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Berman/Sherman Face-off: The End of an Era

There’s a generation gap coming in the Jewish Democratic political ranks

Allison Hoffman
November 06, 2012
A debate between Brad Sherman (right) and Howard Berman on October 11, 2012.(Charlie Kaijo/Flickr )
A debate between Brad Sherman (right) and Howard Berman on October 11, 2012.(Charlie Kaijo/Flickr )

Whatever else happens today, there will be one fewer Jewish Democrat in Congress, specifically one fewer whose name ends in -erman. By midnight, give or take a few hours, we should know whether the loser is elder statesman Rep. Howard Berman, the 30-year House veteran and former chairman of its Foreign Affairs committee, or Rep. Brad Sherman, who has held his Washington office for the past 15 years.

The two men were pitted against each other for a new Los Angeles district covering a wealthy, and heavily Jewish, swath of the San Fernando Valley by a new citizen-led redistricting commission that decided it was of greater public benefit to carve out a new majority-Latino House district than to protect either -erman. Meanwhile, new open primary rules in California allowed both men to advance to a runoff, begetting the race the Jewish Journal has dubbed “Two Jews, One District.” Sherman won the primary in June by a healthy margin—42 percent over Berman’s 32 percent—but between them, the two men have spent more than $10 million trying to hold on to their jobs, making the race one of the most expensive in the country. Last month, they even got into something approaching an altercation—it was more verbal than physical—during a debate forum.

And for what? Both men are liberal and steadfastly committed to Israel. Both men belong to a party likely to remain in the minority for the coming term. Neither man is, if we’re being honest, a politician in the vein of the legendary Tip O’Neill, or the retiring Barney Frank—which is to say, someone the whole country would be poorer for losing on the public stage.

But while the net impact on national policy might be negligible, the amount of attention paid to this race says something important about the changing ways in which Jews figure in American public life. This election marks the retirement of Connecticut Sen. Joe Lieberman, the first and so far only Jew to run on the national ticket, once a running mate to Al Gore and now a bosom buddy of former Republican presidential nominee Sen. John McCain. The interesting rookie Jewish politicians this cycle all seem to be Republicans; when I called David Harris, the head of the National Jewish Democratic Council, to ask about his ones to watch, he could only think of one, Brad Schneider, an MBA running in a new district on Chicago’s North Shore.

Schneider was born the same month as the President—which makes him younger than both Berman, a 71-year-old paragon of 1960s liberalism, and Sherman, a 58-year-old Harvard J.D., but hardly a standard-bearer for the young, wired Jewish Democratic pols of the post-Obama generation. We know those people are out there, but by and large they seem to be working behind the scenes as staffers and strategists and statisticians rather than as leaders in their own right. Maybe in another two or four years they’ll start running for office, but unless or until that happens, there’s a generation gap coming in the Jewish Democratic political ranks. “The list is not what you’d hope it would be,” Harris acknowledged to me. “The larger story is minimizing the loss.”

Allison Hoffman is the executive editor of CNN Politics.