Sherman-Berman race for House seat in California breaks the mold

Race for California's 30th District features two sitting congressmen. Howard Berman and Brad Sherman are both Democrats. Their positions are nearly identical. Their names rhyme. Isn't this a little weird? 

They call it Sherman & Berman. Nope, it's not the name of a law firm specializing in personal-injury cases, or of an old-time vaudeville team (though it may seem that way to some voters). Rather, it's shorthand for an unusual US House race in California that pits two sitting congressmen against each other, courtesy of redrawn congressional districts after the 2010 census.

Even more bizarre: Reps. Brad Sherman and Howard Berman are both Democrats – almost identical in their positions on issues, both with multimillion-dollar war chests, and both with 20-plus years serving in the House. 

A handful of these incumbent-on-incumbent races crop up in the country every 10 years after redistricting. But the race for California's reconfigured 30th Congressional District has set itself apart – for its duration, contentiousness, and, yes, high drama. A videotape of a nostril-to-nostril standoff at an Oct. 11 Berman-Sherman debate, in which a sheriff's deputy intervened to separate the two lawmakers, has gone viral online, provoking a fair bit of buzz among voters in this district in the western San Fernando Valley

“It’s so sad it’s come to this,” says a patron at a local Internet cafe on Monday afternoon, as other customers gather around a laptop to offer assessments of the video. It shows Mr. Berman, before screaming voters at Pierce College in nearby Woodland Hills, Calif., calling Mr. Sherman “delusional,” and Sherman standing up, putting his arm around Berman, and saying, “You want to get into this, Howard?” The two nearly bump foreheads before the gun-on-his-hip officer arrives. The crowd cheered both sides.

“It’s horrifying to some and humorous to others, but to me it’s kind of human,” says Raphe Sonnenshein, director of the Pat Brown Institute at California State University, Los Angeles, in a phone interview.

Other analysts say the confrontational episode is an indication that Democrats will not achieve their stated goal of picking up 25 seats in the House of Representatives.

“This Dem-on-Dem, in-party fratricide means that [House minority leader Nancy] Pelosi's ‘drive for 25’ ain't gonna happen,” says David McCuan, professor of political science at Sonoma State University, in an e-mail interview. “The GOP will hold the House at least partially due to this development of in-party violence.”

The race is also unusual for two things it shows about California this year.

One is that a citizens redistricting commission, not state legislators, redrew congressional district boundaries for the first time. The other is that California in January 2011 adopted a new primary-election system, designed to shrink the advantage of incumbents. In it, the top two vote-getters on an all-party primary ballot proceed to the general election – which explains why two Democrats are going mano-a-mano on Nov. 6.  

This year’s primary contest was the first conducted using the state’s redrawn political maps, meaning Berman and Sherman have been campaigning against each another since early spring. 

“These guys have been going at it with high stakes longer than most – and burying their constituents with expensive flyers and mailings,” says Mr. Sonnenshein. “They have been doing forum after forum after forum, and are no doubt more tired than most politicians of seeing the same face show up again and again. This has really stretched them [the candidates] to the limits of tolerance.”

Sherman finished first in the June primary, and since then he has held a double-digit lead over Berman. That’s primarily because Sherman’s old district overlaps more with the new district in which he’s competing with Berman. The first contest after a district redraw is vital, political analysts say.

“Once a congressman is chosen, subsequent elections become harder for a challenger, and the momentum of incumbency gets stronger,” says William Rosenberg, political scientist at Drexel University in Philadelphia. “That helps explain why more is on the line right now than ever, especially as they see it.”

Usually, primary races are the contests most likely to devolve into personal name-calling, because the candidates are from the same party with similar platforms or voting records.

“This race between Representatives Berman and Sherman has been going on since nearly the minute the California maps were finalized,” says Villanova  political scientist Lara Brown, author of “Jockeying for the American Presidency." "It has been an exceptionally long fight between two strong candidates whose stance on the issues are almost the same. It's not all that surprising that they eventually ended up in what might be thought of as a modern-day duel defending their honor."

Back at the Internet cafe, patrons are trying to pinpoint when the altercation began. In the video, Berman walks straight over to Sherman with his jaw out. After Sherman put his arm over Berman’s shoulder, he shakes his pointed finger. 

The video has since been played on national news and MSNBC’s “Hardball with Chris Matthews.” And Sherman has since acknowledged his lack of calm.

“This was not a wise or carefully considered action,” Sherman later told local radio station KPCC.

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