A confrontation escalates between Democratic Reps. Howard Berman, left,… (Livestream.com )
They are one-time allies, Democrats with similar voting records and nearly identical views on healthcare, immigration and other divisive national issues. Even their names are so alike that people have trouble keeping them straight.
But only one of the two congressmen — Howard Berman or Brad Sherman — can occupy the 30th Congressional District seat in the San Fernando Valley. And their struggle to differentiate themselves from each other has led to character attacks and a war over who deserves more credit for helping constituents.
The deteriorating atmosphere in the closely watched race reached a low point this week, when the pair got physical during a testy debate. It was the latest reminder that the stakes are personal for these career politicians whose seats merged in last year's remapping: One of them will be out of a job he's held for more than a decade — in Berman's case, three.
Tempers flared at a forum in Woodland Hills on Thursday as the two argued like kids in a schoolyard over Berman's role in the federal Dream Act, a path to permanent residency for some undocumented immigrants. Berman said his rival was "delusional or a liar" and strode over to Sherman as video cameras and cell phones captured the confrontation.
Sherman thrust his arm tightly around the smaller man's shoulders. "You want to get into this?" Sherman shouted before a sheriff's deputy stepped between them and they returned to their places to finish the debate.
The dust-up had its roots in the redistricting that pushed some officeholders into retirement or other jurisdictions. But Berman and Sherman stuck it out, and the verbal attacks began as soon as the ink was dry on the new political maps. By June, after the two emerged from the primary under new rules that sent the two Democrats to the general election, the gloves were off.
Sherman, 57, took swipes at 71-year-old Berman's age. Berman derided Sherman's campaign events as "retail politics" and said his younger rival had passed only three bills during 16 years in Congress, two of them to rename post offices.
Sherman mailed out fliers knocking Berman's House attendance record and overseas trips financed by taxpayers or interest groups. He needled Berman about whether he improperly used his government car for campaigning, releasing a photo of the elder man arriving in the SUV for a fundraiser at the Beverly Hilton.
"Answer the question, Howard!" Sherman bellowed at a candidates forum earlier this year, as Berman ignored him.
Berman took the high road in print and TV ads, touting his work on foreign affairs, copyright protections and other meaty legislation. But before voters and cameras, he accused Sherman of stealing credit for local projects and exaggerating his role in Washington's rescue of troubled financial institutions.
After finishing the primary 10 points behind Sherman, the older lawmaker had shaken up his campaign and come out swinging. He launched an online "BS report" to criticize Sherman's record and set up a website to pummel his rival for earning interest (legally) on money he lent his campaigns. Berman's attacks escalated as independent polling showed him trailing Sherman recently by 13 points.
The balance of power in the House won't be affected by the outcome in this strongly Democratic district, where Sherman is banking heavily on his greater familiarity. His old district overlaps much of the new one, while Berman's former territory makes up a much smaller slice. Sherman, who has the backing of former President Clinton, has spent virtually every weekend of his tenure in the district, attending community festivals, ribbon cuttings and other homespun events.
Berman is counting on his gravitas in Washington — the Almanac of American Politics called him "one of the most clear-sighted operators in American politics"— and his long list of endorsements from dozens of officeholders, including Gov. Jerry Brown and both of California's senators, Barbara Boxer and Dianne Feinstein.
On Friday, Berman's camp was having a field day with the previous night's fracas, a clip of which had been posted on YouTube within minutes of the event. Sherman, meanwhile, issued an apology of sorts as the video found a prominent place on websites, newscasts and morning radio on both coasts.
The dueling campaigns shot off statements containing slightly different video clips of the debate. Sherman's version begins a bit earlier — with Berman moving over to confront his competitor.
Sherman said in his statement, "I regret my part in allowing emotions to distract from the exchange of views."