Bill Boyarsky
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Michael Berman: from the backroom to the spotlight

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.”

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