Stakes rise in primary fight between Democratic Reps. Sherman and Berman

Democratic Reps. Howard Berman and Brad Sherman are already fighting for a congressional seat in California, but because of recent developments, the winner could take home an even bigger prize: a committee gavel.

Berman, the top Democrat on the House Foreign Affairs Committee, is battling Sherman in one of the nation’s most closely watched member-versus-member primaries after a state redistricting commission put the two in the same Los Angeles-area district. The primary election is June 5.

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When the campaign began last summer, Sherman was fifth in seniority behind Berman on the committee. But following the death of Rep. Donald Payne (D-N.J.) and the retirement announcement of Rep. Gary Ackerman (D-N.Y.) last month, Sherman is poised to move up the ranks, and he told The Hill he would seek the top spot if he defeated Berman. Only Del. Eni Faleomavaega (D) of American Samoa, a non-voting member, would have more seniority than Sherman next year. A Democrat would take the chairmanship if the party wins back control of the House in November.

The developments have added greater stakes to a race between two men with similar voting records but different personal styles.

First elected in 1982, Berman served as chairman of the Foreign Affairs Committee from 2008 to 2010 and has secured the support of virtually the entire Democratic establishment in California, including Gov. Jerry Brown, Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa, both U.S. senators and most of the House delegation. Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (Calif.) has not publicly endorsed, but she has singled Berman out for praise, and her close allies are backing him.

Sherman, first elected in 1996, is known as more of a lone wolf on Capitol Hill, but he has the early advantage on the ground — about 60 percent of the new district lies in his current district, and his campaign has released a poll giving him a significant lead.

In an interview, Sherman touted his foreign-policy record and criticized Berman for hewing too closely to the Obama administration and the State Department as chairman and now ranking member of the panel. “I certainly have some different views on foreign policy,” he said. “A lot of it is not just being a rubber stamp for the State Department.”

As a chief example, Sherman cites his opposition to the Obama administration’s military intervention in Libya last year, when he helped lead an effort in the House to strip funding for the mission under the War Powers Resolution.

Berman backed the intervention and the administration’s rationale for it.

Sherman and Berman are both strong supporters of Israel, but with regard to its tensions with Iran, Sherman says he pushed for stronger sanctions than did Berman. Privately, Sherman’s supporters go further and blame Berman for slow-walking a popular sanctions bill as chairman of the Foreign Affairs Committee at the bidding of the Obama administration.

“I’ve been in favor of tougher sanctions sooner, even if it ruffles feathers,” Sherman said.

Of Berman’s much deeper support within the Democratic establishment, Sherman responded with a backhanded compliment. “He’s been to more state dinners,” he said. “He’s older than me. He’s more senior. He toes the State Department line.”

Sherman’s critique of Berman as a “rubber stamp” for Foggy Bottom is more notable given that the man whose support Sherman promotes most heavily is former President Bill Clinton, whose wife runs the State Department.

Berman was unavailable for an interview for this article, but a supporter, former Rep. Mel Levine (D-Calif.), called Sherman’s criticisms “absurd.”

“Congressman Berman,” Levine said, “commands respect on both sides of the aisle. There really is no one who is comparable to him in terms of effectiveness.

“No disrespect to Congressman Sherman,” he added, but “Congressman Berman is a superstar. Congressman Sherman is not.”
Levine said the fact that so many of Berman’s own California colleagues had publicly endorsed him in a sensitive primary “really is a testimony to how highly he is regarded.”

The former congressman, who served on the Foreign Affairs Committee with Berman for a decade until 1993, defended Berman’s record on Israel and Iran. He said he had been assured by “very senior Israeli officials” that “no one on the committee is more highly regarded than Congressman Berman.”

The powerful American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC) declined to weigh in on the race.

Although Sherman listed his differences with Berman, he cautioned not to “exaggerate” the gap, and noted that he had on occasion defended the Obama administration’s record from Republican attacks. As he put it, “Sherman-Berman: Their foreign-policy positions may be only as different as their last names.”

While Berman has forged deep ties in Washington, Sherman is banking on a deep well of support back home. He is a constant presence at local events, and
 the friendlier boundaries in the new district play to his advantage.

In a jab at Sherman, Levine said Berman “has never sought credit or publicity for his myriad achievements” in Congress. Yet although Levine cited that as a quality, he acknowledged it could be a hindrance for a candidate facing his first tight race in years against a candidate who might be better-known in the district.

“In this race, [Berman] probably starts with somewhat less name recognition than he would otherwise,” Levine said.

A new open primary system in California could help Berman, however, by extending the race through November and allowing him more time to make inroads locally against Sherman. The top two vote-getters will advance to the general election regardless of party affiliation, and in the heavily Democratic 30th district, those two could be Berman and Sherman.

The prospect of the increasingly combative race dragging on for another five months could factor into the subsequent campaign for the top spot on the Foreign Affairs Committee.

While Berman is a lock to keep the post if he stays in Congress, Sherman said he was concerned that fellow House Democrats who choose committee leaders “may be angry at both of us for what happens in this campaign.”

If Sherman defeats Berman, he is likely to face a challenge from at least one senior Democrat on the Foreign Affairs Committee. Rep. Eliot Engel (D-N.Y.), who ranks directly below

Sherman in seniority, told The Hill that he would “probably make the run” if Berman was voted out of Congress. He has not, however, made an endorsement in the primary race.

“It’s kind of awkward,” Engel said in an interview. But he added: “I think I have the broad experience to serve as chairman or ranking member.”