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Berman vs. Sherman?

California’s new citizen-led redistricting panel could force two Jewish Democrats into a face-off

by Jonah Lowenfeld

July 19, 2011 | 5:58 pm

Rep. Brad Sherman (D-Sherman Oaks), left, and Rep. Howard Berman (D-Van Nuys) testifying at a house subcommittee in 2003. The once-a-decade redistricting process this year could pit the two powerful veteran lawmakers against each other in a single district in the West San Fernando Valley.

Rep. Brad Sherman (D-Sherman Oaks), left, and Rep. Howard Berman (D-Van Nuys) testifying at a house subcommittee in 2003. The once-a-decade redistricting process this year could pit the two powerful veteran lawmakers against each other in a single district in the West San Fernando Valley.

Over the past two months, political observers have been keeping close watch on draft maps being released by California’s new, citizen-led redistricting panel. Though Jewish leaders haven’t been actively lobbying the Citizens Redistricting Commission on behalf of the community (see sidebar), they have been paying particular attention to the lines dividing the San Fernando Valley into new Congressional districts, which could pit two veteran Jewish, Democratic, staunchly pro-Israel Congressmen against one another for a single seat in the House of Representatives.

Rep. Howard Berman, the ranking Democrat and former chairman of the U.S. House Committee on Foreign Affairs, was first elected to Congress in 1982. He currently represents California’s 28th District, which includes about half of the San Fernando Valley and the Hollywood Hills. Rep. Brad Sherman, who was first elected in 1996, represents the 27th District, also in the Valley, which includes Northridge, Reseda and part of Burbank.

In the first draft of the new Congressional maps unanimously approved by the commission in June, Berman’s home in Van Nuys and Sherman’s in Sherman Oaks were drawn into the same district. That has not changed in subsequent working drafts — called visualization maps — released, without a vote by the commission, in mid-July.

Members of Congress are not required to live in their districts, and a race between these two experienced and well-resourced lawmakers is by no means inevitable, but also does not come entirely as a surprise. In the eyes of many political observers, a Berman versus Sherman contest is 10 years overdue and is an inevitable consequence of California’s new redistricting panel and the continued growth of the Latino population in the Valley. Both men have said that unless the district lines change dramatically, each plans to run in the West San Fernando Valley district where they both live.

Berman, 70, is considered something of an elder statesman in the Democratic Party. His Web site states the years in which he graduated from UCLA as an undergraduate (1962) and law student (1965), but it doesn’t mention that Berman co-founded the Los Angeles County Young Democrats with fellow Bruin and Congressman Henry Waxman.

Berman’s supporters often talk about his work in pursuing anti-piracy legislation, an area of particular interest to Hollywood, and they tout his relentless support for Israel. They talk less about the degree to which Berman had a hand in orchestrating the last round of California’s once-a-decade redistricting process.

Sherman, 56, is known for spending a good deal of time in his district. When he’s in Washington, he does not hesitate to speak up — to anyone. In June, Sherman’s amendment to defund military action in Libya as part of the military spending bill passed in the House with bipartisan support —and snubbed President Barack Obama.  Sherman framed the amendment in strict legal and constitutional terms, accusing the president of acting in violation of the War Powers Act.

As the ranking Democrat on the House Foreign Affairs Subcommittee on International Terrorism, Nonproliferation and Trade, Sherman co-sponsored a bill in April to stop U.S. companies from servicing the American-made engines on Iranian aircraft. But his legislative interests range widely, and, in June, he introduced a bill that would prohibit states or cities from outlawing or regulating male circumcision.

Sherman’s sense of humor tends toward the dry, and when he finds a joke he likes, he’s prone to reuse it. According to the Federal Election Commission, Sherman spent $9,500 on “COMBS” in 2009-2010. Sherman, who is bald, has given out promotional combs, printed with his office phone number, since at least 2003. Another instance of Sherman’s joke recycling popped up in a daily newspaper covering events at the Capitol. When his first daughter was born, in January 2009, Sherman told The Hill, “Mother and daughter are doing splendidly and father is expected to recover.” He made the same remark when his second daughter was born the following year.

