Peter Hannaford may not be a household name, but there are many who know him as the California public relations man who played a huge role in making Ronald Reagan president.
When Reagan left the governorship of California in 1974, Hannaford (who died Sept. 5 at age 84) and partner Mike Deaver took Reagan on as their sole client. They oversaw his speeches, newspaper columns, and national radio commentaries — keeping his name out there and thus putting him in a place to almost win the Republican nomination for president in ’76 and become the 40th president four years later.
What is only mentioned as an aside in reminiscences of Hannaford is that he briefly had a political career of his own.
In 1972, small businessman Hannaford became the Republican nominee against far-left Democratic Rep. Ron Dellums in California’s 7th District. At first glance, it would seem out of the question that a Republican would have any chance of winning in a district with strong population hubs in heavily Democratic Berkeley and Oakland.
Republicans, however, felt they had a chance at winning for one reason alone: Dellums.
As a Berkeley city councilman, Dellums was keynote speaker on Feb. 17, 1968, at the birthday party for Huey Newton, minister of defense of the Black Panthers (identified by the FBI as “the most notorious and dangerous of current militant groups).
Two years later, with the Panthers’ support, Dellums stunned politicians of both parties by defeating six-term Rep. Jeffrey Cohelan in the Democratic primary. Cohelan had an impeccable liberal voting record and had opposed the Vietnam War. But he didn’t take the anti-war position soon enough for the large college community in Berkeley, whose members vigorously campaigned for Dellums.
Elected in November with 57 percent of the vote, Dellums gave supporters a clenched-fist salute at his victory party. Days after taking office in January 1971, he jetted to Stockholm, Sweden to address the World Peace Council (“the largest and most active Soviet-front organization … one of the major Soviet instruments for political action and propaganda in the peace movement,” according to FBI Intelligence Division head Edward O’Mally).
Dellums hosted a “war crimes” exhibit in his office highlighting atrocities allegedly committed by U.S. servicemen in Vietnam and “speaking to rank-and-file soldiers encouraging them to oppose the war in Vietnam” (Current Biography, 1972).
Opponent Hannaford hit this hard, declaring that the “basic issue of the campaign becomes one of radical vs. non-radical.” Canny public relations man that he was, Hannaford highlighted such quotes by Dellums as his calling a fellow Berkeley city councilman “a racist pig” and supporting a slate running for the council in 1971 whose platform proclaimed “children should have control over who raises them” and vowed to “lower the age of drinking and smoking to 10.”
Hannaford knew what he was doing. Given the Seventh District’s Democratic leanings, he realized he had to bring support over from the other side. In the fall, he unveiled a long list of “Democrats for Hannaford.” This included such elected officials as Albany, Calif., Mayor Joe Carlevaro and Oakland City Councilman Felix Chialvo as well as labor leaders such as Mike Lynn, business representative for Teamster Local 76.
Many of the 2000-plus Democrats who publicly joined the camp of conservative Hannaford were committed liberals who had backed former Democratic Rep. Cohelan.
They deserted Dellums because, Hannaford said, “he is a Democrat-by-convenience.” He quoted the congressman as saying “I have no allegiance to the Democratic Party but if the majority of people in my district are Democrats than this is where I’ll seek office.”
Hannaford led Dellums in the initial returns and for a time it appeared as though an upset was in the making. But reality set in when precincts from Oakland and Berkeley came in. Dellums won by a margin of 60 percent to 38 percent.
The Democratic congressman told the Oakland Tribune he “resented” Hannaford’s campaign because “he demagogued me and it hurt me personally.” Dellums’ contest with Hannaford was the last serious race he faced. He served in Congress until 1998 and later became mayor of Oakland.
“Pete later said he was glad he ran,” veteran GOP consultant Charlie Black told Newsmax, “He thought he scored a lot of good policy points, which was a typical Pete goal. And he conceded that Ron Dellums was a good campaigner.” Shortly after he lost to Dellums, Hannaford was hired as policy director by Gov. Reagan.
Like Bill Clinton, George W. Bush, and Barack Obama, Pete Hannaford’s maiden voyage in public life was a losing race for the U.S. House. But like all of them, he went on to do something much bigger, which was to help make Reagan president. In that sense, he changed history much more than he would have had he defeated Ron Dellums in 1972.
John Gizzi is chief political columnist and White House correspondent for Newsmax.
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