Along with the official congressional lapel pin Brad Sherman received when he arrived on Capitol Hill two years ago, the Sherman Oaks Democrat was affixed with something a bit more menacing: a target.
The Republican Party has had Sherman in the political cross hairs since he squeaked to victory in 1996, when he nabbed just 49% of the vote to win the 24th Congressional District.
For the Record
Los Angeles Times Tuesday October 20, 1998 Ventura County Edition Metro Part B Page 3 Zones Desk 1 inches; 35 words Type of Material: Correction
School voucher--A story Sunday incorrectly stated a political position of Randy Hoffman of Thousand Oaks, the Republican candidate for the 24th Congressional District. Hoffman opposes the use of federal tax dollars for private school vouchers.
"From the moment I got elected to this position, I knew I was on [House Speaker Newt] Gingrich's top 10 list," said Sherman, a freshman representing a district that stretches from Thousand Oaks to Sherman Oaks. "Because of it, I've had very little free time."
The Republican squeezing Sherman's days is Randy Hoffman, a millionaire from Thousand Oaks best known for turning a small high-tech company into one of the nation's most successful producers of personal satellite navigation systems.
The two candidates claim to be moderate torchbearers in their respective parties, favoring fiscal responsibility and abortion rights, yet each has accused the other of being a stealth extremist.
The contest trudged through an uneventful summer, then hit the gas in the past month.
Hoffman blanketed the district with a campaign mailer charging Sherman with coddling "countries soft on drug smuggling" when he voted against limiting financial aid to Mexico until it was more cooperative with U.S. drug policy.
Sherman said he voted to bail out Mexico's economy, and that failure to do so might have led to Mexico's financial collapse and devastated U.S. companies with ties to the neighboring country.
In a radio debate last week, Sherman returned fire with an allegation that Hoffman's company might have sold navigation devices to enemies of Israel in the Middle East--a serious accusation in a district with a substantial Jewish community. Hoffman called Sherman's allegation "outrageous" and said it was untrue.
"This district will always be hot," said Dick Rosengarten, a Los Angeles political analyst who publishes California Political Week. "It's a middle- to high-income area where people want their representative to be kind of middle of the road."
Missing from the political firefight was any significant mention of the pending impeachment inquiry of President Clinton, the topic consuming most of Washington.
Hoffman says the Clinton scandal "is not an issue" in the race, adding he has yet to decide whether the president should be removed from office. Sherman voted against the Republican-sponsored proposal to hold an impeachment proceeding, saying it was too open-ended and politically motivated.
"I haven't seen evidence that it would be in the best interest of the country to impeach him," the Democrat said. "I think he certainly should be punished . . . perhaps censured."
Hoffman, a newcomer to politics, left his job as president of Magellan Systems Inc. of San Dimas to run for Congress. He became an instant contender when he dumped $577,000 of his own money into the campaign.
Still, Hoffman had to campaign hard to beat two poorly funded GOP opponents in the June primary; he nabbed just 53% of the GOP vote, and switched campaign managers shortly thereafter.
The Republican leadership considers Sherman such a juicy target that it dispatched a troop of party muscle to the district to pad Hoffman's campaign account and boost his political profile.
Hoffman's guest list included former vice president and GOP presidential nominee Bob Dole; House Majority Leader Dick Armey of Texas; and House Majority Whip Tom DeLay of Texas. And last week, Hoffman had actress Heather Locklear headline a fund-raiser in Westlake Village when Gingrich was forced to cancel.
Addressing the gathering by phone, Gingrich told Hoffman supporters that the GOP considered it a "very winnable race."
Gingrich called Sherman a "liberal Democrat" who has received failing grades from the U.S. Chamber of Commerce and other business and industry groups. Hoffman, Gingrich said, has a "commitment to lower taxes, a strong balanced budget and to returning the money back home."
Sherman dismissed Gingrich's attacks, and campaigned on his votes in favor of the balanced budget, the patient's bill of rights, preserving Social Security and even for this year's Republican tax-cut proposal.
Hoffman says his can-do business approach to government and deep-rooted family values will better serve district voters in Washington than a "career politician" like Sherman.
"It's time to bring accountability back to Washington, that's my broad-based message," Hoffman said. "As somebody who had to build a company from the ground up, starting with five people and now employing 500, I know what accountability is all about."
Hoffman says he supports eliminating tenure for public school teachers and installing a merit pay system for instructors. Hoffman also supports taxpayer-funded school vouchers for private schools, which Sherman opposes.