Democratic incumbent Brad Sherman successfully hit a nerve with his accusation that challenger Randy Hoffman's Magellan Systems has somehow endangered Israeli security by selling navigational equipment to Saudi Arabia.
Hoffman, the Republican candidate, was both a founder and the president of Magellan Systems Corporation, which manufacturers hand-held satellite communications equipment. During Operation Desert Storm, the U.S. military used a product known as the Magellan GPS (Global Positioning Satellite) to help coordinate maneuvers. Gen. Colin Powell, in a letter written to Hoffman in August (more than seven years after the Gulf War), lauded GPS receivers as "one of the most important pieces of equipment in the war."
But Sherman, a member of the House International Relations Committee, contends that Magellan's sale of its equipment (including nonmilitary GPS) to Saudi Arabia does nothing to prevent the Saudis from turning around and selling that same equipment to the terrorists who threaten Israel.
"I guess they're relying on the Zionists in Saudi Arabia to resist that," Sherman sarcastically remarked.
Hoffman's camp has, in turn, accused the congressman of essentially playing the race card in this heavily Jewish district. Hoffman and his campaign manager, Todd Slosek, note that there is a significant difference between the military GPS made available to U.S. servicemen and the commercial GPS sold in Saudi Arabia -- the United States has full control over the military satellite.
"He's trying to scare the Jewish community with these outlandish, unsubstantiated allegations," said Slosek. "Magellan could not sell to Sudan or Syria; they're terrorist nations. Do you think [Israeli Internal Security Minister] Avigdor Kahalani would have met with Randy if he thought Randy's company was selling to Israel's enemies?"
The meeting between Kahalani and Hoffman took place during the latter's June "fact-finding mission" to Israel.
The two congressional candidates, who are vying to represent a district that encompasses an area from Thousand Oaks to Sherman Oaks, began sparring in an almost friendly manner back in June. Hoffman entered the race with serious credentials: a Harvard MBA, a CEO of his own high-tech company at 30, he won the endorsements of Mayor Richard Riordan and Sheriff Sherman Block.
But their war of words has continued to escalate as the election neared.
On reproductive rights, both candidates say they are pro-choice. Hoffman, however, sets certain limits: no late-term abortions unless the mother's life is at risk; no public funding for family-planning programs overseas that include funding abortions; no funding of abortions for military women or even for the poor unless the mother's health is at risk and she is truly destitute.
These exemptions prompted Sherman to label his opponent as "not pro-choice but multiple choice." Sherman voted against the recent congressional bill that prohibits late-term abortions, because the bill contained no exceptions for women whose lives or reproductive health were at risk.
On another hot-button issue, Social Security, the candidates differ radically. Sherman believes that maintaining a strong economy will bolster the present system over the long run. He also spoke of having a national dialogue on the subject, enlisting the help of the American Association of Retired Persons and the Concord Coalition, a nonpartisan balanced-budget group, as well as giving trustees more leeway to properly invest Social Security funds.
Hoffman, on the other hand, wants to allow private citizens to set aside 10 percent of their earnings in tax-exempt passbook savings accounts. He bristles when asked if that is not the same thing as "privatizing" Social Security, an unpopular idea among seniors.
"Privatizing has become a term for investing Social Security funds in the stock market and putting those funds at risk," Hoffman said. "Why would I want to risk money that people like my mother and 33 million others rely on?"
As for education, Hoffman said that he favors allowing parents to set up "educational savings accounts," which could help those with children in any type of school, public or private. However, Sherman's campaign manager, Peter Loge, said that ESAs are no more than another term for vouchers, which Sherman opposes because it would decimate funding for already beleaguered public schools.
But beyond these issues, Sherman believes it is the Monica Lewinsky matter that will influence voters on election day.
"It's made this election center on whether to drag [the impeachment process] out for another year or whether to wrap it up," he said. "If the Republican Party can pick up 20 seats around the country like mine, they will view it as a mandate to destroy the president slowly.
"I want to emphasize that it's nobody's fault but his - both the behavior he engaged in and how he dissembled about it. But just when we in Congress start to get angry, we remember he's done some very good things for this country."