Michael Berman, a fiercely combative political consultant, has always been a secretive sort, especially when it comes to talking to reporters. I can testify to that. He hasn’t spoken to me since August 1988.
That’s when he was running Zev Yaroslavsky’s campaign for Los Angeles mayor. Someone had obtained a memo Berman and his partner Carl D’Agostino had written to Yaroslavsky and leaked it to the Times. Although I wasn’t the recipient of the leak my editor had me do the story. I called Berman, and read him some of the more inflammatory parts of the memo. He got mad, and said I was receiving stolen property, like a fence. But he confirmed the memo was authentic, and I wrote, “Two political consultants have told Los Angeles City Councilman Zev Yaroslavsky that he will lose to Tom Bradley in the mayoral election next year unless he becomes an uncompromising foe of overdevelopment, learns to smile more and improves his fund raising, especially among his fellow Jews.” The Jewish part really got Berman in trouble, and that was the end of our relationship.
He can now forget his privacy. Berman is involved in the re-election campaign of his brother, Rep. Howard Berman, who is locked in a hot race against the aggressive Rep. Brad Sherman in the San Fernando Valley. On Thursday, the Sherman campaign unleashed a blast accusing Howard of paying Michael $741,500 from 1992 to 2010 to manage campaigns where there was little or no opposition. The campaign reform group Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington cited four years of Berman expenditures in a report on congressional nepotism issued in March, the Sherman campaign said. Sherman campaign researchers then looked up campaign spending reports dating back to 1992
Sherman’s campaign manager, Scott Abrams, filed a complaint with the Federal Election Commission declaring,” There is an overwhelming amount of evidence to show that Howard Berman has used campaign funds to Michael Berman well in excess of market value for ‘services’ in non competitive races.” What the commission will do with the complaint is uncertain. It is divided 3-3 between Democrats and Republicans and that is how the vote often ends up on controversial matters—if the staff even refers it to the commission. And the amount of money paid to consultants for writing and distributing advertisements and devising strategy is a murky area. It’s like paying a lawyer for billable hours or an auto repair place for fixing your car. It’s often unclear how much is too much.
Berman campaign spokesman Jason Levin said, "The Sherman campaign's allegations only tell one side of the story. When you average together the amount paid to Michael Berman as alleged in Sherman's complaint (between 1991 and 2010), that totals out to $39,026.31 per year. In an examination of salaries paid to Scott Abrams, Brad Sherman's permanent political staffer during the period between 2006 and 2010, his yearly salary averages out to $40,895.60. Sherman's claim that Michael Berman is overpaid is ludicrous."
I can imagine how much Michael hates this. For years he was a backroom legend in Los Angeles politics. He and partner D’Agostino were pioneers in the selective mailings that are now part of political campaigns, each mailing targeted a specific group of people connected by ethnicity or ideology.
Times changed. The Internet began to replace postal delivery. Campaign managers had to talk to reporters, giving them quick quotable responses in e-mails, twitters and instant messages. The secretive campaign chief was giving way to a new, public relations oriented breed. In a sign of the times, Michael has either relinquished or has been forced to share his campaign boss duties with the more communicative Brandon Hall, who managed Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid’s surprising victory in 2010 in Nevada.
I’ve always felt sort of bad about Michael cutting me off for the past 24 years. I thought he was interesting and often amusing. But, as another political consultant told me, “You have to admire a guy who can hold a grudge that long.”
You’ve heard of the Mitt Romney-Paul Ryan ticket. But I bet the idea of a Ryan-Brad Sherman ticket never occurred to you. It didn’t occur to me until I covered the debate Wednesday night between Reps. Sherman and Howard Berman.
Amazingly—actually unbelievably—Sherman bragged about his cooperation with Rep. Paul Ryan, the designated Republican vice presidential nominee who wants to convert Medicare to a voucher system. He did this in a packed multi-purpose room at Sherman Oaks Notre Dame High School where a majority of the audience appeared to be Medicare eligible.
Sherman was talking about his ability to get things done behind the scenes, even though he has authored few successful bills. He boasted how he had worked with Ryan—and with Democrat Nancy Pelosi—on legislation that would have given President Barack Obama the right to veto individual items in the budget, the so-called line-item veto. Then, in response to Berman’s criticism of his bill-passing skill, Sherman noted that Ryan had been criticized as a “back bencher” because only two of his bills became law. The implication was that Ryan and Sherman shared the same work ethic that Sherman described as “I’m a work horse, not a show horse.”
Berman sarcastically remarked that perhaps Sherman, in comparing himself to Ryan, was hoping President Obama would name him vice presidential nominee to replace Joe Biden.
The audience applauded that remark and there were few cheers when Sherman boasted of his work with Ryan.
Mostly, however, fans of both men, battling for a San Fernando Valley congressional seat, cheered their favorites in a spirited debate that featured the usually reserved Berman in a new combative mode.
I was most interested in their differences over the Wall Street bailout. Sherman has been critical of it and boasted he forced major changes. Berman noted that the bailout prevented the recession from becoming a depression. “The financial situation was so unsettled that at the time we had to do something, “ replied Berman. He said “we had to move fast” and that bill “became the basis of the automobile bailout.”
It was a hot debate, almost as hot as the room, and the two congressmen were unrelenting in their assaults. Berman called Sherman’s record “meager and sparse.” Sherman said “if the San Fernando Valley elects me for 90 years I would not miss as many votes as Howard Berman has.” For people in my business, it was terrific battle.
The San Fernando Valley congressional race between Reps. Howard Berman and Brad Sherman is being conducted on two levels.
One level was evident as I scrolled through campaign news on my iPhone while waiting for Berman to begin his town meeting in North Hollywood High School’s auditorium Monday night.
This level was basically irrelevant to American life. It consisted of one insult after another between Berman’s campaign boss Brandon Hall and Sherman’s Parke Skelton and their staffs. These attacks may be of intense interest to political insiders but probably to nobody else.
The other level was apparent when the town meeting got started. It reflected day-to-day concerns of Valley residents, as expressed by comments from the sizeable audience and from Berman. These revolved around jobs, infrastructure, and the declining Valley manufacturing base, failure to revive innovation, Afghanistan and, as one audience member put it, “trying to force our democracy on other parts of the world.”
For example, there was the complex issue brought up by Berman, who is locked in a tight race against Sherman. It was the deep federal spending cuts that will take effect at the beginning of next year, the result of a last-ditch budget agreement aimed at keeping the government going. There would be huge cut in spending accompanied by a large rise in taxes. While this might slash the deficit, most economists feel it could bring back the worst days of the recession.
This is pretty heavy stuff, not much discussed on the news channels or the campaign trail, although it will be later in the year. Berman brought it home to the Valley: There will be $1 trillion in cuts nationally over a several year period, half in defense, half in other programs, including money for public schools, and safety net programs such as medical aid for the poor. He warned that private contractors, including those in the defense business, would begin sending out pink slips in anticipation of reduced federal appropriations and “huge numbers of physicians will no longer take MediCal patients.” He feared consumers would stop spending because they don’t know their job status.”
This is a no-win situation for Berman. The intransigent Republicans who control the House caused the deadlock that will result in these cuts. Berman, as a minority liberal Democrat, can’t do much about it. Still, he felt it was important to warn his constituents of what may happen to the San Fernando Valley.
Relating such complex national issues to the homes, businesses, schools and hospitals of the Valley is high level campaigning, much more important than the usual back and forth of the Berman-Sherman fight.