeley,” and yearned for respect from his House colleagues — even his ideological opposites. An anecdote he shared with the Express in a lengthy 1988 interview illustrated this point nicely. It happened fourteen years into his congressional career. Dellums was offering an alternative military budget on the House floor. After he finished, a conservative Republican representative stood up and said, “Whether I agree with the gentleman from California or not, he has consistently attempted to raise the level of debate and plays a useful role in this body by challenging us to think, and I respect the gentleman.” Dellums later went home and woke up his wife, Roscoe, with tears in his eyes. “Today was one of the most significant moments of my life in Congress,” he said he told her. “Because today I felt that I no longer carried baggage. Today I feel I am being dealt with at the level I always wanted to be dealt with. Grapple with my politics, grapple with my ideas. I am personally credible. I have been accepted and am now respected in this institution called Congress.”
After finding that respect, the congressman’s visits to his reputedly radical district decreased noticeably. Dellums left constituent handholding to his able and loyal staff, which the congressman liked to refer to as components of “the corporate Ron Dellums.” Two senior vice presidents of Dellums, Inc. later became his business partners: H. Lee Halterman, who handled calls from the press, and Robert Brauer, his special counsel.
In some districts, Dellums’ absence might have been viewed as exemplifying an out-of-touch, arrogant Beltway incumbent. But voters here loved him. Even after he was discovered in 1991 to be the single most prolific check-bouncer in the entire Congress, voters here punished Dellums by returning him to office with 72 percent of the vote — his greatest-ever margin of victory.
“What I liked about Ron was that I could count on him to vote the way I would have voted if I were in Congress,” said Marty Lynch, director of Berkeley’s Lifelong Medical Care and a longtime progressive activist.
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.
Dellums’ new role as the head of a for-profit managed-care company surprised his erstwhile progressive allies. Health-care reform advocate Dr. Howard Waitzkin, a member of Physicians for a National Health Program, was dismayed to see Dellums listed as a featured speaker at the December 1999 Miami Beach conference of Summit on International Managed Care Trends. The World Bank and the International Monetary Fund use such summits as forums to argue for the need to privatize public-health systems, especially in Third World countries. To Waitzkin, Dellums’ participation signaled a reversal of the views he held as one of the leading congressional advocates of a national health-care system.
Waitzkin says he wrote Dellums urging him not to participate, but never got a reply. “Dellums’ role in international health consulting seems to be very retrogressive in view of his marvelous activities on behalf of a national-health program in Congress.”
By the time the summit rolled around, Dellums was spending a great deal of time stumping for what he called an AIDS Marshall Plan, designed to raise billions in public and private dollars to combat the disease in Africa. Dellums would tell anyone who listened about the human toll of AIDS. “I think what we’re talking about is one of the great moral imperatives of our generation,” he said in a 1999 interview with The Washington Post. “We’re talking about 21 million people dying from AIDS in sub-Saharan Africa over the next ten years. How do you get your mind around that?”
Dellums and his anointed successor, Rep. Barbara Lee, wrote a bill proposing to pump $200 million a year over five years toward fighting AIDS in Africa. Ultimately, the duo’s efforts led to the establishment of the Global Fund to Fight AIDS, Tuberculosis, and Malaria, which now has nearly $2 billion in funding pledges from around the world. President Bush included $200 million for the fund in his recent budget proposal, and Congress is now thinking about significantly boosting that figure.
This passionate advocacy on such a tragic issue — one largely ignored by black political leaders in the past — seemed like classic Dellums. And that’s how most of the press played it — except for New York-based journalist Doug Ireland, a former Village Voice columnist and contributing editor for In These Times, the progressive biweekly. In an unflattering July 2000 story about Dellums’ post-congressional ventures that he wrote for POZ, a magazine devoted to people with HIV, Ireland pointed out that the proposed AIDS trust fund would not be managed by the recipient countries — but by the World Bank. “And the bank has long pressed for HMOs in developing countries,” Ireland wrote. “If the Dellums-Cebrun company persuades South Africa to let it set up HMOs, it stands to make a bundle.”
