Sherman lays into Berman in four-way Congressional debate

In 2001, the last time the lines of congressional districts were redrawn, Rep. Brad Sherman (D-Sherman Oaks) so hated the way that the San Fernando Valley was sliced into districts that he reportedly said that Rep. Howard Berman (D-Van Nuys) “stabbed me in the back.”

In 2011, unlike a decade ago when Berman’s brother Michael was responsible for drawing district lines that would protect incumbents, new district lines were drawn over the course of a year by an independent panel of citizens, and the process has left Sherman and Berman running against each other in the same West San Fernando Valley district. On Jan. 5, at the first face-off among four candidates seeking to represent the new 30th Congressional District (the other two are both Republicans: businessman/actor Mark Reed and writer Susan Shelley), it was Sherman who wielded the metaphorical knife.

While Berman, who has been in Congress since 1983, used his allotted three opening minutes to introduce himself as an experienced and effective lawmaker and touted a long list of accomplishments — including securing federal funds to expand the 405 freeway and establishing the Santa Monica Mountains Conservancy — Sherman, the last candidate to introduce himself, began by attacking his one-time colleague almost immediately.

“My friend Howard talks about leadership,” Sherman, an eight-term incumbent, said in his opening statement. “It’s important that you lead in the right direction.”

Sherman pointed to his unsuccessful effort to stop the 2008 $700 billion federal bank bailout, a move that seemed obstructionist to some when the crisis first broke but today appears to have anticipated the future direction of public opinion. “My friend,” Sherman said, referring to Berman, “was on the other side.”

Throughout the 90-minute debate, Sherman assailed Berman on the issues, including Berman’s vote in favor of free-trade agreements and the financial support Berman is expected to receive from the independent expenditure committees known as Super PACs.

Sherman’s fierce criticisms notwithstanding, the two Jewish Democrats have very similar voting records.

On many major issues, the two sitting congressmen found themselves in agreement. They both defended President Barack Obama’s 2009 health care law and the 2009 stimulus package, and both said additional stimulus of one sort or another is needed to help push along the U.S. economic recovery.

In response to a question about whether congressmen enjoy too many perks, Berman dismissed the question as “mythology” that helps to feed a process of “cynicism and discredit of our institutions.”

Sherman, when it was his turn to speak, simply said, “In this case, Howard pretty much got it right.”

The similarities between the two incumbents’ views was made that much more evident by the presence at the debate of two Republican candidates. For the first time this year, all candidates will face off in a single primary in June, regardless of party. If no candidate wins an outright majority, the two top vote getters will advance to a runoff in November.

Neither Reed, who ran unsuccessfully against Sherman in 2010, nor Shelley has ever held public office before. Shelley’s campaign hasn’t registered with the Federal Election Commission because it has not yet spent or raised $5,000. Both Republican candidates positioned themselves as outsiders, advocating for limited government, staking out positions that might be a tough sell in a district with twice as many registered Democrats as Republicans.

The debate, sponsored by the Woodland Hills-Tarzana Chamber of Commerce, touched only momentarily on foreign policy matters. When the entire group was asked whether they would support Israel taking preemptive action against alleged Iranian nuclear weapons development sites, Sherman said he had been an early advocate for sanctions against Iran, while Berman talked about his role in passing those sanctions in Congress at the end of last year.

Shelley, who is Jewish, said she would support an Israeli air strike against Iranian nuclear sites. Reed went one step further. “What I support, before that, is a preemptive strike by America on Iran,” he said.

Both incumbent congressmen are considered staunch Israel supporters, and many in the Jewish community had hoped this internecine battle could have been avoided.

But a battle is exactly what the more than 300 people who gathered in an empty retail space at a Woodland Hills shopping mall witnessed that evening. Sherman criticized Berman for his support of free-trade agreements, and Sherman’s opposition to those agreements has helped win him the endorsements of seven major labor unions in this race so far.

“I love organized labor,” Berman countered, arguing that erecting trade barriers in the United States resulted in fewer American jobs. “But just because I love them doesn’t mean I have to agree with them every time.”

But Sherman’s most frequently repeated criticism of Berman focused on the multiple Super PACs that are planning to support Berman.

Independent expenditure committees are allowed to accept unlimited donations from corporations and individuals and then may spend that money in support of or opposition to a particular candidate, provided they do not coordinate their actions with the candidate’s campaign.

Wielding a poster-size reproduction of a letter he had sent to his Democratic opponent one day earlier, Sherman asked Berman to sign a pledge to forgo any advantage derived from outside money groups. Berman had said he hoped a constitutional amendment would eliminate Super PACs; Sherman’s pledge would commit the candidates to donate to the U.S. Treasury an amount of money from their own campaign funds equivalent to the amount spent by any Super PACs on their behalf.