Democrats' Powerful Alliance Thrives : Waxman-Berman Team: It Spells Clout

Times Political Writer

In the old days, politicians used to get together and run things and it was called a machine. Many got in trouble, and machines fell out of fashion.

But on the Westside of Los Angeles and reaching outward, a modern-day variant of a political machine thrives, unencumbered by some obviously unsavory traditions of yore--and it demonstrates in almost every election just what a force like-minded politicians can be when teamed up with state-of-the-art political technicians and moneyed contributors.

To be sure, this Waxman-Berman political organization, as it is known, is not whom you call if your garbage doesn't get picked up.

But in Democratic Party politics, if you want to run your daughter or son for the Legislature, you might need the organization's help. If you're the Speaker of the Assembly and you have $1 million in your pocket for an important statewide ballot initiative campaign, you turn to the organization to run it.

If you are Mayor Tom Bradley of Los Angeles, you dangled embarrassingly in public this winter while awaiting a Waxman-Berman reelection endorsement. If you are thinking of being governor, like state Sen. Gary K. Hart (D-Santa Barbara), tentative support from Waxman-Berman bestows instant credibility on your early campaign.

But along the way, the tactics and relentless will of Waxman-Berman churn up controversy just as surely as TNT tears up concrete.

"We're a group of people who have worked together, in most cases for a long time, and who share a commitment to progressive programs," said Rep. Howard Berman (D-Studio City), one of the namesakes of the organization. He is a two-term congressman and former Democratic leader in the Assembly, a sallow complexioned man who leaves few people feeling neutral about him.

"That we are together is a reflection that we can do more, and do more effectively, if we have allies," Berman added.

The other senior partner of the group is Rep. Henry Waxman (D-Los Angeles), a 10-year veteran of Congress, a short bullet of a legislator with a reputation for skill and accomplishment of someone with twice his seniority. Beyond that, three other elected Westside officials form the core of the alliance, well-credentialed Rep. Mel Levine (D-Santa Monica), fatherly state Sen. Herschel Rosenthal (D-Los Angeles) and eager sophomore Assemblyman Burt Margolin (D-Los Angeles).

All are liberals. They prefer to be known as "progressives." As the Democratic Party searches for new success, they want to be heard. Their alliance is their megaphone. They are close like family, bound by geography, their Jewish heritage and a willingness, unusual in politics, to protect each other. Associates refer to them collectively as "the Boys" and "the guys."

"Did you talk to the Boys?"

"This is how the guys feel. . . . "

Signatures Reflected

Most of their public lives are thrown at the business of legislating, at which the group, particularly the veteran congressional trio, is exceptionally talented. Any number of important liberal accomplishments, from the renewal of federal Clean Air Act to enactment of the California Agricultural Labor Relations Act to the U.S. moratorium on oil drilling in sensitive offshore areas, reflect the signature of Waxman, Berman and Levine's legislative operation. As it is, however, much of the attention they receive is for their political activities.

At least part of the reason is that an alliance such as this one in the jealous, backbiting world of politics is downright unusual. So, naturally, it gets attention.

And, in a way, it serves some of the functions of a political party in grooming and electing candidates who will reflect its goals.

"California has a history of very weak parties and most other places have a stronger Democratic Party," said Waxman, by way of explanation. "I don't know of any other like it (the Westside organization)."

Personal Connections

This year, with city election campaigns under way, "the guys" are in the news backing candidates for two offices, West Los Angeles lawyer Lisa Specht for city attorney and UCLA administrator and community college trustee Rick Tuttle for controller. In both instances, there are personal as well as political connections behind the endorsements.

More celebrated is the organization's suddenly chilly relationship with another political friend, Bradley. The Westside organization hesitated publicly before endorsing Bradley for reelection to signal its pique over the mayor's approval of Pacific Palisades oil drilling. The organization also openly suggested that the mayor should not run for governor next year to make way for new statewide Democratic leadership.

