The chickens are coming home to roost for U.S. Rep. Howard Berman and his little brother, Michael. For four decades, the Berman brothers dominated California's backroom gerrymandering — a much-pilloried process in which politicians drew up their own voting districts in order to guarantee victories at the ballot box.
Good-government expert Bob Stern once described California's all-but-fixed elections as “worse than the Politburo.” But on June 5, those days are over: Voter reforms, including an independent redistricting commission charged with un-gerrymandering California, and a new top-two “open primary” in which voters can cross party lines, have left in tatters the longtime system of protecting incumbents.
In a few days, Howard Berman will face the political fight of his life against Democratic Rep. Brad Sherman for the 30th California Congressional District seat.
And to beat Sherman, the Bermans are reaching out to Republicans.
“It's always nice for an endangered minority to be remembered,” quips Jonathan Wilcox, a Republican strategist living in the heavily Democratic 30th. He received a carefully worded mailing urging GOP voters to choose Democrat Berman.
Berman, 71, chair of the House Committee on Foreign Affairs, who bears a faint resemblance to Senator Palpatine from the Star Wars series, has never in his life run in a competitive re-election race. Not once since his election to the state Assembly has his vote dipped below 60 percent.
Managing such a feat has less to do with his track record — which is, by most accounts, impressive — than with the dark arts practiced by his brother, Michael.
Michael Berman is known for his multiple-pack-daily smoking habit and his mastery of targeted mail, sending different kinds of pieces — such as glossy brochures or formal, typed letters — to different voters based on party leanings, ethnicity, race, wealth or other demographics.
Michael's other specialty is redistricting — aka gerrymandering.
In stark contrast to Europe, where gerrymandering is widely banned, American politicians conspired for much of this country's history to identify sympathetic voters, then encircle them inside bizarrely shaped electoral districts that carefully excised as many of the unsympathetic voters as possible. In essence, voters weren't picking politicians — politicians were picking voters.
In California, Michael was chief gerrymanderer from 1971 to 2001. He helped protect incumbents by carving them out “safe seats,” which often ignored boundaries such as mountains or county lines. The Legislature then approved the maps.
His work made Michael Berman rich. In 2001, the Orange County Register revealed that 30 of 32 Democratic congressional members paid him $20,000 to draw each of them a safe seat, as did the Democrats in the state Senate — a mega payday of more than $1.1 million.
But at least one Democrat wasn't happy with Michael's handiwork: Brad Sherman.
Many people joke that Sherman and Berman are balding, Valley Jews with rhyming surnames. But the two are quite different.
“Howard's very personable, very easy to talk to,” says Phil Trounstine, a longtime politico who blogs at Calbuzz. “Brad's not a guy who cultivates friendships. He invades your personal space; he's socially awkward.”
Berman won his first congressional race thanks to his brother's gerrymandering and his mail campaigns. Sherman, trained as an accountant, won his by spending $578,000 of his own money. Berman concentrates on foreign policy. Sherman opposed the North American Free Trade Agreement and the Troubled Asset Relief Program (TARP). Berman makes many visits to Israel; Sherman visits the Valley.
“If you want somebody to speak at your daughter's bat mitzvah, Brad's available,” Trounstine jokes.
In 2001, Sherman's district shared a border with Berman's. But Sherman grew furious when Michael Berman drew up a new voting map of the San Fernando Valley, which helped Berman but hurt Sherman.
“They diluted the Latino [voters] so there would not be a Latino primary challenger” in Berman's district, says Tony Quinn, co-editor of the California Target Book. But to achieve that, Michael Berman meticulously redrew Sherman's district to include many more Latino voters — thus making Sherman's re-election somewhat shaky.
“Howard Berman stabbed me in the back,” Sherman back then told the Los Angeles Times. Eventually, some Latinos were drawn back into Berman's district. The new borders were approved.
But Californians grew fed up watching politicians slice up communities like this to protect their jobs.
In 2008 and 2010, voters approved reforms that handed redistricting responsibilities to an independent citizens' commission. Howard and Michael Berman fought both measures, even raising money from Howard's deep-pocketed, pro-Israel donor base, including billionaire Haim Saban.
Last year, the voter-created California Citizen Redistricting Commission mapped out a new congressional district in the Valley, obliterating the East Valley district of Howard Berman and the West Valley/Foothills district of Brad Sherman.
Both men's homes were drawn into the new district. The other candidates for congressional District 30 on June 5 are Mark Reed, Navraj Singh and Susan Shelley, all Republicans; Democrat Vince Gilmore; and Michael W. Powelson of the Green Party.
Some can't help but see this as karmic payback against the Bermans. “There's some poetic justice to it, there's no question about that,” Quinn says, “because his brother [Michael] was always taking care of him. Now they don't have that.”
Brad Sherman has a major advantage over Howard Berman: More than 50 percent of District 30 contains Sherman's home district. And L.A. voters love to re-elect people they voted for the last time.
Some analysts say Sherman will beat Berman. If the two men place first and second, respectively, then under the “top two” runoff rule, they will face each other again in November.
“Now he's got to depend on the kindness of strangers to make it into the runoff,” Quinn says of Berman.
By strangers, Quinn means Republicans. GOP voters account for just one-quarter of District 30 — but that's a sizable chunk of the electoral pie. That's why mailers sent to the homes of people like GOP strategist Wilcox tout Berman's endorsements from high-profile Republicans. “It's remarkable,” Wilcox says, “the Berman campaign's open and forthright effort to try to get prominent Republican endorsements.”
Among Berman's GOP backers are local moderates like ex-Mayor Richard Riordan and L.A. County supervisors Don Knabe and Mike Antonovich. But another is Richard Bond, former chair of the Republican National Committee and a lobbyist who has represented Philip Morris and Enron.
Bond's letter to GOP voters reads: “Congressman Howard Berman is of the highest integrity, is universally respected by people from both parties.”
Of this, Parke Skelton, Sherman's political consultant, mockingly says, “If I get to the point where I have a Philip Morris lobbyist vouching for my integrity, I'll kill myself.”
Berman has brought his brother out of retirement to work his magic of old, running the direct-mail campaign. Michael Berman gave a rare phone interview to L.A. Weekly. His smoking has taken a big toll. When asked about attracting Republicans, Michael Berman replied in short, raspy sentences, his breathing shallow: “We're talking to everybody. To every group. Republicans. Democrats. Communists.”
During Howard Berman's first race for state Assembly in 1971 against longtime Republican incumbent Charles Conrad, Skelton says, Michael was worried that a Richard Nixon landslide for president would bring Republican voters in California to the ballot box and help sink his brother. So Michael sent a mailer to Republicans reading, “Republicans for Nixon-Berman.”
That 1971 battle was the last close election Howard Berman ran in — until now.
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