[See updates below]
It’s tough to improve on the capsule summary of the race between Howard Berman and Brad Sherman in California’s 30th Congressional District offered up by our friend Gene Maddaus at the LA Weekly: A battle “to determine which bald, Jewish Democrat who voted for the Iraq War will continue to represent the San Fernando Valley.”
Which helps explain why the Jewish Journal, the largest landsman weekly in the U.S. outside of New York, has labeled Jonah Lowenfeld’s smart blog on the race “Berman v. Sherman: Two Jews, One District.”
As Danielle Berrin, who writes JJ’s “Hollywood Jew” blog, put it: “It’s a lose-lose for Jews. We have two and now we’re going to have one.”
For the rest of California, the race in the new 30th CD – which is 49% Democrat, 26% Republican and 21% decline-to-state – means the loss of one liberal (on most issues) member of the House with considerable seniority. Both Democrats are likely to make it to the November run-off election under the new top-two system, which would kick the real campaign down the road several months.
There are clear differences, between the two congressmen: Berman is a member of Adat Ari El and Sherman attends Valley Beth Shalom. (Both are Conservative congregations, btw.)
Shame on us: Actually, that’s not fair to either of them (and we criticize ourselves severely for our utter lack of menschlichkeit). Berman, 70, has more hair, served eight years in the California Assembly and is a 30-year veteran in Congress. Sherman, 57, genetically a CPA, served on the Board of Equalization five years and has been in the House 16 years.
More important, Berman, “one of the most creative members of the House and one of the most clear-sighted operators in American politics” according to the Almanac of American Politics, is the Ranking Member of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, having served as chairman when the Democrats controlled Congress. He’s endorsed by Gov. Jerry Brown, Sen. Dianne Feinstein and 22! members of Congress from California, has former Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s “unofficial” support and Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid is doing a fund-raiser for him in D.C.
He’s the darling of the entertainment industry in Hollywood (which, in L.A., means jobs, not cultural elitism) and a genuine macher in Washington.
With his brother Michael, of the Berman & D’Agostino campaign consulting firm, Howard has been a fixture in California Democratic Party politics for decades. As Big Dan Walters wrote: “In 1980, Berman, then a state assemblyman, tried to oust fellow Democrat Leo McCarthy, who had become speaker six years earlier. That led to a year-long conflict that eventually ended in a draw. Willie Brown — whom McCarthy had defeated for speaker in 1974 — succeeded his old rival, elected over Berman by McCarthy Democrats and Republicans.”
Divided labor support: Berman has the support of the Service Employees International Union and a couple other entertainment-industry unions, along with a few super PACs, which may (it remains to be seen) spend heavily in the district. But Berman hasn’t had to run a competitive race in decades and has spent a lot more time working Washington than his home base – a challenge made worse by reapportionment because he’s not the incumbent for about three-fourths of the new district.
He’s going to have to convince voters that he got the extension of the 405 freeway declared a project of national significance so that the $130 million project could be accelerated by 10 years; that he kept Kaiser Permanente from closing its 300-bed hospital after the Northridge earthquake; and that he was the guy who transformed the Hansen Dam into a family recreation area from a gang-infested hot spot. Likely, nobody in the district has any idea about any of that.
Sherman, meanwhile, has held lots of town hall meetings, puts out lots of statements on the issues of the day and introduces lots of bills that have gone nowhere. But he claims to have been instrumental in getting funding for part of the Backbone Trail in the Santa Monica Mountains and working to get federal study funds for the Caltrans $4.7 million 101/405 interchange improvement. You want a ribbon cut or a congressman at your Rotary Club event or your Lavender Garden Club, Brad’s your guy.
Attacking evil superPACS: Hoping to turn Berman’s strength into a weakness, Sherman with obvious guidance from campaign pro Parke Skelton, is trying to make an issue of the evil super PACS by challenging Berman to refund whatever money they spend on his behalf to the U.S. Treasury. (Good luck with that, Brad.)
Sherman, who is endorsed by Bill Clinton (a Hillary debt, no doubt) and Michael Dukakis (for whom he campaigned), has only a couple of Congressional supporters, the United Steelworkers and six other unions and, significantly, the Democratic Party of the San Fernando Valley – which is not the actual California Democratic Party but which sounds like it is.
Sherman is the Ranking Member of the House Subcommittee on Terrorism, Nonproliferation and Trade and he is a senior member of the Financial Services Committee. But despite what he says about himself, he’s not regarded as a serious player in Congress. He’s a constituent guy.
Rock star v. schmo? “This is not a clash of two titans,” said one Hollywood Democrat. “It’s a superstar congressman versus a schlemiel.” It would probably be unkind to describe Sherman as gum on the bottom of your shoe. But not really.
Sherman has tried to make an issue out of Berman’s support for the Iraq war but since he voted for the resolution himself – “grudgingly” he now says – it’s a tough sell. He’s also tried to make an issue of Berman support for TARP and NAFTA, both of which he opposed.
Berman and the super PACS supporting him, have yet to go negative on Sherman, but smart betting says they will argue that he’s a feckless member of Congress who has never accomplished anything of significance and whose greatest virtue is being there.
