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Tensions High in California Contest

Howard Berman Working to Overcome His Underdog Status and Defeat Brad Sherman

Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call
Democratic Reps. Howard Berman (left) and Brad Sherman on Wednesday participated in a candidate forum hosted by ONEGeneration and the League of Women Voters, in Reseda, Calif. The two Democrats are vying to represent California’s 30th district after redistricting put the two former allies in the same district.

Updated: 11:49 a.m.

SHERMAN OAKS, Calif. — In the highest-profile and costliest Member-vs.-Member race of the cycle, Reps. Howard Berman and Brad Sherman are at each other’s throats — literally.

When tensions finally boiled over on a debate stage last week and the two Democrats had to be separated by the moderator and a sheriff’s deputy, no one here seemed overly surprised. 

The physical altercation — although overblown by national headlines — is the latest manifestation of the deep-rooted animosity between the longtime incumbents forced together by redistricting in the San Fernando Valley. 

Berman, a heavy hitter on national and international issues, is clearly annoyed about having to run his first competitive race in 40 years against Sherman, a backbencher known more for his visibility in the district. His frustration was obvious last week during three straight days of events, including an interview with Roll Call, a speech to a small community gathering and two debates. 

One sunny afternoon at his campaign headquarters in a strip mall in Encino, where volunteers ran a phone bank and prepared door hangers, Berman was asked when his last competitive race was. After a brief pause, he cited his first bid for the state Assembly in 1972, when he handily defeated a large primary field and successfully unseated the Republican leader of the Assembly. 

“My motto in that campaign was it’s time for a change, but that’s not my motto anymore,” the 15-term lawmaker said, laughing.

But after almost a dozen debates, he was clearly agitated at what he called Sherman’s penchant to “astonishingly overstate his role” in legislation. Berman compared Sherman to Woody Allen’s title role in the 1983 film “Zelig,” in which Allen’s insecure character would change his personality depending on the people he was with at any given time.

He concedes that Sherman excels at retail politics, but Berman, 71, is reaching out on a personal level as much as possible now as well. Sherman argues that it’s too little, too late.

“Howard is doing at least as much of that as I am now. The problem is he’s trying to catch up,” Sherman, 57, said in an interview after their first of two debates on consecutive days. “They know that this is a short-term imitation of Brad Sherman. Or they can have the real Brad Sherman.”

Capitol Hill Sway Vs. Geography

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