That was 1972, when he won a state Assembly seat in his first race. Now the 70-year-old Democrat and House veteran, one of California's most enduring politicians, is girding for a potentially bruising battle with a congressional colleague.
New voting maps, drawn for the first time by a citizens commission instead of behind closed doors by self-interested lawmakers, melded Berman's San Fernando Valley district with that of Rep. Brad Sherman, 56, also a Democrat. Neither is yielding the ground, to the consternation of party leaders.
"It's never healthy when you have two Democratic congressmen running against each other," said state Democratic Party chief John L. Burton, a former state lawmaker and congressman.
The intraparty fight will siphon resources that could be used to defend vulnerable Democratic seats or capture marginally Republican ones, he said.
"I wish," Burton said, perhaps only half joking, that "one of them would move to Florida."
The contest is one of several in California pitting incumbents from the same party against each other. Democratic Reps. Janice Hahn of San Pedro and Laura Richardson of Long Beach are expected to battle for a new district in their slice of Los Angeles County. Republican Reps. Ed Royce of Fullerton and Gary Miller of Diamond Bar are facing off for a seat based in Orange County.
But the Berman-Sherman clash is expected to be one of the nation's costliest House races, possibly surpassing $10 million in the June primary alone. With the state's new "top two" primary election system, the fray — and the big spending — could continue into the November general election, if no Republican earns a spot on the fall ballot in the strongly Democratic district. So far, the GOP candidates are actor Mark Reed and novelist Susan Shelley, who face long odds.
Much of the new district is currently Sherman territory, and he acknowledged the awkwardness of the rivalry. "Howard is a friend," he said. "It's not a preferred situation." Sherman's campaign consultant, Parke Skelton, scoffed at suggestions by some that his client defer to the senior congressman by getting out of the race.
"These districts aren't Spanish land grants," Skelton said. "Nobody owns them."
Neither man has an attractive choice outside the new 30th District. Neighboring districts, one more Republican and the other largely Latino, don't fit either lawmaker nearly as well as the mostly white, liberal one they both live in (Berman resides in Valley Village, Sherman in Sherman Oaks).
"This is going to be a very hard-fought campaign, and I don't see either candidate blinking," said Allan Hoffenblum, a former Republican consultant who publishes the nonpartisan California Target Book assessing state races.
The cerebral Berman is half of a political alliance that dominated Westside politics for decades, spawned by his friendship with Rep. Henry A. Waxman (D-Beverly Hills), which began when the two attended UCLA. The "Waxman-Berman machine" helped elect many liberal Democrats with a combination of folksy campaigning — handing out potholders bearing their picks' names — and sophisticated mail targeting of specific groups of voters.
First elected to Congress in 1982, Berman is now the top Democrat on the House Foreign Affairs Committee, a former chairman who could get the gavel back if Democrats regain a majority in the House next year. He has concentrated on immigration and, as a Judiciary Committee member, on intellectual property issues important to the entertainment industry.
Sherman, known for his self-effacing humor — the balding lawmaker gives out combs as campaign souvenirs — was an accountant before earning a Harvard law degree and practicing tax law. He says he first worked on Democratic campaigns as a 6-year-old, stuffing envelopes. He won his first elected office, a seat on the state Board of Equalization, in 1990.
He went to Congress in 1997. His voting record is generally more moderate than those of most local Democrats, and he sometimes breaks with the party. He turned heads in 2008 by calling the federal bailout of the financial industry "cash for trash." A staffer once affectionately referred to the detail-oriented lawmaker as a "tax nerd."
Sherman has been preparing for the showdown, stockpiling funds for nearly four years, and hasn't stopped campaigning since his last election. He was well aware that the growth of Latino voters in the Valley could foreshadow big changes in the political landscape and possibly push him into competition with Berman.
So far, Sherman has the bigger war chest. His latest finance report showed nearly $3.7 million on hand — more than any House Democrat had — to Berman's $1.5 million.
Although many voters are not yet engaged in the race, Sherman has been campaigning aggressively. He's been in the Valley every weekend for months, manning a booth to meet constituents during summer concerts in Warner Park and attending other local events. He rallied with supermarket workers early last month as they pushed for a new contract, and he issues "work schedules" of coming appearances.
Sherman's campaign website features an endorsement from Bill Clinton. It shows a photo of the two and a quote from the former president: "Brad has worked tirelessly for the people of California and I hope he will continue to do so." He also lists dozens of officeholders and civic leaders as backers.
"He'll turn over every stone to find a voter," said Garry South, a Democratic strategist and former senior advisor to Gov. Gray Davis who tangled with the Berman camp in the last redistricting, in 2001. "Berman hasn't had a campaign in years, and a lot of these longtime incumbents are really, really rusty."
Not so fast, say Berman and his backers — just wait till voters have a chance to compare records.
Michael Berman, the strategist behind the Berman-Waxman axis who is running his brother's reelection effort, calls his brother "a leader" and Sherman a "backbencher." Congressman Berman has been campaigning mainly by raising money and "doing his job" rather than attending public events in the district, said Michael Berman.
The congressman pointed to several projects he has helped secure for the area, including money for more police officers; swimming, fishing and other recreational facilities at a lake in the northeast Valley; a successful effort to keep a hospital from leaving the district; funding for 405 Freeway improvements.
"The defining issue is who has been more effective back here," said Berman, who paused to recall his first campaign, when he knocked off a Republican who had been in office 26 years.
"My motto then was, 'Time for a change,'" he said drolly. "I have a different motto this time."