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
With a heavy geographic disadvantage — Sherman currently represents about 60 percent of the redrawn 30th district in the San Fernando Valley — Berman is the underdog. So he’s making an effort not only to highlight his role in local issues but also to downplay the legislative accomplishments of Sherman.
Larry Levine, a veteran Democratic consultant based in the Valley and a longtime friend of Berman, said the Berman campaign had a few challenges going into this race: to introduce Berman to the new voters, to reintroduce him to his own constituents because he hasn’t had a competitive race in 40 years, and to give voters reasons not to back Sherman. Republicans, who could account for as much as 30 percent of the vote, might just make the difference, he said.
“If the campaign does its job, Berman should win the Republican vote,” Levine said. “The question is how many of them are going to vote?”
After finishing 10 points back in June’s low-turnout “jungle” primary, Berman is reaching out to voters of any stripe. On Wednesday, Berman couldn’t help letting slip that he had been endorsed by a majority of the California Republican delegation, something his campaign was planning to announce the next day.
Why do those Republicans, along with Sen. John McCain (Ariz.) and other GOP Members of Congress, support Berman over Sherman? Berman told the senior center crowd it’s because he “brings home the bacon” and Sherman “co-sponsors bills ... and then exalts in his greatness.”
Berman has the sway on Capitol Hill and the endorsement of the governor, the mayor of Los Angeles, both California Senators and 34 Democrats and Republicans in the state’s Congressional delegation. But Sherman has been confident from the get-go not only that he is favored but that this should be considered a “safe Sherman” seat.
Sherman, now serving his eighth term, emits a cocky ownership of the Valley, specifically the western part, which he currently represents. The bald Congressman still passes out combs at campaign events, and he’s legendary for popping up at almost any small gathering of local elected officials or constituents.
Sherman claims that Berman is running for a district that is rightfully Sherman’s and that Berman could have run in the open Ventura County seat on the coast. Berman allies had hoped Sherman would be the one to do the moving.
“If something bad happens to your house, you can’t just take a baseball bat and drive your neighbor out of his house,” Sherman told Roll Call. “You best go down the road until you find an open house. There was an open district in Ventura. He didn’t want to move that far, and he thought he could take a baseball bat and kick me out of my house. This is my house.”
Katrina McNeal said after the senior center debate that she is backing Sherman because he stood up to Wall Street banks, one of Sherman’s top talking points, and because he focuses on the district, not foreign policy.
Ricki Bergman said she remains undecided and planned to visit both candidates’ websites before making a decision. She made sure to note that she was “very comfortable having both of them in Congress.”
‘I Don’t Have Combs to Pass Out’
Last Tuesday, Berman spoke to a
homeowners association meeting in the upscale neighborhood of Royal Woods — at a house next door to where singer Tina Turner lived until 1988, neighbors said. Berman said he’s been able to attend many of these small community gatherings since Congress recessed so Members could campaign ahead of the November elections. On this night, he spoke to a group that usually meets to discuss issues such as the coyotes that are threatening local pets.
About 30 neighbors came to listen to him speak in a living room decorated with “Berman for Congress” posters made by the hosts’ young daughters, including one who passed around her report from an interview she had conducted recently with Berman.
Berman said that there were fundamental differences in the way each incumbent views their role as a Congressman and that the outcome depends on which type voters want.
“I think my primary duty for the district I represent, and for the national issues and the international issues, is to work in Washington to try to make things better, and that’s how I define my job,” Berman said. “I don’t have combs to pass out ... but by and large, when you want me, I come.”
Helen and Milton Zerin, who have lived in that area for 53 years, said Berman needs to pay attention to the Valley and asked Roll Call to “put a bug in his ear” about that. “It’s a shame they have to run against each other,” Helen Zerin said, “because they’re both good men.”
Berman and Sherman have combined to spend more than $9 million through the end of September, according to third-quarter reports due Monday to the Federal Election Commission. Berman outraised Sherman by $500,000 in the third quarter, $730,000 to $231,000. However, Sherman started with a huge cash-on-hand advantage, and still had $1.8 million in the bank at the end of September to Berman's $395,000.
Getting their message out through paid media is key in this expansive district. However, Berman was off the airwaves for a month starting in mid-September. He said the campaign had the resources it needs and was getting set to go back up for the duration of the race.
Sherman landed on cable television in early September and also boasts the support of the National Association of Realtors Congressional Fund, which spent more than $1 million for direct mail on his behalf.
While some Democrats in the state groan at all the money this race is soaking up, Sherman noted that this isn’t just a race for one more term in Congress.
“Let’s face it,” he said, “whoever wins this thing is in for the next 20 years.”