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Rep. Howard Berman takes gloves off in race against Brad Sherman

Howard Berman's turnabout in the Valley congressional contest, knocking fellow-Democrat Sherman's record and getting surrogates to attack him, is common underdog behavior, observers say.

August 13, 2012|By Jean Merl, Los Angeles Times
  • Rep. Howard L. Berman ran a genteel campaign in the primary but has turned sharper toward colleague and opponent Brad Sherman as the November election approaches.
Rep. Howard L. Berman ran a genteel campaign in the primary but has turned… (Lawrence K. Ho, Los Angeles…)

After decades of cruising effortlessly to reelection, dignified, statesmanlike and unruffled, Rep. Howard Berman has come out swinging against fellow San Fernando Valley Democrat and congressional colleague Brad Sherman in the fight over which man gets to stay in Congress.

First came a website knocking Sherman's record: Just three bills passed in 15 years, two of them to rename post offices, it declared. Then Berman rounded up a seasoned Washington hand to pile on, telling reporters last week that Sherman had indulged in "fantasies" about his role in reforming the nation's troubled financial institutions (nonsense, said Sherman's campaign; his role was well documented).

Berman has even moved aside his brother Michael, his longtime strategist, in favor of a younger consultant with recent, hard-fought victories under his belt.

At 71, Berman appears to have abandoned the high road he took in the primary campaign while Sherman, 57, laid into him. That tactic left him in second place, by 10 points, under California's new "top two" election rules. Soon afterward, he launched a weekly "BS Report" on Sherman, with whom he worked genially in Congress until last year's new district maps threatened to squeeze one of them out.

"Sherman threw everything but the kitchen sink at me," Berman said in an email to supporters after the primary. "But, rest assured, the voters this fall will fully understand how he distorts my record and wildly inflates his accomplishments."

The turnabout is common underdog behavior, say politics watchers. It's also a sign of how badly Berman, who hasn't had a serious election fight since winning his first office (a state Assembly seat) four decades ago, wants to win.

"It's like being behind at halftime in a big football game," said Los Angeles-based Democratic consultant Rick Taylor. "You're two touchdowns down and you've got to adjust."

Taylor, who has not taken sides in the race, said Berman's new attitude shows "a guy who understands he needed to make some changes."

During the primary campaign, Berman stuck with the genteel, although that's a relative term in politics. While Sherman knocked his rival's House attendance record and overseas "junkets" (Berman is the senior Democrat on the House Foreign Affairs Committee) and accused him of working with a Republican White House to help force the U.S. into war with Iraq, Berman touted his accomplishments in Washington and his endorsements from other officials, including Gov. Jerry Brown.

If he felt moved to rebut his rival's claims, he typically tapped his long list of supporters for someone else to do the job, remaining above the fray himself. And in at least two candidate forums, Berman found himself on the defensive while Sherman suggested he had improperly used his government car for campaign purposes.

"Answer the question, Howard!" Sherman bellowed when Berman ignored him.

Berman was "was surprised at how negative Brad went during the last two weeks of the primary and felt the campaign hadn't done enough to respond," said Brandon Hall, who shared campaign oversight duties with Michael Berman during the primary campaign but now is calling the shots.

Berman, Hall said, is focused not only on being sure voters understand his record but also on "pushing back" against what Hall characterized as Sherman's exaggerations.

That's all just an attempt "to drive up Brad's negatives," said Sherman consultant Parke Skelton. "It's the classic behavior of a campaign that is behind."

He noted that Berman ended the latest campaign finance reporting period with about $447,000 in his treasury, while Sherman had some $3 million. That leaves Sherman in a stronger financial position for the fall contest, when voter turnout is expected to be much higher and campaigns must reach more people.

Going negative "always carries some risk of backlash," noted Dan Schnur, a former Republican strategist who now heads USC's Jesse M. Unruh Institute of Politics.

If voters perceive an attack as untrue or mean-spirited, it can backfire by damaging the accusing candidate's credibility or by arousing sympathy for the opponent.

Hall said one thing Berman must do to prevail is strike against the common perception that the two men, both liberal Democrats who often vote alike, are essentially the same candidate.

"In style, in the way they work and in how effective they are," Hall said, "there couldn't be two more different people."

jean.merl@latimes.com

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