As far as policy matters go, Democratic Reps. Howard Berman and Brad Sherman agree far more often than they differ. Over the course of their yearlong heated contest for re-election in the newly drawn district in the West San Fernando Valley, the few points of disagreement between these two congressmen have been investigated in more than a dozen public debates.
Now, in the wake of a blowup during a debate on Oct. 11 at Pierce College, which drew national attention when Sherman forcefully grabbed Berman around his shoulders and yelled, “You want to get into this?” one more disagreement between these veteran congressmen has come to light: Whether that altercation will alter the outcome of the election, now just weeks away.
Sherman, who for the past 10 years has represented a majority of the new district and beat Berman by 10 points in the June primary, was leading by double digits in a poll taken in September. But an independent poll conducted by Kimball Political Consulting on the Friday and Saturday after the incident suggested that while Sherman now leads Berman by about 6 percent among likely voters (32 to 26 percent), the remaining 42 percent remain undecided.
About one-third of likely voters had heard about the scuffle at Pierce College, and 29 percent of those voters were likely to vote for Berman as a result, as compared to 17 percent who were likely to go for Sherman. Twenty-four percent said the fight made them less likely to vote, and 30 percent said it had no effect.
Representatives from both the Berman campaign and from an allied super PAC supporting his candidacy declined to say how or whether they will use the altercation in campaign advertisements, but the Berman campaign’s senior adviser sounded a confident note after the release of the latest poll.
“We expect [Sherman’s] standing in this race to continue to decline as more voters become aware of his bizarre outburst,” Brandon Hall said in a statement on Oct. 16.
Sherman, meanwhile, has been downplaying the effect that the incident might have. “This may cost me the votes of 300 people,” Sherman told the Los Angeles Daily News on Oct. 12, “if [Berman’s campaign] can exploit the video.”
What impact — if any — the altercation will have on voters seeking to differentiate between, in the words of an NPR reporter, “two balding, bespectacled Jewish liberals with very similar voting records and rhyming names,” will depend on how those voters interpret what took place at Pierce College.
As is clear from video clips that have been shown on local and national news and had, as of Oct. 16, been seen by more than 235,000 people on YouTube, the scuffle between Sherman, 57, and the smaller Berman, 71, came in the midst of a heated disagreement.
Less clear is how two members of the same party could have such divergent views of what would seem to be a straightforward matter that they were arguing over — whether Berman wrote the immigration legislation that has become known as the DREAM Act.
The House of Representatives debated and passed the DREAM Act, which would have allowed some undocumented immigrants who arrived in the United States as young children to gain permanent residency provided that they met certain criteria, during the lame-duck session of Congress at the end of 2010.
That version of the legislation — which was then halted in the Senate by a filibuster — was sponsored by Berman. (President Barack Obama earlier this year used an executive order to implement a number of the act’s provisions.) Berman also introduced an earlier version of the bill, in 2007, and was an original co-sponsor of it in 2006, 2003, and 2001.
Sherman, meanwhile, signed on as co-sponsor in November 2010, just weeks before the debate over the bill took place.
But if Berman and Sherman were on the same side in 2010, at Pierce College, Sherman aggressively and repeatedly argued that Berman had not authored the earliest version of that legislation, then known as the Student Adjustment Act.
“Howard, Luis Gutierrez introduced that bill!” Sherman yelled into his microphone, just before the physical fracas occurred, referring to the Democratic congressman from Illinois. “You didn’t, and the official records of Congress will prove you wrong.”
On Oct. 12, the day after the debate, Gutierrez, who had already spent time in California supporting Berman earlier in the campaign, tweeted, “It is a matter of public record that Howard Berman wrote the DREAM Act and I am a co-sponsor.”
That same day, leaders in the movement for comprehensive immigration reform, immigrant rights advocates and a few of the young immigrants who were the target group for the legislation all confirmed that Berman was the original author of the legislation, and urged voters in the San Fernando Valley to support Berman over Sherman.
“This man [Berman] has represented the community of the San Fernando Valley, the immigrant community, the Latino community with an incredible level of integrity,” Angelica Salas, board chair of CHIRLAction Fund, said during a conference call with reporters on Oct. 12. “Sherman has not voted the wrong way, but he also rarely engages directly with the Latino and immigrant community in order to speak up on their issues.”
Nevertheless, Sherman has not backed away from the technical argument he made so forcefully at Pierce College.
“Howard deserves a lot of credit for his work on this for a lot of years,” Sherman said during a subsequent debate with Berman, aired on KPCC on Oct. 15, but argued that in the same way Berman has frequently slammed him for his legislative achievements — in 15 years, Sherman has sponsored three bills that have been passed by Congress, two of which named post offices — Sherman could legitimately apply Berman’s own standard to the DREAM Act and reasonably conclude that Berman hadn’t been its author, as former Rep. Chris Cannon, then a Republican from Utah, introduced the first version of Berman’s bill in 2001. In the official Congressional record, Berman’s name appears second.
Berman rejected Sherman’s argument.
“Luis Gutierrez says Howard Berman is the author of the DREAM Act; Chris Cannon says Howard Berman is the author of the DREAM Act, ‘The Dreamers’ say Howard Berman is an author of the DREAM Act,” Berman told talk-show host Larry Mantle of KPCC. “And Brad Sherman, nine years after we introduced it and just before it was coming up for a vote, finally added his name as a co-sponsor to this legislation.”
If the Berman campaign or its allies are seeking to use video of the altercation for their political benefit, they may have an uphill battle.
In interviews with 10 people on Oct. 15 who said they were registered to vote in the new 30th District, only two of them knew about the scuffle at Pierce College. Indeed, even after the two campaigns have spent more than $9 million combined to advance their candidates, those two voters were also the only ones who could name both Berman and Sherman, and neither seemed likely to change his mind because of what took place on Oct. 11.
Standing in the central square at Valley College, Bill Shaffer, a student, said he would be voting for Sherman because he has lived in Sherman Oaks for 20 years and has met the congressman. He saw the scuffle between Berman and Sherman on a cable news network and didn’t draw any conclusions.
“I just saw a couple of frustrated people in a room with a bunch of maniacs screaming,” Shaffer said.
At a coffee shop in Encino, Bill Steinberg said he’s thinking about supporting Berman, in part because Berman has the support of his congressional colleagues. But his wife and son, Steinberg said, are leaning in Sherman’s direction, and nobody in his household has changed his or her mind after the Pierce College incident.
“They’re both intense guys,” he said. “What is there to make of it?”