For now, from all appearances, Sherman and Berman are working in concert — last month, for example, Berman signed on as a co-sponsor of Sherman’s bill protecting the right to perform male circumcision. But in spite of the proximity of their residences, their shared party affiliation and the fact that their last names rhyme, there reportedly is tension between the two congressmen, and that can be traced back at least as far as the last redistricting process.

The last round of redistricting was done by politicians, and no Congressman had more influence over that process than Berman, because it was his brother, political consultant Michael Berman, who was hired by most of the 32 incumbent Democrats to act as a redistricting consultant.

According to a 2001 Los Angeles Times article, Sherman was displeased with the way Michael Berman redrew his district, and he was reportedly overheard saying, “Howard Berman stabbed me in the back.”

If the goal of the 2001 lines was to protect incumbents from both parties across the state, it worked. In the last decade, just one of California’s 53 congressional seats changed party hands.

In the San Fernando Valley, in particular, the lines created two districts that don’t appear adjacent so much as interlocking. The one that includes Sherman’s home meanders around the district in which Howard Berman lives. Critics said the district lines unfairly diluted the impact of Latino voters by dividing them between two districts, in both of which they were a minority.

A Latino civil rights group challenged the lines in 2002, but was unsuccessful.

What has changed now — along with the continued growth of the Latino population in the Valley and across the state — is the way redistricting in California is done. In 2008, voters passed Proposition 11, and then, in 2010, passed Proposition 20 and rejected Proposition 27, giving the power to draw California’s Congressional, State Assembly, Senate and Board of Equalization district lines to a 14-member commission. The newly named commissioners — required to include five Democrats, five Republicans and four affiliated with neither major party — were told to draw lines without considering where incumbents live or what the previously drawn districts look like.

And so, at the beginning of 2011, and with increased intensity in the past two-and-a-half months, that commission has been working to draw lines dividing California into new political districts. They are guided by data from the 2010 U.S. Census, and are considering oral and written testimonies from citizens, as well as from organizations representing ethnic groups, special interests and certain regions.

On July 9, the commission announced it would not be voting on a second draft of maps; that same day, the panel also distributed working draft maps of the congressional districts in and around Los Angeles. Though the exact boundaries had changed from the first draft, issued on June 10, the two most important political and demographic facts about the new San Fernando Valley Congressional districts did not: Most of the voters in the Valley’s western district are white, and most of the voters in the eastern district are Latino.

Berman and Sherman both spoke with The Journal last week, and while each acknowledged that the lines being discussed remain provisional, each one reiterated his preference to run in the West San Fernando Valley district, where each believes he has a better chance of being re-elected.

“I do hope to run where half the voters, at least, are familiar with my work as their Congressman,” Sherman said, referring to the proposed West San Fernando Valley district.

Sherman estimates that 60 percent of his current constituents live within the boundaries of the new proposed district, and guesses an additional 30 percent of those who live there were in the somewhat different district he represented in the 1990s.

Berman was similarly unequivocal about his desire to run in the West Valley. “I clearly intend to run for reelection,” he said, putting to rest any rumors that he might consider retiring. “I’m going to wait until the district lines are set before I make any kind of announcement or start asking people to sign up with me.”

And, Berman said he believes “a significant amount” of the voters in the proposed western district have been his constituents in the past. He therefore expressed a strong preference for running there.

Both the eastern and western San Fernando Valley districts are considered reliably Democratic, and many analysts believe that Democrats could pick up additional Congressional seats in California as a result of redistricting. Still, party leaders are looking for ways to protect incumbents, especially ones with experience and seniority.

“Frankly, I think it would be a tremendous loss for the Los Angeles community, not to mention the Jewish community, to lose either of these guys,” Eric Bauman, chair of the Los Angeles Democratic Party and vice chair of the California Democratic Party, said.

One need only look at the number of California Republicans currently chairing committees in the House to see how much seniority the state’s Congressional representatives have accumulated. Buck McKeon (R-Santa Clarita) chairs Armed Services, Dan Lungren (R-Gold River) is chair of Administration, Darrell Issa (R-San Diego) is head of Oversight and Government Reform, and David Dreier (R-San Dimas) chairs the Rules Committee. Within committees and subcommittees, it is the chair who often gets to decide which bills get priority and which ones don’t.

