By Michael Goldstein
By Dennis Romero
By Sarah Fenske
By Matthew Mullins
By Patrick Range McDonald
By LA Weekly
By Dennis Romero
By Simone Wilson
Two years ago, when Common Cause joined with AARP, the League of Women Voters, the Los Angeles Area Chamber of Commerce and the ACLU of Southern California in a rare, bipartisan effort to end the backroom mapmaking, they were responding in part to the most infamous of Michael Berman's mapping jobs, which unfolded in 2001. That year, bitter gerrymandering struggles between Democratic and Republican incumbents over how to carve up California's 120 legislative districts were set aside. Instead, the two parties quietly agreed to redistrict California in such a way that both parties kept their existing state Assembly and Senate seats locked up for good.
The controversial mapping job helped make Michael Berman rich.
It also left California's voters unable to oust incumbents from all but a few of the 120 statehouse seats over the past decade.
According to the nonpartisan Brennan Center for Justice, the Democratic Party handed Michael Berman $1.3 million — his reward for creating distorted legislative districts in order to protect incumbents from being ousted.
Berman also is handsomely paid by California's U.S. representatives to draw bizarrely shaped congressional districts. The 28th California Congressional District in the San Fernando Valley, represented by his brother, Howard, for example, looks like a man in a scarf wearing a pilgrim hat.
The Brennan Center reported the little-known dollar figure, as revealed by chatty Orange County Rep. Loretta Sanchez: "$20,000 is nothing to keep your seat. I spend $2 million [campaigning] every year. If my colleagues are smart, they'll pay their $20,000, and Michael [Berman] will draw the district they can win in."
Sanchez continues: "Those who have refused to pay? God help them."
The Brennan Center describes the 2001 closed-door deal that created California's "safe" state legislative seats: "The two parties effectively decided to call a truce, and to keep the incumbents — of both parties — as safe from effective challenge as they could."
Michael Berman did not return phone calls from the Weekly.
Maybe that's because, in recent weeks, virtually every California newspaper has editorialized against Proposition 27, which Feng says is "led by a small team of political consultants who are hell-bent on protecting their bosses."
But the younger Lowenstein says, "One editorial goes one way and then the rest follow suit." Shrugging off numerous news articles in recent years on the conflicts of interest inherent in gerrymandering, he argues, "Most journalists haven't really covered this issue."
According to Tony Quinn, the person who really should have dug deeper into the issue is Haim Saban.
Quinn says Howard and Michael Berman "conned" Saban, who sees himself as a politically savvy businessman, into financially backing Proposition 27. Saban is a major donor to Rep. Berman's campaign because of the congressman's strong support for Israel — Saban's No. 1 political issue.
Quinn finds it "just ludicrous" that Saban is so focused on one congressman — albeit Berman, chairman of the House Foreign Affairs Committee — that he poured money into a widely criticized special-interest measure, apparently with the aim of protecting the borders of Berman's gerrymandered Valley district from being altered on voting district maps in 2011.
"The survival of Israel is not dependent upon Berman," Quinn says.
Another Sacramento insider who knows Saban, and asked not to be named, says of Saban's involvement in the Proposition 27 public relations debacle: "They weren't all that straight with Haim about what Proposition 27 would really do. I don't think he quite knew what 27 was."
Saban's spokeswoman, in an e-mail exchange with the Weekly, doesn't address the issue: "Mr. Saban does not support expanding the commission concept to congressional redistricting and agreed to make a [$2 million] loan, which has since been paid back, to support the qualification" of Proposition 27.
Rep. Berman ducks the matter entirely.
His spokeswoman, Jean Smith, says the congressman is "not available" to discuss the controversy. Asked if Howard or Michael Berman conned Saban, she responds, "I'm going to send you to the [Proposition 27] campaign for that discussion."
Then Smith insists her boss is "separate from the campaign. I know Mr. Munger is saying that [Howard Berman is behind Proposition 27], but it's not true."
But the two spokesmen for Proposition 27, the Lowensteins, both confirm the opposite: that Howard Berman is indeed very involved in the Proposition 27 campaign.
Nathan Lowenstein, who handles media queries when his father is busy, describes Rep. Berman as "pretty active in the [Proposition 27] campaign."
Later, Daniel Lowenstein says: "Howard Berman has attempted to raise some money and to rally some support" for Proposition 27. He adds he's "very grateful when people are willing to put up money for our work" — including Berman, Democratic House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, Democratic congressional candidate Karen Bass and a long list dominated by entrenched incumbents.
Munger, upon hearing Rep. Berman's staff denies the congressman is involved in the Proposition 27 campaign, lets out a long laugh.
Contact Patrick Range McDonald at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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