Always interested in the gritty and unpredictable side of participatory politics, I dropped in on Reps. Howard Berman and Brad Sherman, both of whom are vying to represent the newly reconfigured 30th congressional district, as they each hosted community meetings at San Fernando Valley schools last week.
These events were much different from The Jewish Journal debate that took place on Feb. 21 at Temple Judea between these two as well as the Republican in the race, Mark Reed. For that, Publisher and Editor-in-Chief Rob Eshman, reporter Jonah Lowenfeld and I talked at length in advance and exchanged e-mails to prepare our questions. But, as I learned at the community meetings, we missed some of the subjects that trouble people who are as worried about paying their mortgages as preventing Iran from making a nuclear bomb.
These are the issues that will shape the campaign, with the candidates reaching the voters in the 30th West Valley district through mailings, social media and public meetings.
First, a word about the two frontrunners.
Sherman, who says he has conducted 160 community meetings in his 15 years in Congress, appeared more relaxed at the forums than in the debate. There he mugged his way through the evening in an inappropriate manner, his face showing shock, disagreement and other emotions while Berman spoke. At the forum, Sherman was relaxed, at home — haimish.
Berman isn’t fancy either, but he seemed a bit rusty in the forum atmosphere. He has pretty much escaped stiff competition during his 29 years of representing a district with lines drawn to assure Democratic victory. Watching him is like observing a work in progress, as he calls on competitive skills he hasn’t needed since his rise in Democratic politics so many years ago. As the evening went on, he grew more at ease with tough questions, answering them in a forthright manner.
At 6:30 p.m. on Thursday, I walked into the auditorium of Robert A. Millikan Middle School in Sherman Oaks, which was substantially filled with Berman’s constituents. “What are you doing here?” Berman asked, surprised to see me just two days after the big debate. Thinking I actually should be home having a nice dinner with my wife instead of being at Millikan Middle School, I joked that I must be mentally ill. He responded with a quip: Showing up at the forum so soon after the debate was prima facie evidence of that. I laughed. He’s got sharp edges and a sense of humor to match.
The congressman spoke briefly, then opened the meeting to questions. A woman warned against costly American intervention in Syria, declaring we should be spending more money on schools: “I went to the ladies’ room [at the school],” she said, “and the bathroom was filthy.”
With all our preparation, my Jewish Journal colleagues and I couldn’t have put it better.
“I have read the stories of bombardments of innocent people,” Berman replied. “I have met him [Syrian President Bashar al-Assad]. He is a dictator who has no regard for human life. We would be better off if he were gone. But America cannot intervene.”
Then a man rose with his story. He had a high credit rating and Bank of America had promised to reduce his home loan’s interest rate after his divorce became final. But now, the bank won’t do it, because his ex-wife’s name was on the mortgage. He held an envelope full of papers, telling the story of his unsuccessful fight with the bank.
“It pisses me off to hear that story,” Berman responded. “You give me the details, and I will call the highest-ranking person at Bank of America.”
Another man offered an odd criticism, saying Berman wasn’t visible enough, even though “I call your office daily and have gone into your office several times.” The man said he feels he feels more familiar with other members of Congress, such as Democratic Rep. Jan Schakowsky, just through watching them on television. Berman replied he wasn’t interested in being part of the 24-hour news cycle. “For better or worse, you are stuck with a guy who spends his time getting legislation passed,” he said.
On Sunday, I drove to Reseda High School for Sherman’s community meeting. The parking lot was filled. Inside the auditorium, the crowd was about the same size as at Berman’s gathering. Sherman’s mother met me at the door and handed me a red comb imprinted with her son’s name,
phone number and Web site. Known as a non-stop campaigner, she was giving combs to everybody.
There was a man with a mortgage problem at the Sherman meeting, as well. The congressman had helped him with it and asked the man to briefly tell his story to the audience. The man had refinanced his $500,000 home, adding $300,000 more in debt. He then lost his job, saw his income cut it half, and, while maintaining his house payments, asked the bank to modify the mortgage. Like the man at the Berman meeting, he got the runaround until Sherman’s office wrote a letter to the bank, resulting in his monthly payment being reduced from $2,200 to $1,300.
A woman complained about labeling on genetically altered fruits and vegetables. A man asked Sherman to provide housing for homeless veterans — a touchy subject among Valley NIMBYs, reluctant to have the homeless among them. It’s a “controversial question and has many sides,” a cautious Sherman responded, but he said he is moving ahead with housing for 15 of them at the Sepulveda Veteran’s Administration facility.
Then a man rose and identified himself as Mike Powelson, running for Congress in the same district on the Green Party ticket. When he’s elected, Powelson said, he would offer Sherman a job. “I hope you will be a staff member,” he said. “Your experience will be of value.”
He hammered away at Sherman. Sherman said he didn’t want to debate. Powelson persisted, the audience booed him, and he finally sat down.
A woman complained about reduced appropriations for animal shelters. “Animals are animals,” she said. “They can’t speak for themselves. Sometimes we have to speak for them.” Sherman said such appropriations were out of his jurisdiction, but he personally had a 100 percent lifetime rating from the Humane Society
I couldn’t tell you how many events like these I have covered over the years, listening to people running for offices ranging from president of the United States to school board. Some of the questions are smart, others off point and a little goofy. But these exchanges never fail to reveal things about the candidate, the voting public and the country.
Bill Boyarsky is a columnist for The Jewish Journal, Truthdig and L.A. Observed, and the author of “Inventing L.A.: The Chandlers and Their Times” (Angel City Press).