This gives the more senior representatives a great deal of power, and that is why there’s so much concern about the possibility of losing experienced Democratic lawmakers like Berman and Sherman.

Story continues after the jump.

Waxman, the ranking Democrat (and former chairman) of the House Energy and Commerce Committee, said that he, like many incumbents, opposed the effort to create the new redistricting commission, in part because of what it would mean for California’s representation in Washington.

“I think we ought to have redistricting commissions,” Waxman said, “but it ought to be in every state. For California to be unique in the country, where redistricting is done without regard to continuity of representation ... in a Congress where seniority matters so greatly in terms of power, it seems to me to put California at a disadvantage.”

In 2010, many of Waxman’s Democratic colleagues joined with labor unions and big political donors in financially supporting Proposition 27, which would have abolished California’s commission. But voters rejected that measure, and now the commission has drawn lines that pave the way for a Berman-Sherman matchup.

Many Israel supporters are hoping that won’t happen.

“The lines are not final, and I think that people are hoping that this problem will go away,” said Jennifer Laszlo Mizrahi, founder and president of The Israel Project. “I hope that in August, when the final lines are announced, these lines are changed.”

Mizrahi has given money to Sherman’s campaigns and calls him “one of my best friends.” But, as the head of a nonprofit, she tried to “steer clear of politics.”

“I signed his ketubah, and I have huge respect for him,” Mizrahi said of Sherman. “But I have respect for every member of our board of advisers,” she added. Sherman founded The Israel Project’s board of advisers; Berman joined more recently.

“It’s very unfair the way the California redistricting process is having stalwart supporters of Israel being forced to run against each other,” Mizrahi added. 

To be sure, some Jewish Republicans have a different perspective. “I would rather see pro-Israel Hispanic Republican representatives than partisan Jewish Democrats who never challenge the hostility of President Obama,” Larry Greenfield, a fellow in American Studies at the Claremont Institute, said.

But Republicans are by no means happy with the work of the commission so far. According to the Ventura County Star, the state GOP chairman said that if the lines set to be unveiled on July 28 look anything like the visualizations released last week, his party would launch a referendum to overturn the maps.

While most Jewish observers are following Mizrahi’s lead and not taking sides on a still-hypothetical race between two reliable pro-Israel incumbents, some are indicating where their support would go if Berman and Sherman were to go head to head.

Waxman, who has known and worked with Berman for more than 40 years, said he has also worked with Sherman in Congress and hoped that the two incumbents would be able to be re-elected in separate Congressional districts. If push comes to shove, however, Waxman said he would support Berman.

“There should be no question about it,” he said.

As reasons, Waxman cited Berman’s record of support for Israel, his expertise in foreign policy and his ability to sway the opinions of fellow lawmakers in both parties — but no single quality is more important, in Waxman’s view, than Berman’s seniority in Congress.

“He is the top Democrat on the Foreign Affairs committee,” Waxman said. “He has years of experience. He is highly regarded. We are very lucky to have him play the role he plays. And I think the country is lucky.

“A freshman Democrat is not going to take his place,” Waxman continued. “Brad Sherman is not going to take his place.”

Donna Bojarsky, a public policy consultant who is active in the Jewish community and the entertainment industry, said she has had “dozens of conversations” in recent months with Jewish and political leaders about the impact redistricting could have on the San Fernando Valley’s representatives.

Bojarsky, who calls Berman a longtime friend, said those conversations started in November 2010, when Democrats lost the House in the mid-term election and the Citizens Redistricting Commission won the power to draw California’s Congressional lines. She said the people she spoke with were singularly focused on keeping Berman in Congress.

“He has a unique ability to both speak to the Jewish community, to speak to their concerns, but also internationally he commands tremendous respect,” Bojarsky said of Berman.

Mel Levine, who served in Congress from 1983 to 1993, said he has financially supported both Berman and Sherman, and considers them both friends. And while he said the ideal would be for both Berman and Sherman to return to Congress, he expects many other Jewish and pro-Israel leaders to line up with Waxman and Bojarsky in supporting Berman, should he actually have to face Sherman.

