The race between Democrats Brad Sherman and Howard Berman to represent the 30th Congressional District in the San Fernando Valley has drawn national attention for its unprecedented rancor and expense.
Thrown together by redistricting and a new California law that allows members of the same party to run against each other, the two incumbents have been circling each other like a pair of snarling pit bulls.
Residents in the district have been buried with lurid mailers in which each man takes exaggerated pot shots at the other.
Reporters are inundated with press releases aimed at luring them into writing hit pieces on one candidate or the other.
It got so heated that Sherman grabbed Berman at a recent debate and appeared to challenge him to a fistfight.
It’s a bizarre battle made even stranger by the common wisdom – particularly among national media weighting in on the race – that the two men are so similar that it really doesn’t matter which one wins.
But as Election Day nears, it has become clear that there actually are distinctions between the two – particularly in matters of personal and political style, but also in certain areas of policy.
The race, said Raphael Sonenshein, director of the Pat Brown Institute for Public Affairs at Cal State Los Angeles, said the two men represent classic – and different – styles of legislators.
Berman, he said, is an insider, focusing on the work in Washington and able to build on his relationships to make and influence policy. Sherman may be less of a mover in Washington, but he is considerably more visible back home in the district – in part because the new district is mostly made up of the one he has represented for 16 years.
“This race is a fabulous test of the home-style and the insider-legislator model of politics,” Sonenshein said.
Personal differences like these, he said, will become more important and pronounced in California politics, Sonenshein predicted, as more candidates of the same party are pitted against each other.
The candidates also differ somewhat in how they present themselves to the public.
At campaign events and in interviews, Berman tended to speak more conversationally than Sherman, using a quieter tone and responding to questions with detailed ideas and recollections.
Sherman offered somewhat fewer details in conversation, making more sweeping statements than Berman and using a somewhat louder tone. In interviews, he was more likely to circle back to talking points.
Their near-physical altercation at an Oct. 11 debate at Pierce College in Woodland Hills also highlights their differences in temperament and personal style.
After a particularly tense exchange, Sherman grabbed the 71-year-old Berman around the shoulder and drew him close, saying, “You want to get into this?”
They had been arguing moments before over the Dream Act, which Berman, the ranking Democrat on the House Foreign Affairs Committee, has pushed for years.
Sherman, who is 57, had claimed that his rival was not really the measure’s original author because he teamed with a Republican to introduce it the first time around. Berman then retorted that Sherman must be either delusional or a liar, and Sherman grabbed him in response.
“I probably should have taken a step back,” Sherman later said in a telephone interview. “It was not the highlight of the campaign.”
Berman has won the near-universal backing of Democratic heavyweights, along with many Republicans. National figures as diverse as former Secretary of State Madeleine Albright and Congressman Barney Frank (D-Mass.) have stepped in to personally counter some of the Sherman campaign’s charges against their candidate.
Sherman is a senior member of the House Financial Services and Foreign Affairs Committees, as well as the subcommittee on terrorism, nonproliferation and trade.
He has the support of many local politicians of both parties.
The new 30th was crafted largely from the district Sherman has served for 16 years, so residents are more familiar with him than Berman. Sherman lives there with his family, and is in the district more frequently for local events.
That either man is in the race this go-round sheds light on their personalities as well.
Berman, who holds key committee positions that the Democrats would no longer control if he is defeated, easily won the backing of party leaders.
Not wishing lose either of the men, Democrats then suggested that Sherman move to a district that had an open seat, pledging their backing if he did so.
Sherman refused, saying that the new 30th district was nearly identical to the one he had represented all along. For his part, Berman refused to retire, and vowed to fight.
Although they are both liberal Democrats, the two do differ at times on priorities and policy.
Sherman, a former auditor who also has a law degree, opposed the initial structure of the financial bailout, earning the enmity some Democrats including Barney Frank.
Sherman is proud of his work on the bailout, saying he helped to shape it into an agreement that benefitted taxpayers, rather than putting them at risk.
Berman said Sherman's opposition was "wrong," and also disagreed with his rival's claim that he helped to shape the bailout.
Frank, in a letter that was sent to the media and quoted in a campaign mailer, also said Sherman did not help to shape the final measure.
Asked what their priorities would be if re-elected, both talked about creating jobs and helping to ease foreclosures.
“My two highest priorities are jobs and helping to create a bipartisan resolution of our the whole relationship of our massive debt,” Berman said.
Berman said he would also work on intellectual property issues, pointing out that the district, which includes a big chunk of the Valley from North Hollywood to West Hills, is home to many people who work in entertainment and media.
Sherman also cited the economy and jobs as priorities in a new term.
He said he was particularly concerned about preventing foreclosures. Sherman said he had worked to block new regulations that would have hurt Valley home prices.
“You’ve got to focus on the economy,” he said.
Tom Hogan-Esch, who studies Los Angeles politics at Cal State Northridge, said small differences among the candidates are important and would impact how well the district is served after the election.
The loss of either one means a loss of his expertise and influence, Hogan-Esch said, whether it’s Berman’s ranking position on the Foreign Affairs committee, or Sherman’s work on Financial Services.
But in the end, he said, voters may simply vote based on their familiarity with one of the candidates – and that could favor Sherman.
“The mechanics are favoring Brad Sherman because there’s so much more of the district that is familiar to him,” Hogan-Esch said. “I just don’t see under any equation how Berman is able to overcome that.”