Congress is in recess, which means it’s town hall season—especially for voters in the West San Fernando Valley.
Rep. Brad Sherman addressed more than 200 of his constituents at The Sherman Oaks Center for Enriched Studies at a town hall on Sunday afternoon, August 5. Six days earlier, Rep. Howard Berman had almost 200 in the auditorium at North Hollywood High School for what he called a “community meeting.”
As nearly everyone I spoke with at these town halls already knew, Berman and Sherman, both relatively liberal, Jewish, Democratic incumbents, are running against one another this November, a result of redistricting.
Redistricting is also to blame for the disclosure Berman made at the start of his town hall. Berman explained that the invitation to the event had initially gone out to the people he hopes to represent – voters who live in the newly drawn 30th Congressional District – and not to those voters he currently represents.
That was, in Berman’s words, “a no-no,” and Berman said he had paid back the treasury the amount of taxpayer dollars he had spent “the moment [he] found out, which was about four days” before the event. That solution wasn’t sufficient for Sherman’s campaign though, which called Berman’s disclosure “half-hearted,” and accused him of also making illegal robo-calls to voters in the new 30th district to promote another public event.
Sherman, who currently represents the majority of the new district – and beat Berman by 10 percentage points in the June primary—has held more than 161 town halls over the last 15 years. That’s a rate of almost one every month that he’s been in Congress, and it’s been a central part of his argument to voters as to why he deserves another term.
The impending Berman-Sherman runoff was off limits at these events (which isn’t to say it didn’t come up) but even though the public forums are intended as venues for public questions about policy and for individuals to make complaints about what they see as the shortcomings of government, more than a few attendees confessed to feeling unsatisfied.
Elisa Merva, a 30-year-old Navy veteran who came to Berman’s community meeting to voice her frustration with the service she’d experienced at the West Los Angeles Veterans Administration (VA) Hospital. Berman responded to her question by talking about his efforts to keep the VA hospital on the Valley-based Sepulveda campus, but Merva said found the congressman’s response to be “vauge.”
“To be honest, I feel that this is an issue that he’s completely uneducated on,” Merva said.
Berman did have his fair share of fans in the audience on Monday evening. Leila Shiralian spoke immediately after Merva, and she cried while praising the member of Berman’s staff who had been helping her and her husband negotiate and work with the Small Business Administration, Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation, and other governmental agencies.
Shiralian, who is in hoping to solve her problem through the court system, said she came to the town hall only to be heard by the congressman.
“I wanted him to take [my story] back to D.C.,” she said.
On Sunday, meanwhile, Diane and Alan Kimmel, Jewish registered Republicans who live in Tarzana and have lived in Sherman’s district for as long as he’s represented it, came to their first town hall in order to better decide whether to vote for Sherman or Berman.
“He’s nice enough, but I guess, I don’t know,” Diane Kimmel said. “We like the fact that I think he’s pretty strong on Israel.”
(As a side note, which way the Republicans in the 30th district will go may still be an open question, but I’ve yet to meet a Jewish Republican who’s not solidly backing Sherman, a result, most likely, of his willingness to buck the Obama administration, particularly on the subject of Iranian sanctions.)
Town halls are always a good place to spot gadflies – you know the type – the ones who show up, often with a pad of paper in hand, to ask questions that almost always are met with a salvo of boos or, better yet, elicit the kind of applause designed to drown out even the most insistent speaker.
Berman was faced last Monday evening with someone asking for “answers on President Obama’s citizenship.
Berman’s quick retort: “I thought a birth certificate was a pretty good answer.”
Sherman, meanwhile, has perfected the art of giving answers that are simultaneously polite and dismissive.
On Sunday, a white man with a halo of white hair complained that the Democratic party’s policy on immigration was “changing our demographics,” and asked Congressman Sherman to “admonish the immigrants not to have children” until they can afford to pay to support those children.
When the audience’s laughter died down, Sherman answered the question semi-seriously. First, he talked about the 1960s, when the United States had a policy of racial quotas for the numbers of legal immigrants who could enter the country. Then, after declaring that he thought, “the cultural diversity of this country is a fine thing,” Sherman said he couldn’t tell immigrants not to have children.
“I’ve had three in the last three years so I’d be really terrible as a poster child for that,” he said.
On Monday, Aug. 6, Berman is scheduled to hold a public hearing in coordination with the Federal Aviation Administration on helicopter noise in the Valley at Millikan Middle School in Sherman Oaks. The hearing begins at 6:30 p.m., and is expected to last two hours.
On Sunday, Aug 26, Sherman will hold a second general town hall meeting at Birmingham High School (17000 Haynes St., Lake Balboa, CA), from 3:00 - 4:30 p.m.