“Hopefully, no choices will have to be made,” Levine said. “At the same time, I am clear that the pro-Israel world and the national and local Jewish worlds understand Howard’s very unique role and will consider his staying in Congress to be absolutely essential.”

When asked to name individuals whose endorsements might sway voters to support him in the event of a race against Berman, Sherman objected to the idea that one citizen has any more “clout” than another.

“I will send you the voter registration file for those communities that are likely to be in a San Fernando Valley district,” Sherman said. “The idea that in a democracy, anybody’s got clout and other people don’t have clout — did I mention I was a Democrat?”

Both Berman and Sherman have significant financial resources at their disposal. According to the most recent data filed with the Federal Election Commission, Berman raised $577,560 in the first six months of the year, and had $1,507,122 cash on hand as of June 30. Sherman reported having raised $549,494 so far in 2011 and having $3,697,681 cash on hand.

Berman, speaking before the exact numbers became public, was unworried about a funding gap. “The one thing I’d say on this subject is that I will not lose because I am inadequately resourced,” Berman said.

The two incumbents’ records in fundraising have led to much speculation about whether Berman or Sherman might be willing to run in one of the districts adjacent to the West San Fernando Valley district both prefer.

Howard Welinsky, chair of Democrats for Israel, said he is dubious that a Sherman versus Berman race is going to take place, because both have other options.

“Sherman has the option of Ventura County,” Welinsky said, referring to a proposed district that includes much of the area currently represented by Rep. Elton Gallegly (R-Ventura), which appears to be leaning Democratic. “And, of course, Berman has a viable option in the East Valley seat,” Welinsky said.

But how good are those options? Sherman has said he is not interested in running in Ventura, and whether Berman has a shot to win in the majority-Latino district is not clear.

On June 10, just hours after the commission released the first draft of the congressional districts, Los Angeles City Councilman Tony Cardenas, a former State Assemblyman and prominent Latino leader, announced that he would run for Congress in the proposed East Valley seat. According to the Federal Election Commission Web site, David R. Hernandez, a Republican, also has declared his intent to run there, and other Latino leaders are said to be considering the possibility of running there.

Levine said that the scenario involving Sherman running in Ventura County was the “likely and desirable result.”

“It leaves open the strong likelihood that you not only have a Hispanic representative, but that Berman, [Rep. Adam] Schiff [D-Burbank] and Sherman all get returned to Congress, but in somewhat different configurations than they hold now,” Levine said.

What looks “desirable” to Levine, for Sherman is anything but. His assessment of his chances of winning re-election in the proposed Ventura seat come down to numbers.

“You look at the current draft of the West San Fernando Valley district [and it includes]  60 percent of people I currently represent and another 30 percent I used to represent 10 years ago,”  Sherman said. “You compare that to the Ventura County seat and the numbers are zero and 15.”

Berman and Sherman aren’t the only incumbents who might ultimately be drawn into the same district; the 2010 ballot measure that created the redistricting commission specified that decisions about boundaries were not to take account of existing district lines, the partisan makeup of any proposed district or the locations of incumbent officials’ residences.

Bauman, of the Democratic Party, said party leaders are working across the state to minimize the number of districts in which incumbents would be pitted against one another.

But neither Sherman nor Berman said he had been approached by anyone in the party to discuss the possibility of running in any district other than the one in the West San Fernando Valley.

And both lawmakers said there has been no talk of another job being offered as an incentive to bow out of the race.

“That I’d call a hypothetical question,” Berman said. “My plans are to run for re-election, and the only reason to run for re-election is because I think my chances of winning re-election are quite good.”

“I do not expect any other position to become available, and I have been independent and pointed in my questions, so I have not positioned myself to seek an appointment to any executive branch position,” Sherman said.

“But, you know, there are lots of ways this could work out,” Sherman added.

The commission’s final lines are expected to be released on or around July 28 and must be certified by a bipartisan supermajority of the 14-member commission by Aug. 15.

That supermajority must consist of three Democratic commissioners, three Republicans and three affiliated with neither major party. If such a voting bloc can’t be assembled, however, the task of drawing district lines would go straight to the California Supreme Court.

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