House Race May Test Israel’s Importance To Voters

The race in California’s new 30th Congressional district pits a pair of Jewish moderate Democratic congressmen, may reveal a great deal about the importance of Israel in a newly formed district with a sizeable Jewish population.

Voters will be choosing between one legislator with a 30-year record as an influential pro-Israel leader on Capitol Hill and another who simply votes right without doing any of the heavy lifting. Will voters recognize and reward the difference?

The contest is also an instructive case of neighborhood concerns versus national politics and changing voter priorities.

The two contestants are Brad Sherman and Howard Berman, a pair of Jewish moderate Democratic congressmen thrown together in a newly drawn district which has about 60 percent of Sherman’s old constituents, 20 percent of Berman’s and 20 percent from Rep. Henry Waxman (D).

A new state law sent the top two finishers in the primary, regardless of party, to face each other on Nov 6. 

In his 15 years on Capitol Hill, Sherman, 57, has concentrated on high visibility local retail politics. His legislative record in the House is at best meager, with only three bills of his becoming law, including two renaming post offices.

Berman, 71, on the other hand, has a long record of legislative achievement and is a highly regarded figure in foreign policy as well as judicial reform, notably tightening restrictions on copyright violations.

Sherman has been leading in the polls since June, when he beat Berman by 10 points in the primary, although the gap is shrinking.  Berman is a victim of shifting priorities as voters across the country narrow their focus and foreign policy is overshadowed by the economy and other issues closer to home, which have been Sherman’s focus.

Berman has played a prominent role in shaping America’s position abroad, and, facing his toughest race in thee decades, he has to convince voters that is still important to them. As chairman of the House Committee on Foreign Affairs when Democrats were in the majority, he prominently worked on matters concerning the Middle East, China and humanitarian assistance in Africa.

He has been at the forefront in protecting the bilateral relations between Jerusalem and Washington, particularly at a time of tension in the alliance. 

The National Journal has described him as "one of the most creative members of the House and one of the most clear-sighted operators in American politics." Although active on many issues, he has been described as "not one who gets much publicity.” He’s been working hard to change that and to put more emphasis on local achievements.

As voting day nears the campaign has become increasingly acrimonious and may wind up being the most expensive House race this year. 

I’ve known and worked with Berman since he first came to Congress in 1983, particularly during my nine years as legislative director of the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC).  He consistently demonstrated an imaginative approach to problems and an ability to work across party lines. That is why his name appears on so many pieces of legislation.

He created the US-Israel Cooperative Development Research (CDR) program in 1985, a unique approach that combined American funding and Israeli scientific expertise in developing countries to the benefit of all three. He also was responsible for creating a cooperative program between the international development agencies of both countries, Israel’s Mashav and USAID, to jointly fight hunger in Africa. 

He also was responsible for what has been dubbed the Berman Scholarships, which made it possible for students from Arab countries to attend American universities in the Middle East to learn western values.

On the surface Berman and Sherman have very similar records but they differ in how they saw and performed their jobs as legislators. It is apparent in their travels.   On Rosh Hashanah Berman attended services at his own synagogue, Adat Ari El, while Sherman went shul hopping to three different local services. Berman has traveled overseas more than 150 times while Sherman has held more than 160 town hall meetings back in the San Fernando Valley. 

Foreign policy can be local politics in a district like the 30th in the Los Angeles suburbs with its large Jewish population and strong support for Israel, but is that enough to win elections?

 “Howard came to Congress as part of that remarkable class of 1982,” said Tom Dine, AIPAC’s former executive director.  “His record of accomplishment is special and stands out, particularly in today’s political environment dominated by spoilers such as the tea partiers who uncompromisingly demand their way of the highway.”

Both candidates are strong supporters of Israel, but the difference is between a leader of considerable stature and achievement and a follower well back in the pack. Berman’s record of strong leadership on US Middle East policy is an advantage in the new district.

Said Dine, “First, I think Howard Berman is indispensible in the making of US foreign policy in areas of conflict and this accrues to Israel’s benefit. He is the most respected member of the Foreign Affairs Committee; there’s no one else like him on the committee today and it will be so tomorrow.  Secondly he has a true feeling and understanding of the importance of Israel to America’s security interests.  Presidents rely on him, senators and his House colleagues rely on him.

 “He is an international healer in this broken world, not a ward heeler,” he added.

Berman has the support of most of the California Democratic establishment, the Los Angeles Times and even some prominent Republicans, including Senators John McCain (R-Arizona) and Lindsay Graham (R-South Carolina), plus Sen. Joseph Lieberman (I-Connecticut).  Those senators, known as the Three Amigos, are expected to help Berman attract Republicans and independents. 

Berman, who has been dubbed Hollywood’s congressman, also has strong support in the entertainment community for his work on the Judiciary Committee to protect intellectual property rights

California Gov. Jerry Brown may have said it best in his endorsement of Berman:  “(He) knows what the hell he is doing and can work with the other side.”

About the Author
Douglas M. Bloomfield is a syndicated columnist, Washington lobbyist and consultant. He spent nine years as the legislative director and chief lobbyist for AIPAC.