The naming Tuesday of Rep. Les Aspin (D-Wis.) as President-elect Bill Clinton's choice for secretary of defense opens the way for arch military critic Rep. Ron Dellums of Oakland to take over the chairmanship of the House Armed Services Committee, giving conservatives a shiver and liberals a taste of sweet irony.
Dellums, elected in November to his 12th term from a Bay Area district rich in leftist thinking, has established himself as one of the most outspoken congressional critics of U.S. defense policy, a leading voice against military intervention and an opponent of some major weapons systems.
But his aura of radicalism has diminished over the years as he has proved himself to be an effective legislator who wins over foes with his directness, candor and plain speaking.
"He's a conservative's nightmare," said a top Republican congressional aide who knows Dellums' operating style well, "but his reputation for fairness and integrity (is) well deserved. Without sounding maudlin, he has the kind of innate character that gives you hope for the country."
Dellums, 57, will not officially be named chairman until the Democratic Steering and Policy Committee votes early next month. But his route to the top job is clear.
Rep. Sonny Montgomery of Mississippi ranks ahead of Dellums in seniority but barely won reelection two weeks ago as chairman of the Veterans Affairs Committee and has said he is not interested in the Armed Services chair.
Even Dellums' ideological foes speak warmly about his straightforward approach to committee infighting.
"Would I prefer a more conservative chairman?" mused Rep. Randy (Duke) Cunningham (R-San Diego), a decorated Vietnam Navy fighter pilot. "Of course. But am I upset (over Dellums)? No."
They have had plenty of opportunity get to know one another. Dellums chaired the Armed Services research and development subcommittee on which Cunningham serves.
"I thought I was going to have to do battle with him on every issue. But he always listens and lets you know where he stands. He is not a back-stabber."
The respect for Dellums, a former Marine, extends to the Pentagon, where he is regarded as intelligent, honest and easy to deal with. At a Tuesday briefing at the Pentagon, spokesman Pete Williams fielded a question about how Dellums was viewed by the military Establishment.
"Actually, I hate to disappoint you, but most of the defense wonks I've talked to . . . have good things to say about Dellums. The rap is that while he talks like a wild man, he is courteous and willing to let Establishment-type legislation through. Some even think he'll grow in the job."
While speculation solidified in recent weeks that Aspin was the first choice for defense secretary, Dellums kept a low profile. Calls to his office last week to discuss the possibility of his rising to chairman were politely turned aside.
He declined to be interviewed Tuesday but issued a prepared statement confirming that he "will request that the Steering and Policy Committee consider my candidacy. . . ."
"If elected . . . I would continue to exercise my duties in the manner I have in the past," the statement continued. "I believe that we have entered a new era in world affairs, one that calls on all of us to rethink our assumptions upon which the defense budget is based."
Dellums' record is a vivid confirmation of his contrarian views on military spending.
He has consistently opposed U.S. military intervention or covert actions to depose leftist regimes, fought against the B-2 bomber and "Star Wars" missile defense system and has long preached that much of the defense budget would be better used for domestic social programs.
One of the staunchest foes to President Bush's Gulf War policy, Dellums pressed for continued economic sanctions rather than military force to end Iraq's occupation of Kuwait. He launched court action to require congressional approval before using force, and continued the court battle once the fighting was under way.
In May, Dellums said he and other members of the Black Caucus would vote to cut Aspin's proposed $274-billion defense spending plan by 10% to show "this is a post-Cold War, post-Soviet Union environment."
He wanted to cut "Star Wars" spending from $4.3 billion, approved by the House Armed Services Committee, to $2.3 billion.
His proposal for a 10% cut in defense spending was rejected 283 to 90.
Arguing his position, Dellums said, "Our national security is under attack now by huge deficits, crumbling infrastructure . . . and the cities are ready to explode."
The apprehension of conservatives about Dellums is somewhat eased by the collapse of communism, the number of pro-defense Democrats on the committee and the assumption that Clinton and Aspin will shape defense policy.
As the military continues to downsize, Dellums will face increased pressure from within the California delegation to make sure the state gets its fair share of federal "conversion" funds and programs to resuscitate its reeling defense industry.
Times staff writer Art Pine contributed to this article.