Last year, with political observers predicting the race between incumbent Democratic Congressmen Howard Berman (Van Nuys) and Brad Sherman (Sherman Oaks) could end up costing upwards of $10 million, the news that three separate Super PACs had been established to support one candidate — Berman — attracted a lot of attention.
While independent expenditure committees, as Super PACs are officially known, have had an outsized impact on Republican presidential primaries so far, it’s still unclear what impact, if any, they will have on the hotly contested race in California’s 30th Congressional District.
Indeed, over the last three months of 2011, while Berman’s campaign raked in more than $1 million in donations and Sherman raised $126,000, the pro-Berman Super PACs brought in a combined $21,000. And the Valley-Israel Alliance, the first of the Super PACs to be established, officially ended its fundraising efforts at the end of January.
“Congressman Berman made it clear that that he was not comfortable with the whole concept of Super PACs,” said Brendan Huffman, the founder of the now-terminated Super PAC. “And so, respecting his concerns, it made sense to close it and try to help in other ways.”
Huffman is a public policy consultant who has worked for several Los Angeles-area Jewish officeholders. According to filings obtained from the Federal Election Commission (FEC), the outside group did not receive any monetary contributions in the months it was up and running.
“I don’t know why you needed three Super PACs anyway,” said Parke Skelton, Sherman’s campaign manager, dismissing the disappearance of one such committee as insignificant.
Rebuilding America, a Super PAC run by State Sen. Alex Padilla, raised $20,000 in the last quarter of 2011, including a $10,000 donation from Pacific Gas & Electric Co. (PG&E). That corporation does not service any part of the San Fernando Valley, where the 30th District is located but could have business facing the California State Senate Standing Committee on Energy, Utilities and Communications, which is chaired by Padilla.
Berman has said he has not asked any of his contributors to donate to the outside groups. Nevertheless, Sherman has publicly asked Berman to sign a pledge designed to eliminate the influence of Super PACs from the race, which Berman has until now declined to do, a fact that Sherman often uses in attacks on his opponent.
“Let the grassroots speak to the voters,” Sherman said near the end of his two-minute speech to the delegates at the California Democratic Party’s endorsing caucus on Feb. 11 in San Diego, which was recorded by John Myers of KQED. “Otherwise, they’re only going to hear from the Super PACs.”
Sherman’s claims aside, with the pro-Berman Super PACs raising little money and spending less, it’s not clear what impact — if any — the outside groups will have.
“This is an unusual race in that it pits two similar candidates from the same party against one another,” said Richard Hasen, a professor at the UC Irvine School of Law, who blogs at electionlawblog.org. “It could well be that the lack of a partisan angle will mean less money will come in. But I don’t think we know yet.”
That difficulty of drawing major distinctions between Berman’s and Sherman’s records could help explain why, at the state party convention, delegates did not award the Democratic Party’s endorsement to either one.
Even without spending by pro-Berman Super PACs, both contenders have big war chests. In year-end reports to the FEC, the Berman campaign reported $2.85 million in cash on hand. Sherman’s campaign reported having $3.7 million to spend on the race.
As many journalists watching this race have observed, the two incumbents practice very different styles of political representation, and recent news would appear to reinforce those reputations.
Sherman, who is known for holding frequent town hall meetings in his district to engage with voters, is scheduled to hold two such meetings on successive Sundays, including one focused on developments in the Middle East.
Berman, meanwhile, is the ranking Democrat on the House Committee on Foreign Affairs and has a reputation as the go-to guy to get legislation passed in Congress, especially on matters of foreign policy. On Feb. 9, he introduced a bill designed to extend a form of temporary visa to work in the United States — the E-2 visa, which is currently available to citizens from more than 70 countries but not Israel — to
Israeli entrepreneurs investing in businesses in the United States.
Berman’s bill was introduced with the co-sponsorship of two Republican representatives, including Congressman Lamar Smith of Texas, who chairs the House Committee on the Judiciary, to which the bill has since been referred. With a companion bill already introduced in the Senate — with a similarly bipartisan group of sponsors — Berman’s bill is believed to have a good chance at becoming law.