Veteran Westside LA Congressman Henry Waxman tried to convince Sherman to run in a new Ventura County district instead of the new San Fernando Valley district, arguing that while it’s not as pure a Democratic base, that Sherman could win it. “If we have this race between two Jewish Democrats, it is not because of Howard, it is because Brad chooses it,” Waxman told our old friend Bill Boyarsky. Sherman didn’t bite.
Instead he released a poll he’d commissioned from the Feldman Group, purporting to show that Sherman leads with 42%, followed by 26% for Republican businessman Mark Reed and with Berman at 17%. In the absence of any credible, neutral polling, those are the only numbers floating around, whether they’re paid-for or not.
Hollywood’s go-to guy: At the end of September, Sherman had $3.7 million in the bank and Berman had $2.3 million. But that was before Berman’s $1.6 million fundraiser at the Beverly Hilton in November, after a pitch from Steven Spielberg, Jeffrey Katzenberg and David Geffen, who wrote:
Howard has been a champion of the entertainment industry since he was first elected to Congress in 1983. As a lead member of the Judiciary Committee, he plays a key role in shaping the copyright, trademark and patent laws that are so vital to our industry. And as the top Democrat on the Foreign Affairs Committee, he has fought to strengthen aid to Israel, continue U.S. foreign assistance on global HIV/AIDS programs, and improve America’s diplomatic standing in the world.
Said event co-chair Gov. Brown at the fund-raiser: “I’ve been watching politicians for a long time, and Howard’s really one of the few people that is not fluff, that is not manipulation. What you see is what you get.”
Sherman’s attack on Berman for supporting the War in Iraq works only if Sherman can convince voters to consider his intentions, not his own actual vote.
As young Jonah Lowenfeld of the Jewish Journal wrote – after having correctly reported that “On more than one occasion, Sherman attacked Berman for supporting a bill that he himself had also voted for” – Team Brad is hot to keep the issue alive.
As Sherman pointed out at the debate (and as his campaign manager, Parke Skelton clarified in a subsequent email), Sherman supported the war resolution only grudgingly, and only after attempting to limit the mandate for war given to President George W. Bush. He introduced one amendment and supported another that would have had that effect. It appears that neither the Davis amendment nor the Sherman amendment made it out of committee—Berman voted against both of them. Ultimately, Sherman voted in favor of the resolution authorizing the Iraq war, a move he characterized at the debate as a mistake.
So, Sherman couldn’t get his own amendment out of committee – surprise! – so he voted for the measure anyway. This proves his support was grudging? Or just chicken-livered opportunism?
Berman summarized Sherman’s stand on the Iraq War at a recent forum: “I was against it before I was for it before I was against it.”
Support for Israel not in doubt: No matter who wins, the Israel lobby in Washington will have a staunch ally: both congressmen are about as pro-Israel as anyone in the House although Berman is widely regarded by supporters of the Jewish state as the more serious player in international relations and foreign aid issues.
With the top-two primary system in place this year, the first round of voting in June is no longer the end-all-be-all that it once was in a strongly Democratic district – not when there are two well-funded Democrats in the race.
Sherman appears to be gunning from the start for an early win. And given that he has represented more of the district in the past, he just might come in first in June. But that could be a trap, too.
If Sherman runs as a flame-throwing liberal — as the old rules of primary politics would dictate – he runs the risk of cutting himself off from the middle, among moderate Democrats, independents and liberal Republicans who could be crucial in a November runoff against Berman.
Campaign jiu-jitsu: All Berman has to do in that scenario is come in second in June and then, with support from his Latino friends (Latinos comprise 16% of the new district’s voting age population) and Gov. Brown (who won 57% in 2010 in the new district’s precincts), holding back his best stuff for himself and against Sherman until September or October.
Funding shouldn’t be an issue for either of them, although at the pace he’s raising cash, Berman is likely to have an advantage in the fall. And though some have estimated $10 million might get spent in this race, it’s still too expensive to advertise on broadcast TV in a congressional race. That leaves targeted cable TV, mail and the internet as the key communication tools, along with ground troops.
Sherman will try to keep the race about local, schmokel, small-p politics: who’s available for your nephew’s bar mitzvah, who’s got the Humane Society award, who gives the best town hall meeting? As one Democratic consultant put it: “Brad wants to make the race about who’s a better hack.” And if that’s the race, Sherman could win.
Berman will want to elevate the race to capital-p Politics: who’s the best advocate for the district in Congress, the most significant player in Washington, the strongest proponent for hundreds of thousands of middle-class, below-the-line, behind-the-camera Hollywood jobs?
Who defines the race, wins the seat.
UPDATE: At a district meeting over this past weekend, Sherman won more than 50% of the votes for a California Democratic Party endorsement, but not the 70% needed for a consent-calendar endorsement at the state party convention in February. So the endorsement will be taken up at a caucus at the state party convention.
UPDATE UPDATE: Sherman came in first in the June 5 primary with 35,114 votes or 42.2% and Berman ran second with 26,957 or 32.5%. Other candidates drew 20,805 votes, including Republican Mark Reed with 10,403 or 12.6%. Whichever Democrat — Sherman or Berman — can pull those votes in November has the best shot at winning the 30th CD seat.