But that opportunity never transpired for Dellums and Cebrun. In October, Healthcare International Management closed its Washington office after its parent companies, Medical Care Management and Access Health Systems, filed for bankruptcy with $54 million more debts than assets. The filing followed the state of Tennessee’s decision to cancel its contracts with Cebrun’s companies amid complaints from health providers about millions of dollars in unpaid bills.
While the bankruptcy put Dellums out of a job, it didn’t put him out of work. After all, he had his growing consulting business to fall back on.
The aging California Building in downtown Oakland hardly looks like the nerve center of a high-powered international consulting firm. But the marquee at the front entrance confirms this is the place: Suite 500, Dellums, Brauer, Halterman & Associates. You won’t find it listed in the phone book. But when you’ve got the name of a legendary retired congressman on your letterhead, you don’t need to advertise in the Yellow Pages.
H. Lee Halterman, the firm’s general partner and a private attorney, apologized for the mess, cleared a space for his guest, and offered him a cup of coffee. With his frizzy hair and mustache, Halterman looks like a young Albert Einstein. He has been described as Ron Dellums’ alter ego, having worked for the man during his entire congressional career.
Halterman said Dellums, Brauer, Halterman began as a firm specializing in strategic government affairs planning. When the trio started their business partnership three years ago, Halterman said they didn’t want to cross the line into becoming lobbyists. “It just wasn’t how we saw ourselves.” Asked why, he replied, “I guess the usual pejorative reasons.”
The turning point came when Jean-Bertrand Aristide, the president of Haiti, called Dellums and asked the former congressman to help him on Capitol Hill, where his island nation is viewed as a corrupt, leftist irritant. Dellums, a longtime backer of Aristide, couldn’t say no. “That changed our lives,” Halterman said. “We had to register with the Justice Department under the Foreign Agent Registration Act, which automatically meant we had to register under the Lobbyist Disclosure Act even if we weren’t going to do government lobbying. So we decided strategically we weren’t going to be a lobbyist for just one client.”
Halterman said Dellums and he decided to form their firm after the ex-congressman finished the manuscript for Lying Down with the Lions, which Halterman cowrote. “Shortly after we turn in the book in — which is now a year after we retired — Bristol-Myers calls Ron and says, ‘We’re getting our brains kicked out by South Africa by this AIDS stuff. We’re not going to give away the store, but we obviously want to have good relations with South Africa and figure out how to work through this issue.’ “
At the time Bristol-Myers executives called Dellums, the drug company, which makes three AIDS drugs, was one of forty pharmaceutical firms suing the South African government to protect its patent rights. In 1997, the South African government passed a law allowing for the importation of cheaper, generic versions of patented AIDS drugs in the country. In retaliation, according to The Wall Street Journal, the pharmaceutical lobby pressured Congress to place a rider in a foreign appropriations bill to temporarily cut off financial aid to South Africa.
There are several reasons why the idea of Dellums teaming up with Bristol-Myers is a hard pill for his idealistic supporters to swallow. As a congressman, Dellums railed against Big Pharma. As he put it in one of his early district newsletters, “There is no reason for drug manufacturers to earn billions because their products, which cost only a few cents, sell for dollars.” Bristol-Myers is the nation’s third-largest drug maker; in 1999, it had a reported $14 billion in drug sales from more than a hundred countries. Then there’s the fact that Bristol-Myers was one of many multinational corporations that kept doing business in apartheid South Africa even as Dellums was fighting for US disinvestment there.
It was precisely this history of fighting apartheid — and Dellums’ correspondingly heroic stature among black South Africans — that made him so appealing to Bristol-Myers. Halterman says Dellums accepted the company’s offer as a chance to do more good for Africans, particularly those with AIDS. “So he calls me up and says, ‘You know we always talked about having a firm. Well, I have a client.’ We didn’t have a firm, but all of a sudden we have a client.”
The two enlisted their old colleague Robert Brauer to complete their new consulting troika, which they legally established in February 1999 with Bristol-Myers as their first client.
