RESEDA, Calif. — There was far more space between the green armchairs that Democratic Reps. Brad Sherman and Howard Berman sat in during Wednesday's debate than there was on the range of issues the two longtime Congressmen discussed.
But in a duel between two incumbents from the same party, it’s not so much the issues that voters will use to set them apart on Election Day but temperament and which Democrat will better represent their values in Washington, D.C.
A diverse group of 200 attended the mid-afternoon debate held at the ONEgeneration senior enrichment center, which co-hosted the event with AARP, the League of Women Voters and the American Association of University Women in California. The Congressmen have held about 12 candidate forums or debates since being drawn into the same district, and in each one they have sought to emphasize what differentiates them from each other.
“Superficially, this contest may look like a race between two bespectacled, balding Democrats with fairly similar voting records and rhyming names,” Berman said. “In reality, we have a very different approach to public service, and the difference in our legislative record of accomplishments could not be greater.”
The arguments centered not so much on where they stood on legislation but on who was more of a leader in pushing it through Congress. Beyond that, Sherman continually highlighted his presence in the San Fernando Valley for the past two decades, including in his opening and closing statements.
“Hello, I’m Brad Sherman, from America’s best named city, Sherman Oaks,” Sherman said before introducing his mother who was seated in the crowd. “I’ve had 160 town hall meetings here in the San Fernando Valley, three of them right here in this auditorium. I’ve helped thousands of Valley families unsnarl problems, that’s why in June — and I’m very proud of this — by a double-digit margin, the Valley voted for me as opposed to my opponent.”
In the low-turnout “jungle primary," in which the top two candidates advance to the Nov. 6 general election regardless of party, Sherman finished first with 42.4 percent, followed by Berman with 32.4 percent. Three Republicans combined to take more than 22 percent.
Next month, the GOP vote could make the difference in this race, and both candidates made sure to reach out to those voters during the debate.
“I have the endorsement of every Republican official who lives in the Valley,” Sherman said. “That’s because I’m able to work across the party lines in order to achieve our objectives.”
Sherman said he would help end the gridlock in Congress by writing a letter to the vice president asking for an end to the Senate filibuster. He then took a shot across the bow, saying Sen. John McCain’s (R-Ariz.) endorsement of Berman was because of Berman’s “incredible work in getting us into Iraq and keeping us in Iraq, something that McCain thinks was a good idea.”
Visibly agitated, Berman responded in-kind, noting that Sherman voted the same way Berman did on the Iraq War. He also noted that he was getting set to announce the endorsement of 10 of the state’s 19 Republican Members.
“What Brad exalts in is that on the votes that he now thinks he wished he hadn’t cast, and many of us do, he was never a leader and therefore shouldn’t be blamed,” Berman said. “Here’s the facts — the nation has incredible problems, and we’re not going to solve them by him writing a letter to the vice president. We’re going to solve them by reaching across the aisle, as I have done since I got to Congress.”
Sherman and Berman will face off again this afternoon at Pierce College in Woodland Hills, Calif.