Sherman vs. Berman: California’s Doppleganger Democrats Go to War

Sometimes the toughest races are between two candidates who have everything in common.

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Bill Clark / CQ Roll Call

Rep. Howard Berman, left, speaks during a candidate forum with Rep. Brad Sherman, in Reseda, Calif., on Wednesday, Oct. 10, 2012.

It is a shame, say local Armenian leaders, to have to choose between Los Angeles area Congressmen Howard Berman and Brad Sherman, two older, balding, Jewish, liberal Democratic Congressmen who both went to UCLA, graduated law school, sit on the House Foreign Affairs Committee and have nearly identical voting records. Jews also feel it’s a shame. As do Latinos, environmentalists, union members, gays, the ACLU and people who hate traffic on the 405. It’s as if San Francisco had to choose between their current Congresswoman and a rich, far-left, smooth-browed Congresswoman named Ann Shelosi.

Because of the influx of Latinos in the area, Berman and Sherman knew that eventually redistricting would collapse their neighboring San Fernando Valley districts and force them to run against each other. But they didn’t think they’d have to do it two times – once in the spotlight of Election Day in a Presidential year. A new California law created a “jungle primary,” which sends the top two winners, regardless of party, to the general election. It’s designed to reduce the gridlock, vitriol and extremism in Washington by promoting centrist candidates who appeal to both parties. Instead, it produced a race between Berman and Sherman, the 69th and 85th most liberal members of the House.The new district favors 57-year-old, eight-term Congressman Sherman over 71-year-old, 15-term Congressman Berman: 50% of the new district’s voters are already represented by Sherman, and another 25% used to be before a round of redistricting in 2003. Only 25 percent come from Berman’s old district. In the primary on June 5, when only 80,000 people voted, Sherman beat Berman by 10 points.The challenge of having debates between these candidates, it would seem, would be finding something to debate. It didn’t turn out to be a problem. Though they started out their September 29 debate at Holy Martyrs Ferrahian High School by complimenting each other, Sherman quickly accused Berman of being part of the Turkish caucus, “the number one Armenian genocide-denying caucus in the U.S. Congress!” Shortly after calling Sherman “a brother in arms,” Berman also said he was “full of it” and accused him of “venom and smears and lies and distortion.” Later, Sherman shook his head and said, “This isn’t a place for schoolyard putdowns.”

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Outside on the blacktop, a perfect place for schoolyard putdowns, Berman and Sherman stood within five feet of each other as volunteers fenced them in by holding aloft campaign banners while the candidates did local TV interviews with their backs facing each other. The opposition videotaped every word, hoping for a gaffe, even though these interviews were already going to be on TV. When I talked to a Berman staffer about setting a date for our interview, Matthew Dababneh, Sherman’s chief of staff yelled at me, so the Berman folks could hear him, “We’ll talk to the press at any time! We have nothing to hide!”

Sitting at a small desk in an office in the high school, Sherman explained that his dislike of Berman isn’t new. It started back in 2001 over redistricting after the census. “He tried to create a district where there was a one block wide corridor connecting my house to this district so that one of his key allies would beat me,” he said. Berman’s brother Michael, a confidante of the Clintons who was a partner in political consulting firm Berman & D’Agostino, helped run the redistricting.

There’s more than just a history of political jockeying. Though their backgrounds are similar and they live three miles apart, people who’ve been to enough big Passover Seders can recognize that Berman and Sherman are two very different types of Jews. Berman is reserved and academic; Sherman is outgoing and aggressive. It’s the Neurotic Jew versus the Tough Jew; Woody Allen versus David Mamet.

Berman is a key foreign policy player who has sponsored far more legislation in his career (he accuses Sherman of having only sponsored three bills in his entire career, “and two were renaming post offices.”) “Brad is very much in love with being a Congressman. I love the job. It’s not the title,” Berman said in his campaign office, which features a mocking cartoon of Sherman spouting all his rehearsed lines. “If elites voted, I would win overwhelmingly.” He qualifies elites to mean his Congressional colleagues–with no candidate in the race, Republicans like John McCain and Lindsey Graham have backed Berman–but he also has been endorsed by the L.A. Times and the Valleys’ Daily News, and has had fundraisers hosted by Jeffery Katzenberg, David Geffen and Steven Spielberg. Betty White, along with Wendy Malick, appear in an ad for Berman, endorsing him for the good work he’s done for pets.

Sherman is closer to his constituents, going to far more local events where he hands out flags and combs (Sherman, you see, doesn’t need them.) Sherman finds Berman to be arrogant and condescending. “He’s above it. He not only has disdain for me personally but the process of having to run instead of being anointed,” Sherman says. “You can almost see the self-loathing when he has to imitate me. He showed up at a Little League closing ceremony. Do you know how much he hates that?” Berman won’t even give Sherman the facts on the Little League event, insisting it was a soccer game. “Brad may not know the difference,” he says. But he does concede that he dislikes pandering for votes.

The campaigns have spent more than $9 million altogether on the race so far– a SuperPAC has bought nearly $1.5 million in ads for Berman–and most of that money has been spent attacking each other. The campaigns have accused each other of improper use of funds that are pretty benign (Berman for paying his brother to be his campaign manager and taking free research trips overseas as ranking member of the foreign affairs committee; Sherman for lending his own campaign money at a low-interest rate). “It went from Mayberry to Hatfield and McCoy,” says Rob Eshman, the editor of L.A.’s Jewish Journal, who arranged one of their debates in February. “Just to get them to agree on a venue and the rules, you would have thought it was Palestinians and Israelis. They say politics makes for strange bedfellows. It makes for angry bedfellows.”

That anger was on display October 11, when Berman and Sherman had another debate. Shortly before the debate ended, Sherman accused Berman of not really authoring the DREAM Act as he claims; Berman, who did help write it, became frustrated and got in Sherman’s face. Then Sherman, who is quite a bit taller, grabbed Berman by the shoulder, pulled him into his chest and yelled, “You want to get into this?” The sheriff’s deputy pulled them apart, and some Sherman campaign workers gently led their candidate to his podium. The debate got more than 125,000 hits on YouTube and was shown on The Today Show.

The Berman campaign seized upon outburst, claiming it plays into their argument that Berman is the more effective, respected, non-hitting statesman. “Brad massively exaggerates his role. The notion that the guy you saw in that debate – that Ben Bernanke and Hank Paulson were listening to that guy and changed TARP because of him is preposterous. He’s like Zelig. He’s in Yalta. He’s in Munich,” says Berman. “He is neither dumb nor lazy. He doesn’t have the skill set to work well with other people.” During my hour in Berman’s headquarters during our interview, two people dropped off checks to the campaign citing the fight. One recent poll showed Sherman’s lead reduced from 10 points to 6.

And there’s still a few days left for the race to get even rougher. California’s new primary system was based on the assumption that the negative tone in Washington is due to extremism. But it turns out that politics is even meaner when two people agree on everything.