His back against the wall, Democrat Brad Sherman faced a rambunctious bunch of Thousand Oaks Rotarians--the kind that boo and hiss at the mention of the word "lawyer."
It was supposed to be a debate between congressional candidates. But Republican rival Rich Sybert was a no-show. So Sherman, a Harvard-educated lawyer and state tax official, was there alone to field questions from a suspicious crowd of mostly Republican businessmen:
Would he have voted for the 1993 tax increase? Does he find President Clinton's morality lacking? Would he help Clinton "gut" welfare reform next year?
"I can see why Rich isn't here," Sherman quipped. "He thinks this group is too conservative for him."
The Rotarians roared with laughter.
Although Sherman sprinkles humor throughout his speeches, he is so serious about winning that he has already lent $390,000 of his own money to help finance his campaign to replace retiring Rep. Anthony C. Beilenson (D-Woodland Hills).
"I'm going to put everything I've got into the race," said Sherman, who moved from Santa Monica to Sherman Oaks last year to run in the 24th Congressional District, that covers portions of the San Fernando Valley, Malibu and Thousand Oaks.
Sherman, 41, said he covets a seat in Congress because he wants to help dump Newt Gingrich as speaker of the House and use his expertise as a certified public accountant and tax attorney to make the government more efficient.
"Most people who run for Congress are not CPAs and they don't understand taxes," he said. "Nearly every discussion in Congress is about budget management and taxes. That's an important area where I can make a contribution."
The race also gives Sherman an opportunity to emerge from the arcane world of tax policy at the State Board of Equalization.
"I do welcome branching out," said Sherman, who is eager to cast votes on a wide array of issues. "I am pro-business, pro-environment, pro-education and pro-choice."
For six years, he has been an elected member of the obscure but powerful five-member board that hears appeals on state income tax matters and oversees the collection of sales, gas and cigarette taxes.
Sherman is the only CPA or attorney on the five-member board and he relishes the work, delving deeply into the intricacies of the tax code.
Although widely respected as a tax authority, he sometimes exasperates other board members, business leaders and even his own staff by poring over the smallest details.
"He has an iron-trap mind, but he is into minutiae," said Fred Main, vice president and general counsel of the California Chamber of Commerce.
Business representatives and staff tell stories of him going on and on to chisel a compromise in tax regulations, changing a sentence here, a comma there. His slow, deliberative speaking style can sometimes exacerbate the frustration.
"He's a tax nerd, but I think we need more people like him," said Valerie Salkin, one of Sherman's former staff members.
"He is more focused on policy than politics," Salkin said. "He is the kind of person we need in Congress and in the government because he is so knowledgeable."
Sherman accepts criticism about his zealous attention to detail.
"If the worst rap on me is that I do my job too carefully, I'll live with that," he said. "If my colleagues are a little impatient, I try to deal with that the best I can."
He takes some issue with being called a nerd.
"I'm a regular guy, with nerdish tendencies," said the balding, bespectacled Sherman. "I'm a recovering nerd."
Sherman readily admits that he is more bookish than the average politician. He was extraordinarily shy as a boy, he explains, and has worked hard over the years to improve his social skills, which he now rates as average.
His longtime friends agree that he is smoother now.
"Brad always has a reputation of being a straight-arrow guy with a knack for figures and numbers and accounting," said Rep. George E. Brown Jr. (D-San Bernardino), who has been a family friend for decades.
"I never saw him as having a big political flair," Brown said. "But it turns out that he does better than I thought he would."
Born in Los Angeles on Oct. 24, 1954, Sherman grew up in Monterey Park. His father was an executive in a technical school, his mother a part-time secretary. Sherman's two main interests emerged early in life: business and politics.
At 6, he was selling snow cones, and by 14 he had established the Sherman Stamp Co., which bought stamps wholesale and sold them retail to collectors. To operate the mail-order business, he obtained a resale number from the Board of Equalization and paid sales taxes.
His parents were active in the Monterey Park Democratic Club and Sherman was licking stamps, stuffing envelopes and walking precincts with his mother, Lane, by age 6.
"The Brad Sherman you see today is the same person he was in the fourth grade," said Josh Shinder, a friend since childhood. Young Bradley was always canvassing the neighborhood for political or other purposes.