Politics June 2012

Clone Wars

In which two guys who agree on just about everything face off in one of the most expensive House races of 2012
Joe Darrow

Their last names rhyme: Berman and Sherman. Both are congressional incumbents from Los Angeles. Both are balding, bespectacled lawyers and liberal Jewish Democrats. Both went to UCLA (Howard Berman: International Relations, ’62; Brad Sherman: Accounting, ’74). And for more than a decade, they have represented nearby San Fernando Valley districts—Sherman’s horseshoe-shaped domain sits atop Berman’s like a toupee. They’ve worked side by side on everything from Iran sanctions (they’re both on the House Committee on Foreign Affairs) to the noise problem at Bob Hope Airport, in Burbank.

As it happens, though, decennial redistricting is about to throw Berman and Sherman together into a single district, and they are suddenly locked in a fight for their political lives. Their race is likely to be one of the most expensive House contests in the country—multiple super PACs are involved, and the final tab is expected to come to at least $12 million. In the months leading up to California’s June primary, things have also been getting nasty. Sherman sent out mailers attempting to tie Berman to a gas-line explosion that caused eight deaths. Berman, for his part, said this of Sherman’s post-election career prospects: “Brad will make an excellent Hollywood stuntman.”

But how is anyone outside Washington supposed to tell the two foes apart? On a recent Thursday morning, I headed to their respective Washington, D.C., offices—they sit on opposite sides of the second floor of the Rayburn House Office Building—and challenged them to distinguish themselves.

Neither man was especially helpful.

VIDEO: Watch highlights from a Berman/Sherman debate.

“We have a few differences on issues—not too many,” said Berman, who was wearing a blue-and-white checked shirt and a blue tie, which flipped over and migrated to the left side of his modest potbelly as he spoke.

“The fact is that we work very closely together on foreign affairs and we work very closely together on San Fernando Valley issues,” said Sherman, who was also wearing a blue-and-white checked shirt and a blue tie, which flipped over and slid to the right side of his modest potbelly. “Our voting record is more similar than different.”

That might be an understatement: In National Journal’s ideological rankings of the current Congress, Berman and Sherman are the 69th- and 85th-most-liberal members, respectively, of the 435-person House. Both favor abortion rights, gay marriage, and gun control. Both voted for health-care reform and the Iraq War; both later turned against the war. Both worked to widen the 405 Freeway, and to protect the Santa Monica Mountains from development, and to secure more Customs agents for LAX.

Getting nowhere fast, I tried a new tack. If you were an animal, I asked each man, what kind of animal would you be?

Berman, confounded, paused for a long moment. “I would not be a python snake,” he said. “No. Because I just supported [a measure] preventing people from importing them.” People had been importing pythons, he explained, and letting them loose in the Everglades. “They were eating all the wildlife there,” he said.

Sherman cackled at the question, then replied, “A human being!” Pressed again, he held his ground: “I have never wanted to be an animal other than a human being.” He then directed his press aide to dig up a speech he’d given on “engineered intelligence.” (The address, to a Washington, D.C., health-care conference in 2007, is a meditation on the potential for scientists to create human-computer hybrids “possessing intelligence which surpasses our own.”) I concluded that Sherman preferred envisioning himself as a robotically enhanced superhuman to contemplating a move down the food chain. But on my original question—why would someone vote for Sherman over Berman, or Berman over Sherman?—I wasn’t any closer to an answer.

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Molly Ball is a staff writer covering national politics at The Atlantic.

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