After three decades near the top of the political firmament in Los Angeles and Washington, Democratic lion Howard Berman is leaving Congress, a casualty of California’s new political landscape.
Fellow Democratic Rep. Brad Sherman defeated Berman 60%-39% Tuesday in a highly contentious, multimillion-dollar battle for a San Fernando Valley seat. It marked the only election loss ever for the 71-year-old Berman, who won his first race, for state Assembly, by ousting a longtime Republican incumbent in 1972. He never again faced a tough election, through a decade as a state legislator and 30 years in Congress.
“I tried my hardest,” Berman said in an interview Wednesday, expressing one of the “million thoughts” he said were racing through his head.
“I consider myself one of the luckiest guys in the world” despite the loss, Berman said. “I got to do something I loved doing for 40 years… and I like to think I made some difference for some people, so I consider myself blessed.”
Berman’s departure was set in motion by two voter-authorized changes: new political maps that put both lawmakers’ homes into the 30th Congressional District and a revamped elections system that sends the top two primary finishers to the fall election, regardless of party. Some other lawmakers who found themselves in similar circumstances retired or sought office elsewhere.
The contest between Berman and Sherman, who is 58, drew national attention. That was in large part because of Berman’s status in Washington, where he once chaired the House Foreign Affairs Committee and had developed a reputation for working effectively with Republicans on legislation involving copyrights and intellectual property, trade agreements and immigration.
The National Journal called Berman “one of the most creative members of the House and one of the most clear-sighted operators in American politics.”
But Sherman was better known at home, having carefully honed his “Valley guy” persona by hosting scores of town hall-style meetings, cultivating relationships with local leaders and attending community events nearly every weekend for years. He had a big advantage in that more than half his previous turf was in the new district.
The battle between two former allies with similar views and voting records provoked hand-wringing from constituents and interest groups who didn’t want to see either man go.
“It’s such a shame we have to lose one of them,” said Valley Industry Commerce Assn. President Stuart Waldman, who made sure to attend the election night parties of both candidates, held less than two blocks apart in Encino.
Berman’s departure also closes out an era when he and longtime friend Rep. Henry A. Waxman (D-Beverly Hills) dominated area Democratic politics. Through much of the 1970s and beyond, Waxman, Berman and his political consultant brother, Michael Berman, presided over a potent, Westside-based political operation that helped elect dozens of liberals to a variety of offices.
Their arsenal ranged from the folksy — they gave out potholders emblazoned with their candidates’ names — to the sophisticated. Michael Berman helped develop political mail techniques that tailored messages to particular groups of voters.
Michael Berman became an expert in redistricting, the once-a-decade process of creating new political maps after each census. He helped legislators draw districts that protected incumbents in both parties.
Howard Berman’s East Valley district was becoming increasingly Latino, and the citizens commission assigned by voters to do last year’s remapping carved away much of his territory to create a new heavily Latino district under the federal Voting Rights Act. That set the stage for the showdown with Sherman.
“Neither Howard Berman nor I wanted this contest,” Sherman said in a statement Wednesday.
He went on to praise Berman’s work preserving Santa Monica Mountains parklands, his efforts to “strengthen the U.S.-Israel relationship, and his leadership in the global fight against HIV/AIDS.”
Berman’s election night party was a hive of Democratic muscle with at least one Republican, retiring Rep. Elton Gallegly of Simi Valley, on hand.
“I really, truly love all of you,” an emotional Berman told the crowd before voters’ decision was known. And he told a reporter he would remain involved in community affairs.
“It’s in my DNA,” he said.
Catherine Saillant and David Zahniser contributed to this report.