The Waxman-Berman alliance, as you might expect, stands ready with its own new-leadership candidate in Hart, whose name is conveniently associated with the very subject of new-idea in politics. State Sen. Hart is not a relative of U.S. senator and former Democratic presidential candidate Gary Hart of Colorado, but does seem to share his appeal to younger, restless voters.

To those unlucky enough to be on the other side of any given campaign, the Westside Democratic operation takes on an ominous and feared cast.

'Remote, Self-Anointed'

"The guys" are perceived as remote, self-anointed and just as apt to turn their resources and anger against a fellow progressive Democrat as a right-wing Republican.

"This dictatorship will not prevail! . . . There is a Waxman-Berman machine and I think the people are sick of it," declared state Sen. David A. Roberti (D-Los Angeles) in 1982, when one of his aides was challenged by one of Waxman's former aides, Burt Margolin, in the Democratic primary for the Assembly seat eventually won by Margolin.

"Despicable character assassination!" is the way candidate Wallace Albertson, now a community college trustee, felt about her defeat in the Democratic primary race that year against Margolin. She complained that questions were raised about her commitment to Jewish interests.

"There are so many unknowns when you run against them, so many kinds of sneaky things you anticipate," said Assemblywoman Gloria Molina (D-Los Angeles), who won an Eastside Assembly seat in 1982 against a candidate backed by elements of the Waxman-Berman operation.

And these are just the reviews of like-minded, liberal-leaning Democrats.

Wounds Bound Up

In truth, however, many campaign wounds like these get bound up. Politicians don't have thick hides for nothing. Roberti, for instance, has since made peace, and entrusted the organization with managing important Democratic election responsibilities. Molina said that although she braced for the worst in her campaign, she found the organization's anything-goes reputation "exaggerated."

What critics cannot seem to get over, however, is the swagger of the whole operation--that this handful of people is out here dabbling in so much, so often and with so much success. Drat.

"It's like they're telling everyone what's good for them," Molina complained.

There is a minority view, however, that the organization's real power falls short of the reputation of its press clippings.

'Get More Attention'

"I think their influence and importance is blown way out of proportion. . . . In terms of politics, they may be the only example of this kind of alliance in the country, let alone California, so they get more attention and are given more credit by the media and others than they deserve. Many of the people they supposedly elect would have been elected without them," said one Westside Democratic critic.

Just in case, this individual asked not to be named.

In fact, most critics of the organization insisted on not being identified with their stronger, negative descriptions of Waxman-Berman, in which words like "vengeful" and "mean" and "dirty" were voiced repeatedly.

Why?

"Because they never forget," said one who, of course, demanded anonymity.

'Hard-Hitting Campaigns'

Carl D'Agostino, one of the organization's chief political operatives, responded: "We run hard-hitting campaigns. We don't run dirty campaigns. We don't even rank close to what would be considered dirty."

In his years in Congress, Waxman has become a major force on matters of health and an accomplished power broker in the baroque corridors of the institution. Margolin, his former administrative aide, continues the health-care tradition in the Assembly.

Berman, while achieving important committee assignments in Congress, is perhaps still best known for his prolific days in the Legislature, where he was responsible for things such as enlarging public holdings, controlling development in the Santa Monica Mountains and the law that gave people the right to see their medical records. Levine is a ferocious opponent of unrestrained oil drilling and a champion of more federal aid to Israel.

No matter how skillfully wielded, however, five votes distributed between Washington and Sacramento go only so far.

Ability to Raise Money

What separates Waxman-Berman from other political cabals is its ability to raise money and willingness to share it with others in politics, and there is its famous, or notorious, campaign-management arm.

There also is the organization's grasp and control of reapportionment, the business of reshaping legislative and congressional districts every 10 years. It is a matter as close to the hearts of politicians as their wallets.

The campaign and reapportionment work for the operation is done by Berman and D'Agostino Campaigns. The acronym, BAD, is what they call themselves. Their smoky, cluttered offices on the edge of Beverly Hills bring to mind the headquarters of a bail bondsman who fired his file clerks a year ago. Yet, it is possible to marvel that in this scene of apparent chaos, decisions are made that affect the course of politics up and down the state.

