The Howard Berman-Brad Sherman campaign war

I’ve covered many political campaigns, but none quite like Berman versus Sherman.

Reps. Howard Berman and Brad Sherman really seem to hate one another. When Sherman put his arm around Berman’s shoulders in a belligerent manner during their recent debate, he edged close to the line that separates the acceptable from the bizarre. “Congressman Brad Sherman always was a little goofy,” writer Kevin Modesti commented in the Daily News.

Political campaigns are often rough, but the personal tone of this one has earned it a place among Los Angeles political legends. Take for example the debate that took place a day before their encounter that turned physical.

As always, Sherman started with a lame joke, about being from “America’s best-named city, Sherman Oaks.” And he worked in his mom, a frequent presence at his events. Meanwhile, Berman cringed at every word. His pained face reflected wonderment that he — who has talked to presidents and prime ministers — was on the same platform with someone he held in such low regard.

In turn, Sherman treated Berman with no respect, dismissing his opponent’s legislative record, as if he were an old hack given to taxpayer-financed junkets. Sherman portrayed himself as one of the most influential members of Congress, in the center of action, implying that Berman is only a spectator. Berman simmered. The mutual dislike was visible, and only the firmness of the League of Women Voters moderator kept the debate from getting out of hand, as it did the next day.

This animosity, and the way it fascinates journalists, detracts from the importance of the election in Los Angeles’ recent political history.

Democratic party insiders consider the contest a gigantic waste of time and money. Two Democrats are using vast amounts of money for their campaigns, funds that could have been used for reclaiming the party’s majority in the House of Representatives.

But that traditional view ignores the story of why Berman and Sherman find themselves in the same 30th District.

As the demographics of the San Fernando Valley changed, and the once largely white suburban area became more Latino, it was clear that the district Berman had long represented should have a member of Congress who reflects the new electorate.

Taking reapportionment out of the political hands of state legislators, voters created a commission that drew districts around the state approximating demographic realities. In the process, the commission created a district that was bad news for Berman, whose previous district had been gerrymandered for him by his brother Michael and their political pals in Sacramento. The commission, seeing the area had become strongly Latino, created a new district that reflects the population change, leaving Berman and Sherman to vie for the same seat in a new 30th District.

This changing population has made political campaigning difficult. That’s because the district sprawls across a wide stretch of the west Valley, with a varied array of potential voters. The trick in this — and in past Valley campaigns — is to figure out how to reach residents with messages that will appeal to them, and inspire them to vote. As the election now moves into its final and possibly most important phase, the battle will be fought with mailed advertising, commercials on Valley cable stations and in online advertisements flashing across computer screens.

“The Sherman campaign has the resources for a powerful multimedia finish in the final weeks of the campaign,” said Parke Skelton, chief strategist for Sherman. Sherman’s campaigners, noting that his old congressional district encompasses most of the new district, say the congressman’s lead has been insurmountable from the start.

Last week, the Sherman campaign released a poll conducted by the Feldman Group showing Sherman leading Berman 51 percent to 26 percent, with 24 percent undecided (the margin of error is plus or minus 4.4 percentage points). Those figures are about the same as what earlier surveys showed. The polling numbers, plus the fact that Sherman had previously represented a majority of the constituents, has led many political observers to conclude that Sherman will win.

But the Berman campaign has something going for it, as well. Although Sherman campaign chief Skelton pointed out Sherman’s campaign is raising more money than Berman’s, financier Marc Nathanson, who heads a pro-Berman super PAC, told me, “We’re raising money and doing fine.”

Brandon Hall, who is running the Berman campaign, showed his ability to target voters when he ran Democratic Sen. Harry Reid’s upset re-election campaign in Nevada in 2010. In his book “The Victory Lab,” which describes new, technologically advanced methods of targeting voters, journalist Sasha Issenberg told how the Reid campaign found persuadable Republicans. Using surveys, marketing data and other sources of information, campaign aides found pockets of libertarian Republicans living along Lake Tahoe. In advertising directed toward them, the Reid campaign played up the Democratic candidate’s conservative stance on social issues. Reid won the election by five points, his margin boosted by those upscale libertarians, Issenberg wrote.

Hall said the Berman campaign will use some of the same targeting techniques in its advertising. Nathanson told me the debate fracas would be among the topics featured in the ads.

As they were for Reid, persuadable Republicans will be prime targets on both sides, although they are more important for Berman, who needs to overcome the Sherman voter population advantage. Political consultant Douglas Jeffe wrote on the Fox&Hounds blog that Republicans constitute between 35 and 40 percent of the vote. Berman could win if his campaigners can successfully target those Republicans who might be leaning toward Berman because of his experience and Middle East policy credibility.

A final word on the campaign. Establishment Democrats and some leaders in the Jewish community decry the contest. But the creation of a new Latino district, even if it forced Berman and Sherman into a fight in a nearby new district, has been a good thing. It’s called democracy.

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).