Jeffery Cohelan, a dignified, old-fashioned liberal who represented the Berkeley area in Congress at the height of Vietnam War protests and the Free Speech Movement, has died. He was 84.
Cohelan died Monday at his home in Washington, D.C.
The Democrat, a civil rights advocate, moved into politics from the ranks of organized labor. He won election in 1958 after campaigning in his 7th District in a milk truck.
He served six terms in the House of Representatives through the tumultuous 1960s, only to lose in the 1970 Democratic primary to the charismatic Ronald V. Dellums. Dellums defeated Cohelan by a vote of 42,619 to 35,137, and then won the general election.
Although Cohelan co-sponsored a bill to cut off funding for the Vietnam War by June 30, 1971, and came to be a leading opponent of the war, he suffered from his early support of President Lyndon B. Johnson and his war policies. Berkeley students and faculty labeled Cohelan an “expedient liberal.”
Age and race were also factors in his defeat in an era when New Left politicians were on the rise.
“He sometimes looks like a tired businessman and sounds like a professor who isn’t on quite the same wavelength as his students anymore,” a Times political writer observed when the candidate spoke on the UC Berkeley campus before the primary election. “His speech was scholarly and full of interesting facts about government. . . . The presentation was more like a political science lecture than a campaign speech.”
Cohelan’s solid liberal credentials included coauthorship of the 1964 Civil Rights Act and service as floor leader for the 1965 Voting Rights Act. Long a spokesman for the Sierra Club, he also fought steadily for national park designation to preserve California redwoods.
Born in San Francisco, Cohelan was an honors graduate of UC Berkeley and studied in England on a Fulbright scholarship. Eventually, he moved into politics by winning election to the Berkeley City Council.
As a local leader in the Teamsters Union in the 1950s, he became known as a reformer who repeatedly clashed with corrupt national union officials. Sen. Robert F. Kennedy praised Cohelan’s honest and progressive leadership in his book about the union, “The Enemy Within.”
Describing a dramatic exchange between Cohelan and Teamsters national President Dave Beck, who later went to prison for embezzling union funds, columnist Murray Kempton once wrote: “The mob moved and pitched and bellowed and Jeffery Cohelan stood there, alone in the possession of his dignity.”
After his congressional career ended, Cohelan became a senior director of the Group Health Assn. of America, which pioneered prepaid health plans and the HMO movement. He also served as president of the Former Members of Congress social and educational club in 1975.
Cohelan is survived by his wife of 60 years, Evelyn, retired dean of the George Mason University School of Nursing; four children, Pamela Benson of Washington, D.C., Terrence of Santa Cruz, Timothy of San Diego, and Catherine Ulmer of Walnut Creek, Calif.; six grandchildren and one great-grandchild.