This is home to Michael Berman, younger brother to Howard Berman, the inside man of the Waxman-Berman operation, its chief political samurai, and his partner D'Agostino, former top deputy to state Controller Ken Cory and the team's organizer, its businessman.

Proposition 39 Defeat

They are perhaps most widely known for their controversial campaign last fall against Proposition 39, the effort by Gov. George Deukmejian to shape a better deal for Republicans than the 1982 reapportionment drawn by majority-party Democrats.

Against odds, Michael Berman and D'Agostino moved swiftly and so aggressively that they outright stole the show from the popular Deukmejian, won the election and are riding stratospherically high these days for it. Republicans were dazed, then hostile. It had been their issue. Why wasn't it debated on their terms?

They were not the first to be bitter at losing to Waxman-Berman/Berman-D'Agostino.

It is recalled, for instance, that there were charges of "unfair, unfair" as far back as 1972 in Howard Berman's first run for office. At the time he sent a mailer to Republicans in his district urging a vote for himself and then President Richard Nixon. Today, the principals just shake their heads sheepishly.

Storm Clouds Gather

Over the years, the group has grown and changed but storm clouds seem to gather around them every election just the same. In recent years, attention has been focused on their widespread use of computerized slate-mailers.

These mailers are delivered to homes around the state in ever increasing volumes, with computer-targeted appeals to individual recipients and a list of recommended candidates. They are offered as official-appearing Democratic voting guides and have become the trademark of the Westside political organization.

For the 1984 general election, the company mailed out its list of slates in two waves, totaling about 6.5 million pieces. There were lists of recommended candidates and ballot propositions, plus extra space for candidates to offer short messages tailored directly to the reader. In the mailings, there were about 12,000 variations of candidates and messages, depending on the profile of the recipient family--its location, its race, religion and so forth.

The idea is to allow Democratic candidates to join together and split the high costs of direct mail and allow them to reach voters with a message as personal as if they were standing on the doorstep. A professional woman in Orange County, for instance, may receive a candidate's views on child care, while a retired couple in the Fairfax District may get a message on Social Security.

'It's Just More Care'

"It's not black magic. It's just more care. We're willing to devote more time and thought to a campaign," D'Agostino said.

"There is no doubt about it, the stuff Michael and Carl do is more advanced than anybody else in the country. In terms of persuasion mail, they're ahead of everyone." said Frank Tobe, whose computer mailing firm, Below, Tobe and Assoc. Inc., produces the mailers for Waxman-Berman and a host of other clients nationally, including the Democratic National Committee.

The decisions of who is listed and who isn't on the slate mailers, which candidates must pay and how much, and the entire matter of mixing profit and politics are the sources of criticism.

The company said its present policy is to include all except fringe Democrats on the basic slate lists at no charge. Candidates then pay extra for special displays, photographs or what not. The company makes its money--large amounts of it by most accounts--from these fees and what backers or opponents of ballot propositions pay to be included on the mailers.

'Policies Not for Sale'

"We make money but our policies are not for sale," D'Agostino said. "Unlike most businesses, we have a political and ideological point of view. We are not hired guns."

"In my mind, there is an ethical question--this mixing Democratic politics and big money political consulting," said one Los Angeles Democrat who is at odds with the organization. This person asked not to be named.

"It sometimes bothers me," agreed the group's Sen. Rosenthal.

Congressman Berman said he believes the worry is unfair. He noted that his brother and D'Agostino worked for a long time as aides, receiving government wages and taking extended unpaid leaves during elections.

'No Financial Benefit'

"For 12 years they were giving it away, their talent. And now they are a private business. . . . When I need them, I pay; and when I don't, I don't. I understand the appearance problem, but we have gone to lengths to keep ourselves separate from their business," Berman's older brother said. "And, absolutely, absolutely--I can't state it emphatically enough--there is no financial benefit to any elected official as a result of this business."

On other matters of money--campaign fund raising--the Waxman-Berman organization's strength is the pro-Israel, Jewish wealth of its Westside and San Fernando Valley constituencies. In the parlance of politics, this is largely "clean" money.

"It is not money invested in politics to produce a financial benefit for the contributor," Howard Berman offers by way of definition.

Bruce Corwin, president of Metropolitan Theaters, is a Westside contributor and Howard Berman's campaign treasurer. Why does he give to the Waxman-Berman group?

Started as Friends

"It starts as friends, on a personal level. . . . I dated Mel's sister," he said. "The politics came later. We're all from the Westside and progressive, liberal Democrats who happen to be Jewish and care about Israel and human rights in general--and the poor and the sick. We care."

The Waxman-Berman organization uses its money-raising skills to assist scores, if not hundreds, of candidates and causes over the years.

"I'm not the kind to end up the year with a campaign surplus," Berman said, proudly.

As an example, Berman, now in his second term in Congress, said the Westside organization deserves credit for raising more than half the congressional delegation's $1.5-million contribution to fighting Proposition 39. At the same time, Waxman, whose focus is almost exclusively on congressional matters, used his 24th Congressional District Political Action Committee to divide up more than $50,000 in contributions to 35 candidates for the House last year.

Large Coterie of Allies

Both through these contributions, endorsements and campaign management help, the Westside political operation has amassed a large coterie of allies sprinkled throughout Los Angeles and California.

They include black Rep. Julian C. Dixon and Assemblywoman Gwen Moore, both (D-Los Angeles); suburban Eastside Latinos Reps. Esteban Torres (D-La Puente) and Matthew G. Martinez (D-Monterey Park); Anglo Valley Assemblyman Tom Bane (D-Tarzana); fellow Westsiders Assemblyman Gray Davis and state Board of Equalization member Conway Collis; City Councilman Zev Yaroslavsky, and Los Angeles Dist. Atty. Ira Reiner, to name some.

Despite this long reach across politics, the Waxman-Berman organization strongly objects to the label "machine" on ground that it carries unfair implications of corruption and patronage and expansionist politics for no other cause.

"Going back to their days at UCLA (where they met and were classmates), Howard and Henry still look at themselves as reformers fighting the political Establishment, so they have a hard time accepting this notion they run a machine," said a friend, who spoke on a not-for-attribution basis.

Used as Pejorative

As well they might be concerned. More and more it seems, the label "machine" is used as a pejorative in campaigns against Waxman-Berman candidates.

But the principals still seem to enjoy the attention their alliance brings and relish their image as power brokers.

"I believe this is an alliance of people. . . . To call us a machine is to give us an unfairly negative reputation. But, yes, there is something. When the three of use are sitting together in the (House of Representatives) Rayburn Room we are sometimes teased, 'Hey the room is tilting.' So clearly there is the perception out there," said Levine, the handsome blueblood of the group.

Along the way, however, the organization had some rather painful failures.

Battle for Speakership

Most remembered was the ugly and costly battle in 1979-80 to get Howard Berman, then an assemblyman, elected Speaker of the Assembly by ousting incumbent Leo T. McCarthy, who is now California's lieutenant governor.

The struggle tore the Legislature apart for two years. A Democratic Party already chafing of its political identity was weighted down with vicious grudges, some of which still seethe in Democratic politics.

Although unintended, Berman and McCarthy, both with reputations for personal integrity and independence from special interests, allowed their fight to become so costly that the legislative dependence on special-interest contributions grew manifestly during their struggle.

On the other hand, Berman's backers today argue that the extra money raised by both sides in the Speakership fight assisted in the election of more Democrats to the Legislature than otherwise would have been the case.

The future?

Of 25 Democratic figures in the state interviewed for this account, every single one believed that the influence of the Waxman-Berman operation is expanding right now in Congress, in political technology and in sheer numbers of supporters.

"Their star is on the rise," Assemblyman Davis said. "Certainly their imaginative and highly successful campaign against the governor's reapportionment initiative puts them in the front of the line. And in this business, you're as good as your last campaign."

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