Clone Wars

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

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.

Over the course of my interrogations, a few differences did emerge. Sherman said that he, unlike Berman, had opposed free-trade agreements, which he derided as the creation of “economists with baritone voices”; Berman said that he, unlike Sherman, had supported the 2008 Troubled Asset Relief Program, calling his vote “the right and responsible position.” Finally getting somewhere, I looked around for more clues. Berman had a large map of the world on his wall; Sherman, a block-by-block map of his soon-to-be-bygone district. Berman’s desk was conspicuously neat, the surrounding area carefully arrayed with unobtrusive tchotchkes—a menorah on a shelf, a cluster of civic-award statuettes on a side table. Sherman inhabited a messy cavern of a workspace, papers spilling from shelves. An obvious contrast between the two men suddenly came into focus, a way of typecasting them: Berman was the patrician, accomplished Washington insider; Sherman the authentic, people-powered man of the neighborhood. But once noted, this difference of style and emphasis only underscored their sameness, like different haircuts on identical twins.

So who will prevail in this donnybrook of the duplicates? The race may well come down to geography: about 60 percent of the new district is drawn from Sherman’s turf; just 20 percent comes from Berman’s. (Sherman noted that he has a mnemonic advantage, too: “Did I mention I’m Brad Sherman from Sherman Oaks?” he said with relish, referring to a neighborhood in the southern part of the new district. “There is no Berman Oaks.”) Then again, Berman is the political heavyweight. With 30 years in office to Sherman’s 16, he has the big-money allies—at least three super PACs are known to be active in the race, all supporting him—and the endorsements: the governor, both of the state’s senators, and most of California’s Democratic representatives are on his side.

The member-on-member primary is always a nasty business, as longtime friends and collaborators suddenly turn on each other, like relatives fighting over an inheritance. By the time this election year is out, 11 pairs of same-party congressional incumbents will have faced off, the most in at least 30 years. For Berman and Sherman’s many mutual friends, the choice is prompting no small amount of kvetching. “We just had an AIPAC conference, and I would say that one out of every five people I talked to [from the L.A. area] said ‘Oh my God, I’m heartbroken about this race,’” Sherman said, referring to the March meeting of the American Israel Public Affairs Committee. Representative Henry Waxman, the dean of the newly riven balding-liberal-Jewish-lawyers-from-L.A. caucus, recently told a local reporter: “I’m angry that two Democrats are running against each other, spending millions of dollars, when we could have used that money to elect other Democrats.”

Worse, they are going to do it twice. Last year, California moved to what’s known as a “jungle primary” system, in which the general election is a runoff between the primary’s top two vote-getters, regardless of their party. Because Berman and Sherman’s new district is overwhelmingly Democratic, whichever man doesn’t win the June primary is expected to come in second.

Which means that whether Berman wins on June 5 and Sherman is the runner-up, or Sherman wins and Berman is the runner-up, their duel is far from over. On November 6, they will likely be back on the ballot, and voters will have to once again come up with a reason to pick one man over the other.

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Watch video highlights from the candidates’ debates: