And The Winner of the Berman-Sherman Race…

We already know the identity of the winner in the bitter race between Congressman Howard Berman and Congressman Brad Sherman.

The winner's name is Brandon Hall.

Berman recently hired Hall, a political strategist with a history of rough negative attacks. And already, we're seeing more personal attacks in the race, as well as finger-pointing about who is taking this contest into the realm of nastiness.

People, even people who are political consultants, should be held responsible for their actions.

But the sad state of the Berman-Sherman race can't be blamed on Hall and his fellow strategists. This sort of nasty race is precisely what California's election reformers decided to give us when they pushed through reform of the redistricting process and the establishment of the "top two" election system.

Reformers, of course, touted these changes as methods for increasing civic engagement and encouraging compromise and more moderate politicians.

But that's not how these things work in practice.

With California's political geography, with a heavily Democratic coast and a heavily Republican inland area, the real effect of these reforms was clearly going to be to set more politicians of the same party and same region against each other.

Redistricting reform, by taking the drawing of lines out of the hands of politicians and giving the duty to a citizens' commission, increased the chances that established politicians of the same party would do battle over the same district.

That's what we're seeing with Berman and Sherman, incumbent congressmen drawn into the same district.

And top two was designed to create more general elections in which two candidates of the same party would face each other.

This was the goal of the reform -- on the theory that two Democrats facing each other in a general election would be more inclined to compromise and moderate views, because they'd have to win over independent and Republican voters.

Dan Schnur, a longtime political consultant who now directs the Unruh Institute at USC (full disclosure: he and I will be debating this subject on Aug. 2 in Sacramento), has argued that this system is good because it encourages candidates to talk to more voters and people with whom they do not agree.

In practice, those candidates won't talk to voters. They'll scream at them, and the screaming will be personal negative attacks.

That's the dynamic of Berman and Sherman. Both men are Democrats who don't want to step away from Democratic positions for fear of alienating Democratic voters. So the way to differentiate themselves is to go negative.

This new dynamic is not helpful to candidates, to voters, or to the quality of dialogue and discussion.

Which is not to say there are no winners in this new system.

Indeed, one clear winner is Brandon Hall, who will never have a hard time finding work in California's "reformed" system. 

Lead Prop Zero blogger Joe Mathews is California editor at Zocalo Public Square, a fellow at Arizona State University’s Center for Social Cohesion, and co-author of California Crackup: How Reform Broke the Golden State and How We Can Fix It (University of California, 2010).

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