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Two California Democrats with more than 45 years in Congress between them are pitted against each other for the same seat in an unusual family feud that’s dividing the party from top to bottom.
Marquee Democratic donors are set against each other: Tom Hanks, Viacom (VIAB)’s Sumner Redstone and Disney chief Robert Iger are backing Howard Berman, 71. His opponent, Brad Sherman, 57, has Nancy Cartwright, the voice of Bart Simpson, actor Ed Begley Jr. of TV’s “St. Elsewhere” and actress Mayim Bialik of “The Big Bang Theory,” according to election filings.
Even the volunteer receptionist at the party’s local headquarters is on the opposite side of the hierarchy. On the walls are posters for Sherman, reflecting that 62 percent of the executive committee voted to endorse him. The volunteer wore a pin for Berman, who’s served about twice as long as Sherman.
The choice in the race, in which the two candidates agree on major issues, is coming down to one between an incumbent who has developed a reputation as a Washington workhorse -- Berman, and a more popular, state-oriented representative -- Sherman.
“There’s very little difference between them ideologically,” said Sherry Bebitch Jeffe, a political scientist at the University of Southern California. “It comes down to, Do you want a guy who focuses on the district alone? Or do you want a guy who’s climbed up the congressional ladder and who has a larger palette to paint with?”
The Berman-Sherman race is one of three contests out of 435 races for the U.S. House of Representatives that pits incumbents of the same party. The rare pairings were caused by new district boundaries and California’s system of advancing the top two primary candidates, regardless of party.
Both men vote with their party 95 percent of the time, according to the nonpartisan OpenCongress.org. Both serve on the House Foreign Affairs Committee and tout their support for Israel and work on nuclear nonproliferation.
Both also characterized their relationship before this campaign as “collegial.” That’s no longer the case. In interviews, Berman and Sherman belittle each other’s legislative records and accuse each other of waging scurrilous campaigns.
“Brad is really a people person,” the volunteer at the party office, Doris Dent, 72, said of Sherman. “But when I compared their legislative records, it’s astoundingly different. Howard is an extremely serious person, a policy wonk. He doesn’t spend a lot of time glad-handing, which is probably what cost him in the primary.”
An independent commission charged with drawing new boundaries in California to reflect population changes placed Berman and Sherman in the same district. Berman got 32 percent of the vote in the June 5 primary, behind Sherman, with 42 percent, according to the California secretary of state’s office. Another Democrat, three Republicans and a Green Party candidate split the rest of the vote.
Berman, with 30 years in office, raised $3.5 million as of June 29, with the entertainment industry as his top fundraising source, according to Federal Election Commission filings. Sherman, a 15-year incumbent, reported $2.7 million in the same period, with real-estate interests as his largest source. Outside groups have spent another $2.9 million on independent expenditures, the filings show.
Berman’s work on intellectual-property bills such as the Stop Online Piracy Act, a failed effort to crack down on non- U.S. websites that offer pirated content, helped him secure the endorsement of the Motion Picture Association of America, said Kate Bedingfield, a spokeswoman for the film industry’s advocacy group.
Berman said that if voters return him to office, he’ll resurrect efforts to forge a compromise between technology companies such as Google Inc. (GOOG), which opposed the anti-piracy bill, and the entertainment studios. He said Sherman is incapable of a meaningful role in such negotiations.
“He doesn’t have the skills or the contacts to be a player on any major legislation,” Berman said. “He never has been.”
Sherman was among the 23 co-signers of the Stop Online Piracy Act, though in an interview he said Berman and other sponsors underestimated the opposition.
“This is the most spectacular roll-out failure since Ishtar,” Sherman said, referring to the 1987 film that has become synonymous with box-office bomb. “He came up with the worst way possible to market the bill. Google and Wikipedia killed the bill in one day.”
Sherman declined to elaborate on how he’d change the anti- piracy bill, saying his work on housing issues is more important. He said he and other members of Congress pushed federal regulators in 2011 to rescind a proposed 20 percent down payment requirement for residential mortgages, which Sherman said would have decimated the San Fernando Valley housing market.
“He outranks me in a pecking order in Washington, D.C., that lives off of seniority,” Sherman said. “The problem is, because he doesn’t listen to the Valley, he takes the wrong side on these issues.”
Berman touted his work securing funds to widen the nation’s most-traveled freeway, Interstate 405, and to rebuild a hospital damaged in the 1994 Northridge Earthquake. Berman said his rival talks a good game while accomplishing little.
“There’s no comparison in terms of accomplishments for the Valley,” Berman said. “Forget the national issues, forget the international issues, just for the Valley, his record is minimal.”
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