If it seems difficult to discern the differences in the records of Reps. Howard Berman and Brad Sherman, the two Jewish Democratic incumbents running for re-election in 2012 in the newly redrawn 30th Congressional District in the West San Fernando Valley, last weekend at least offered some insights into their different campaign tactics.
Two local events illustrated their clear stylistic differences and hinted at a possible difference in their approaches toward a peaceful resolution for Israel and the Palestinians.
On Sunday, Aug. 28, Sherman spoke to more than 600 of his constituents at a town hall meeting at Reseda High School. The lawmaker was at ease, discussing how to jump-start the economy, defending President Obama’s health care legislation and deftly handling a crowd of people who didn’t always agree with him. Sherman estimated he holds more than a dozen such public meetings each year.
Berman, meanwhile, did not hold a town hall meeting in his district during the August recess.
He’s hardly the only congressman to skip the opportunity. According to a new study by the political organizing group No Labels, just 56 percent of the 430 congressional representatives planned to hold town hall meetings in their districts last month.
It’s not that Berman shies away from crowds — a fundraiser hosted by Steven Spielberg, Jeffrey Katzenberg and David Geffen scheduled for November is expected to draw more than 500 people. But the two congressmen’s styles are different. After Sherman’s two-hour town hall, he shook many hands, smiled at a few toddlers and posed for a bunch of pictures.
Meanwhile, Berman, according to a spokeswoman, was instead meeting throughout the recess with smaller groups of constituents in the district. Among those smaller events was Berman’s meeting on Aug. 23 with members and staff from the local chapter of the “pro-Israel, pro-Peace” lobbying group J Street, which suggests a second, more substantive distinction between the two congressmen, both widely seen as staunch supporters of Israel — albeit with different alliances.
The Berman meeting, according to Serena Zeise, J Street’s Southern California-Southwest regional director, lasted 45 minutes. J Street representatives also met the same day with aides in the district offices of Reps. Karen Bass, Adam Schiff, Xavier Becerra and Henry Waxman, as well as with staff in Sen. Barbara Boxer’s Los Angeles office.
The J Street meetings here were part of a national campaign to gain support for restarting negotiations between Israelis and Palestinians according to terms outlined by Obama in May. It’s an approach that has caused some controversy already: When Obama said the starting point for negotiations should be the 1967 borders, his words provoked a furor among both Republican and Democratic lawmakers, as well as from Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.
When Republican presidential hopeful Mitt Romney joined in the criticism, accusing Obama of throwing Israel “under the bus,” Berman defended the president, telling the Los Angeles Times in May that Romney was trying to “persuade Jews to shift their voting” from Democrats to Republicans, using Israel as a wedge.
Berman also reportedly said he believes Obama laid out his plan in an effort to head off the push by the Palestinians to unilaterally declare their statehood at the United Nations in September.
On its Web site, J Street expresses a similar sentiment: “The President is right that NOW is the time to move to achieve two states with UN action looming, Israel’s isolation growing and patience wearing thin in a region undergoing rapid transformation,” the text reads.
A group of 25 J Street supporters gathered at Leo Baeck Temple on Aug. 23 to hear about the day of local lobbying. David Axelrad, a member of J Street’s steering committee, said that although the impact of the meeting with Berman can’t yet be measured, the effort was still important.
“What I think is most important is that we made our presence felt,” Axelrad said.
As for Sherman, neither the congressman nor anyone in his office met with the J Street supporters, despite attempts by the group to set up a meeting.
“I leave it to my staff to try to schedule these meetings,” Sherman said, adding that he wasn’t aware that a request had been made.
“I tend to find myself in agreement with AIPAC far more than J Street,” he said in an interview on Aug. 28, referring to the American Israel Public Affairs Committee, a pro-Israel lobbying group that lends its support to Israel, whatever the ruling party. Unlike J Street, AIPAC chooses not to criticize Israeli policy.
Sherman said he believes Obama made a mistake in May, if only in his choice of words.
“I think it’s very bad phraseology,” Sherman said of the reference to 1967 borders. “I think we need negotiated borders, and peace, and a two-state solution, and the borders have to reflect realities on the ground and they have to reflect negotiations between the parties.”
“I’m not even sure J Street supports the phraseology,” Sherman added. “If they do, I disagree with them.”
On Aug. 29, Sherman spokesman Ben Fishel said that staffers in the congressman’s district office had spoken in person and on the phone with members of J Street in the weeks before the group’s day of lobbying meetings, but that no meeting had been set.
Fishel said district staffers were working to arrange a meeting between Sherman and representatives from J Street before the House goes back into session on Sept. 7.
“I don’t see it on the schedule yet, but I think they are working it out,” Fishel said on Aug. 29.
By Aug. 30, the meeting with Sherman had been set for Friday, Sep. 2, Zeise said.
“In the course of planning meetings for [J Street’s] National Day of Action, there was some back and forth but a meeting never materialized,” Zeise wrote in an email. “Since the initial request Congressmember Sherman’s staff has reached out and we are looking forward to meeting with him this week.”