Eve Kurtin didn’t intend to take a side in the race between Rep. Howard Berman and Rep. Brad Sherman.
In mid-2011, right around the time it became clear these two Jewish, pro-Israel Democrats would be running against one another for reelection in the newly drawn 30th Congressional District that includes her neighborhood of Mulholland Estates, Kurtin contributed $500 to each candidate’s campaign committee.
Then Sherman began criticizing Berman.
One TV ad from the Sherman campaign presented in a negative light the 163 foreign trips taken by Berman, the ranking Democrat on the House Committee on Foreign Affairs, during his nearly three decades in office. The same ad took Berman to task for “charging taxpayers $186,000 to lease a car,” a perk congressmen are entitled to, but of which Sherman has not availed himself. That sum, according to the Berman campaign, includes spending dating back to the 1980s.
“Really distasteful,” Kurtin said of Sherman’s attacks. “If it’s not a blatant lie, it is absolutely an insult and a distortion of the facts.” In May 2012, right around the time Sherman’s ad first aired, Kurtin donated an additional $1,000 to Berman.
A former president of Stephen S. Wise Temple, Kurtin was involved in getting her Reform synagogue more involved in the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC); Kurtin joins a chorus of prominent donors affiliated with pro-Israel groups who have rallied behind Berman.
Three former AIPAC presidents — Howard Friedman of Baltimore, Amy Friedkin of San Francisco and Robert Asher of Chicago — have donated to Berman. Other notable pro-Israel donors from across the country have given to Berman’s campaign at fundraisers headlined by former Secretary of State Madeleine Albright as well as Dennis Ross, who served as an adviser to President Barack Obama on Middle East affairs.
Many prominent Jewish donors from around Los Angeles have donated to Berman as well, and among Jewish voters in the 30th District, Berman’s support also appears to be stronger than Sherman’s. In the June primary, Sherman finished 10 points ahead of Berman, with 41 percent of the vote, but among Jewish voters, Berman came out ahead, according to a study conducted by political consultant Paul Mitchell.
Many Jewish and pro-Israel donors have decided not to take a side in this battle between incumbents, and more than a few have written checks to both candidates. But as the campaigns look ahead toward November, some who might have stayed neutral are picking sides.
“Brad Sherman is a nice guy, I’ve supported him, but he’s just another vote,” said Larry Weinberg of Beverly Hills, who is considered the father of modern-day AIPAC. “Howard is not just a leader; he is perhaps the most influential leader in the House, as far as the U.S.-Israel relationship is concerned.”
Like others interviewed for this article, Weinberg was careful to mention that AIPAC does not rate or endorse candidates, and that he was speaking for himself, not for any organization.
In an interview with The Journal, Jennifer Laszlo Mizrahi, the founder of The Israel Project, came out in favor of Sherman, instantly becoming the most prominent pro-Israel voice to endorse Sherman to date. (Other Sherman supporters reached for this article were unwilling to speak on the record.)
Mizrahi doesn’t dispute Berman’s seniority; indeed, she thinks his stature has cowed donors into supporting him.
“The fact is that Howard Berman has tremendous power, and sometimes people are afraid to speak truth to power,” Mizrahi said.
Mizrahi recently stepped down after 10 years as president of The Israel Project to launch her own public relations and government affairs firm. Mizrahi said she was speaking only as an individual and not for the global Israel advocacy organization she founded.
Mizrahi is a close friend of Sherman, and Sherman established The Israel Project’s board of advisers, of which Berman has since become a member. Mizrahi said she prefers Sherman’s policies vis-à-vis Israel —specifically on Iranian sanctions and on the strategies that might lead to a peaceful two-state resolution of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict — over Berman’s.
“I can tell you, as someone who cares deeply about peace in the Middle East, that it’s time for new leadership,” Mizrahi said. “Brad Sherman would be a better chairman of the Foreign Affairs Committee should the Democrats come back into power.”
If Sherman wins in November, attaining Berman’s spot on the Foreign Affairs Committee will not be automatic. Rep. Eliot Engel of New York has also said he would vie for the role of chairman, or ranking Democrat, should the Republicans maintain their majority in Congress.
Donna Bojarsky, an unpaid adviser to the Berman campaign, wondered whether Sherman is qualified for the committee position.
“When Israelis come to town, Howard gets the call,” she said, adding that when Israel’s Deputy Prime Minister Shaul Mofaz visited Washington, D.C., in June, the only Congressional office he visited was Berman’s.
“Brad isn’t even in any of those rooms,” Bojarsky said. “How does he want to be chair of the Foreign Affairs Committee if he doesn’t have any of the necessary relationships or experience?”
While Berman backers are far more likely to cite his style of diplomatic, behind-the-scenes deal-making as a reason he won their support, Sherman’s supporters appreciate what they see as Sherman’s much more public — and some say aggressive — approach.
By way of illustration, Sherman supporters regularly point to each congressman’s record regarding Iranian sanctions.
Berman sponsored the Comprehensive Iran Sanctions, Accountability and Divestment Act of 2010, a bill that instituted multilateral sanctions targeting companies that support Iran’s energy sector and against financial institutions that support Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps. To get it passed, Berman worked with the Obama administration to ensure that Russia and China joined the group of participating nations.
But the way Sherman supporters like Mizrahi see it, Sherman first began putting forward bills and amendments to strengthen sanctions on Iran as early as 2005. Berman’s sanctions bill — which Sherman has argued was unnecessarily delayed — was, according to Mizrahi, composed of legislative ideas that originated in bills and amendments proposed by other lawmakers, including Sherman.
And for Jarrow Rogovin, an L.A.-based manufacturer of dietary supplements who is a high-level AIPAC donor, a member of the Republican Jewish Coalition and a longtime Sherman supporter, Berman is responsible for delaying the imposition of sanctions against Iran.
“When Iran gets a nuclear bomb,” Rogovin said, “it will be a monument to Howard Berman and Barack Obama.”