April 19, 2012 | 3:50 pm
Posted by Jonah Lowenfeld
Here’s something to consider when you’re next stuck in traffic: Which incumbent Jewish Democratic congressman running for reelection in the 30th district should get credit for expanding the 405 freeway?
Rep. Howard Berman (D – Van Nuys) and Rep. Brad Sherman (D – Sherman Oaks), who are locked in a high-stakes and expensive battle for reelection in the West San Fernando Valley, are both claiming to have been instrumental to the expansion project, which is expected to cost just over $1 billion and will add a HOV lane on the 10 miles of freeway running between the 10 and the 101 freeways.
Those who see the 405 expansion as an accomplishment that is primarily Berman’s are bristling. The Berman campaign has accused Sherman of lying about his own record and inflating his involvement in the project.
“Howard Berman’s name has been associated with this project throughout this process,” Brandon Hall, senior adviser to the Berman campaign, said. “What you won’t find in any of the articles written while this was going on is Congressman Sherman’s name, and we think that speaks volumes about who actually was able to deliver on this project.”
In debates and public appearances over the course of this increasingly testy campaign, Sherman has said that the project would not have gone ahead without his effort. In a TV ad airing on cable in the San Fernando Valley, the Sherman campaign has included the additional lane on the 405 freeway on a list of Sherman’s accomplishments.
Despite the accusations from the Berman campaign, Sherman’s campaign consultant, Parke Skelton, stood firm, saying that Sherman played “a critical role in securing funding for the 405, particularly at the state level.”
“No one is saying that Brad Sherman did this by himself,” Skelton added. “The fact of the matter is a lot of people played important roles.”
As with many competing claims in political races, each side is marshalling a different set of facts to support its claims.
In a five-page document accompanying the press release, the Berman campaign outlined Berman’s actions over the course of many years to secure funding and advance the project, which is expected to be completed in 2013.
That document, citing news articles dating back to 2005, describes Berman’s efforts negotiating with congressional leaders to secure a $130 million appropriation in that year’s federal transportation bill and helping to apply public pressure on then Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger, who was reluctant to commit to the conditions associated with the federal funding.
“Every step of the way it’s been Howard Berman’s project,” said Bob Blumenfield, a California state assemblyman who worked as Berman’s district director during this time, and has endorsed Berman in his race against Sherman.
Blumenfield said that the fight between Berman and Schwarzenegger – in which the congressman pressured the governor to match the $130 million of federal funding he had secured with an equal amount of state funding – was only the most public of Berman’s efforts to keep the project going.
If Berman’s efforts to advance the 405 expansion project focused on the congressional funding process, Sherman’s contributions to the project, according to a three-page document obtained from the Sherman campaign, appear to have focused primarily, though not exclusively, on lobbying lawmakers and governmental bodies within California.
Starting in 2006 and continuing through 2007, Sherman wrote letters, appeared at press conferences and offered testimony at a hearing in Sacramento to support the project. Through these channels, the document from Sherman’s office argues, the congressman urged Schwarzenegger and the California Transportation Commission to allocate funding from voter-approved transportation bonds to the 405 project.
And while Sherman’s campaign focuses on the fact that the majority of the funds for the 405 expansion came from that bond issue, those supporting Berman say that the federal funding he secured for the 405 ensured that the project would be completed more quickly than it otherwise would have.
It may seem unusual, in a year when concerns about government deficits are running high, to see two incumbent lawmakers bragging about their roles in spending more than $1 billion on a highway construction project.
But the contest between Sherman and Berman – two Jewish, pro-Israel Democrats with relatively similar voting records running in a mostly Democratic district – is anything but ordinary. The two have had to draw distinctions between one another in curious ways.
Earlier this week, Sherman, for the first time in his 15-year congressional career, publicly released his federal income tax returns and challenged Berman to do the same.
“I think voters have a right to expect it,” Skelton said, “and at least Berman should answer the question whether he’s going to do it or not.”
Asked whether Berman would follow suit, a representative from the Berman campaign declined to comment.
Berman, meanwhile, has staked his candidacy on presenting himself as the more effective congressman, and in today’s release, the Berman campaign included quotes from a number of elected officials, including Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa, giving Berman primary credit for making the 405 project a reality and for expediting its timing.
“Congressman Berman was the one who did the heavy lifting and delivered the $130 million we needed to make the project real. Everybody knows that,” said Richard Katz in today’s statement. Katz serves on the Board of the Los Angeles County Metropolitan Transportation Authority.
Among those quoted in the Berman campaign’s release is Sherman himself, who acknowledged before a congressional committee in 2003 that Berman was the sponsor of the 405 freeway expansion. In that same testimony, Sherman called himself the lead sponsor of a different HOV lane project, the one along the I-5 freeway median between State Routes 134 and 170.”
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