Michael Berman, Democratic strategist and force in California politics, dies


Michael Berman, who shaped California politics for generations as the mastermind of Los Angeles’ vaunted “Berman-Waxman Political Machine,” died Friday. He was 75.

Berman burst onto the political scene before he was old enough to vote, running Henry Waxman’s first campaign for the state Legislature in 1968 and helping to unseat Democrat Lester A. McMillan, who had represented the Westside for 26 years. But it wasn’t his age or the long-shot win that earned Berman notice, it was his new approach: devising a plan with UCLA sociologist Howard Elinson to harness demographic data to target where campaign mailers should be sent for maximum impact.

Those micro-targeted mailers forever changed how races are won in California and remain standard political operating procedure. Berman used the same approach to carry his brother, Howard Berman, to the Legislature in 1972 over another longtime incumbent. While Michael Berman remained behind the scenes, his methods propelled Howard Berman and Waxman to the top of the political firmament — and kept them there for decades.


The Waxman-Berman Machine, as the trio would begrudgingly be known, became a powerful force that helped elect a network of allies who wielded enormous influence in Sacramento and Washington.

“I have very little doubt that without his and his colleague Howard Elinson’s efforts, I would not have ever been elected to office,” said Howard Berman, who spent a decade in the California Assembly and 30 years in Congress. “I would probably be a labor lawyer.”

Howard Berman said his younger brother was happy to stay out of the spotlight and away from cameras. He was known to work relentlessly, to the point of being described often in news stories as disheveled.

“I think it’s fair to say he was not interested in the public part of this,” Howard Berman said Sunday.

The Bermans grew up in Beverlywood, a middle-class, heavily Jewish neighborhood. Michael Berman attended Hamilton High School, where he organized a chapter of the Young Democrats. He then attended UCLA but left before graduating to work on campaigns.

“In the late 1960s, he thought of the idea of using personalized computer letters to the voters individually to make an argument … why they should support the candidate he was backing,” said Waxman, who was one of the nation’s most powerful and prodigious liberal lawmakers until his retirement in 2014.


That meant the campaign would not send mailers blindly, Waxman said, but instead would “appeal to teachers and homeowners and others concerned about very [specific] issues.”

In the 1970s and 1980s, Michael Berman was the go-to expert in redistricting, the once-a-decade process of creating new political maps after each census. He was instrumental in mapping congressional districts that helped Democrats expand their majority. Those methods were not without controversy: Critics said Berman’s strategies manipulated political levers to create safe congressional districts for allies at the cost of fair representation for constituents.

Friends said Berman was a brilliant and blunt Democratic consultant who helped make generations of political careers in the state.

“He was decades ahead of his time,” said Burt Margolin, a former member of the Assembly whom Michael helped elect in 1982. “In the ‘70s and late ‘60s he was doing things that no one else in politics did. It wasn’t just that he was a political genius; he also had a work ethic, the likes of which I had never seen.”

Berman ran political campaigns with the same shrewd and strategic maneuvering that he brought to the blackjack table, said former California Democratic Party Chair John Burton.

“He was good enough to be banned from a lot of casinos,” Burton said Sunday.

Burton said casinos assumed that Berman was counting cards, adding that he could “calculate and machinate things in ways that the rest of us couldn’t begin to fathom.”


When Burton’s brother, Rep. Phillip Burton, died in 1983, Berman called to ask what he could do. John Burton said he began to talk about political strategies for Sala Burton to take her late husband’s seat.

“He said, ‘Oh, no, no, I mean can I do anything for Sala — not politics, but is there anything she needs?’” Burton said. “That was a side of Michael that people didn’t really see, that sensitivity.”

Berman’s legacy, Burton said, will forever be ingrained in the significant changes he made in California politics.

“There’s no way to trace it all back to him,” Burton said. “But we know.”

Times staff writers Mark Z. Barabak and Seema Mehta contributed to this report.