Around the time Dellums came on board, Bristol-Myers executives were thinking about starting a program addressing the AIDS crisis in Africa. It also was around this time that Dellums began earnestly describing his AIDS Marshall Plan for Africa, touting the idea to government officials and the media without publicly identifying himself as a Bristol-Myers consultant. His idea was to create a public-private partnership to establish an AIDS trust fund. He hoped that pharmaceutical companies would kick in $100 million.
In May 1999, Bristol-Myers launched “Secure the Future,” a plan to spend $100 million over five years in five countries in Southern Africa. Secure the Future was controversial from the very start. No sooner than Bristol-Myers announced the initiative — to which it has since committed another $15 million — critics were calling it “Secure the Profits,” dismissing it as public relations masquerading as humanitarian aid.
Secure the Future certainly has succeeded in that regard. In September 1999 the Constituency for Africa, a Washington-based nonprofit that Dellums chairs, honored Bristol-Myers vice-chairman Kenneth Weg as its “Constituent of the Year.” In a press release from the organizations, Dellums gushed, “Secure the Future is the single greatest example of corporate leadership in the global fight against AIDS.” The release neglected to mention that Dellums was on Bristol-Myers’ payroll.
Some skeptics also frowned at the thought that Bristol-Myers would be using Africans as human guinea pigs to test AIDS-drug cocktails in studies funded by the program. Even South African health officials, who ostensibly stood to benefit from increased resources, expressed doubts about the initiative. That’s where Dellums would come in. Bristol-Myers sales executive James Sapirstein told The Washington Post, “Ron was there to help broker meetings, basically call on his friends and say, ‘Look, I know you don’t trust these guys, but they’re trying to do something important. Listen to them.’ “
Three years into Secure the Future, critics say the initiative has done little to help AIDS-afflicted people in Africa. “More often than not, these things are more of an effort to try to deflect some of the negative public attention they’ve received about their drug pricing than about anything that’s really meaningful in the sense of getting these drugs to the people that need them most in poor countries,” said Rachel Cohen, the US advocacy liaison for Doctors Without Borders.
But can Secure the Future really be dismissed so easily? According to its Web site (www.securethefuture.com), Bristol-Myers committed $46 million in grants to a wide range of AIDS-related programs in Africa during the first two years of the initiative. Among the programs funded are preventative educational outreach programs, an HIV clinical research laboratory in Botswana, and the development of a curriculum for nursing schools on how to care for and manage HIV patients.
“One of the things I’m trying to help come out of Secure the Future is … an honest partnership with African countries,” Dellums said while in Sacramento. “In that public-private partnership, my hope was that programs like Secure the Future would create the models that the global trust fund would be able to expand.”
Halterman acknowledges that some of his progressive pals have given him and his business partner flak for consulting for Bristol-Myers. “There were some people who said ‘What’s that about? Why are you in bed with this guy we’re protesting against?’ And then you talk to them and they get it.
“And look what’s happened, look behind that. Al Gore gets the US Chair of the UN Security Council to hold a hearing on the international security implications of HIV/AIDS. Well, who did that? Ron Dellums did that. Bristol-Myers has suspended part of its patent rights in South Africa. Who did that? We did that. We worked with our client, partnering them with South Africa. This whole thing is about effecting change.”
Bristol-Myers isn’t the only controversial client for whom Dellums, Brauer, Halterman has been effecting change. Earlier this year, members of the Berkeley City Council received an introductory letter from the newest consultant for Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory. Although she had never heard of the firm Dellums, Brauer, Halterman & Associates before, Mayor Shirley Dean certainly recognized the names on the letterhead. At the time, residents in the Panoramic Hill neighborhood were once again fretting over radioactive waste from the lab’s Tritium Labeling Facility. So Dean scheduled a sit-down meeting with Halterman. But Dean said she and Halterman didn’t talk much about the tritium facility during their meeting.
“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.
Ron Dellums certainly remains relevant today, even if he isn’t the moral beacon he once was. Earlier this year, to the surprise of many people, President Bush reappointed him to the Presidential Advisory Council on HIV and AIDS.
And once his firm signs on some new clients for its Sacramento operation, Dellums should make a damn good state lobbyist, too. After all, how many lobbyists can say they inspired the speaker of the Assembly to dedicate his life to public service?