When Rep. Howard Berman and Rep. Brad Sherman, both Democrats, and Republican newcomer Mark Reed debated on Feb. 21 in a gathering sponsored by The Jewish Journal, the questions posed to the three candidates running for congress in the 30th District by Journal Publisher and Editor-in-Chief Rob Eshman and Journal columnist Bill Boyarsky, as well as by this writer, focused largely on foreign policy, specifically in relation to Iran. But if voters were hoping to see clear, unequivocal distinctions between the two experienced lawmakers on this pressing issue, they likely were disappointed.
Berman and Sherman, who have spent a combined 45 years representing neighboring San Fernando Valley districts in Congress, battled over who has been the stronger backer of sanctions against Iran.
“I have been pressing for sanctions since 1998,” Sherman said near the start of the 90-minute debate. “I have criticized every secretary of state for not imposing those sanctions, and I have introduced by far the strictest bill to impose sanctions on Iran.”
Moments later, Berman touted his own efforts.
“I’m the author of the toughest sanctions that have ever been imposed on Iran, and the administration is implementing them, just the way they should be,” he said.
As to whether the Obama administration’s sanctions on Iran were having an effect, a slight difference between the two candidates appeared to emerge.
“It’s working,” Berman said, listing the falling value of Iran’s currency and the country’s difficulty in exporting its crude oil as evidence that the current sanctions have teeth. “Pursue this course with tougher sanctions on the central bank and on all aspects of Iranian behavior and you will see them abandon their nuclear weapons program.”
Sherman disagreed. “While it is true that the Obama administration has done more than prior administrations to sanction Iran,” he said, “it isn’t nearly enough.”
If nuanced observation and a knowledge of the inner workings of Congress are required to determine which of the two incumbents stands as the stauncher supporter of sanctions against Iran, it is far easier to tell the difference between them and Reed, who dismissed the sanctions so far as ineffective and seemed more inclined toward the option of military action by the United States.
“America has an obligation as the world’s superpower to take the lead on this,” said the Republican, who is running his second campaign for Congress in the San Fernando Valley. “If America doesn’t do that, then I am in support of Israel actually taking out the nuclear facilities.”
More than 500 people gathered at Temple Judea in Tarzana to hear from three of the candidates in a race that has been the focus of local and national media attention ever since it became clear that new congressional district lines would pit Berman and Sherman against one another in this West San Fernando Valley District.
In recent months, Berman and Sherman have each announced their endorsements from unions, local Democratic Party groups and public officials from all levels. Sherman has won nine union endorsements; Berman has won four. Endorsements from California’s Democratic congressmen broke down 23-2 in Berman’s favor, and Berman also has the support of the state’s two U.S. senators. Locally, Sherman has the backing of five Los Angeles City Council members, including four who represent most of the new 30th District. All five Los Angeles County supervisors are supporting Berman.
And while voters can wait until the June primary to decide whom to support, many donors already have given to one campaign or the other.
Berman, who raised more than $1 million in the last quarter of 2011, received donations from many of the Israeli-American philanthropists who head the Israeli Leadership Council (ILC).
“They both are very strong supporters of Israel,” ILC co-chair Eli Tene said of Sherman and Berman. Tene gave $2,500 to Berman’s campaign in December, one of four leaders of the ILC to make a four-figure donation. “It’s a shame that we need to decide between the good and the good.”
One ILC director, Adam Milstein, gave $1,000 to Sherman’s campaign in July 2011, and Tene said he didn’t see any consensus in the Israeli-American community as to which candidate deserved their support.
“It has to do with who they know,” Tene said.
Stanley Black, a Beverly Hills-based real estate developer who has given large gifts to many Los Angeles Jewish nonprofits, knows both Sherman and Berman. He said he wasn’t going to decide between the two and has given money to both campaigns.
“They’re good guys, both of them,” Black said. “They support Israel. I support them both.”
For his part, Reed’s fundraising operation doesn’t appear to have kicked into gear yet — he raised $3,350 in the last three months of 2011 and had just over $3,000 in cash on hand at the end of that year — but his answers at the debate appealed to some in the audience.
“He’s more hawkish on Middle East issues than either of the incumbents,” said Jeff Leib, a member of Temple Judea who describes himself as a “Republocrat” and is supporting Reed’s candidacy.
At the debate, Leib and his wife watched the audience when Reed was speaking, to gauge their reactions.
“We were looking around to see the faces,” he said, “and the nods when Mark spoke, from the people wearing the ‘I’m with Howard’ buttons, were amazing.”
This June, for the first time, Californians will vote in primaries that include all candidates, regardless of party affiliation. If no single candidate wins an outright majority, the top two candidates will advance to a run-off in November.
In spite of their status as incumbents, their large reserves of campaign cash and their name recognition, it’s possible that either Berman or Sherman might not finish in the top two in June. The two polls to have been made publicly available, one of which was conducted by the Sherman campaign, suggest that Berman wouldn’t make the cut.
And an extended battle for the Republican presidential nomination could further bolster Reed’s chances of finishing in first or second place.
“In past primary elections, the vote in [the 30th Congressional District] has been around 56 percent Democratic and 38 percent Republican,” Democratic consultant Paul Mitchell wrote in a recent newsletter. “And if [Rick] Santorum makes a strong stand on Super Tuesday, we could see that Republican turnout surge. That would make it mathematically tough for both Berman and Sherman to make it to November.”
Footage from Feb. 21 debate.