The four candidates vying to represent California’s newly redrawn 30th congressional district in the West San Fernando Valley met on stage for the first time in a heated town hall on January 5.
Two long-serving incumbent Jewish Democratic congressmen who have represented adjacent districts in the valley for more than a decade, Rep. Howard Berman (D-Van Nuys) and Rep. Brad Sherman (D-Sherman Oaks), focused their attention on their records.
Meanwhile, the two Republican candidates, businessman/actor Mark Reed, who ran unsuccessfully against Sherman in 2010, and writer Susan Shelley each hammered home the message that voters should throw out their current representatives.
Over 300 people gathered in an empty retail space at a Woodland Hills shopping mall to hear the candidates present their positions on topics including the economy, President Obama’s 2009 health care law, Israel and the Iranian threat, and the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.
Most of the media attention thus far has focused on the contest between Sherman and Berman, who were thrown into the same district by the 2011 round of redistricting. Both congressmen are considered to be staunch Israel supporters, and many in the Jewish community had hoped this internecine battle could have been avoided.
On Thursday, Berman, who has been in congress since 1983, looked like he initially wanted to stay somewhat positive, presenting himself as a lawmaker who got things done. He touted a long list of accomplishments including securing federal funds to expand the 405 freeway and establishing the Santa Monica Mountain Conservancy.
That attitude lasted about three minutes—until Sherman introduced himself and began swinging directly at his fellow Democrat.
“Howard has been very effective—on the wrong side,” Sherman said, pointing to, among other things, Berman’s support for free trade agreements. Since coming to Congress in 1997, Sherman has opposed such agreements, and his protectionist stance has won him the endorsements of five 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 what might seem like an arcane issue—the existence of multiple independent expenditure committees that are planning to support Berman.
Commonly referred to as Super-PACs, these 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-sized reproduction of a letter he had sent to Berman one day earlier, Sherman asked his fellow Democrat to sign a pledge to forgo any advantage derived from outside money groups by donating an amount of money from his own campaign fund to the U.S. Treasury equivalent to the amount spent by any Super-PACs on his behalf.
Hosted by the Woodland Hills-Tarzana Chamber of Commerce, the forum’s moderator asked a few questions about local issues that fell beyond the jurisdiction of Congress that left the veteran lawmakers puzzled. “I’m not running for the state legislature,” Sherman said in response to a question about whether California state laws about the environment should be relaxed.
Other questions—like the one asking whether the candidates would support requiring voters to present photo identification to vote in state and federal elections—divided the candidates on predictably partisan lines, with the Republicans in favor and the Democrats against.
The 30th district has almost twice as many registered Democrats as it does Republicans, and, for the first time this year, all four candidates will face off in a single open primary in June. The top two vote getters will advance to a run-off in November.
The forum did touch on foreign policy, and the candidates were asked whether they would support Israel taking preemptive action against alleged Iranian nuclear weapons development sites.
“Israel is gonna do what Israel is gonna do,” Sherman said, adding that he had been an early advocate for sanctions against Iran. Berman also talked about his role in passing sanctions in congress at the end of 2011 and called a nuclear Iran “the single greatest international security threat we face.”
Shelly, 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.
Neither Shelly nor Reed has ever held elective office, and both of them pledged to stay true to the U.S. Constitution, sounding very much like the conservative voices that have dominated the nation’s political scene in recent years. Both criticized the efforts at economic stimulus and the recent health care overhaul.
Shelley put forward a 5 percent national flat tax that she said would attract businesses from all around the world to the United States, and railed against “too much government control.” Reed, who initially appeared to ignore Shelley entirely, proposed ending unemployment benefits, earning boos from some in the crowd.
Sherman and Berman have very similar voting records, and the two congressmen did, at times, give nearly identical answers. In response to a question about noise at the Bob Hope Airport in Burbank, both incumbents noted that they were working together on federal legislation with Rep. Adam Schiff (D – Burbank) to tackle the problem.
A “straw poll” was taken at the end of the event, but organizers said that the results would probably not be posted on the chamber’s website for a few days.