The setting was an apt one for this first debate between Reps. Howard Berman and Brad Sherman at such a dire time for our economy: a vast, abandoned space, formerly Dick’s Sporting Goods, in the Westfield Promenade Mall in Woodland Hills, closed like so many businesses.
But on Thursday night it was packed with about 300 people, many more than expected, and it was a lively night.
Because of congressional redistricting, these two longtime Valley Democrats now are both competing for the same seat in the 30th District. Sponsored by the Woodland Hills/Tarzana Chamber of Commerce, this was the first public face-off in a campaign that is expected to be extremely costly for both men.
Also participating in the debate were two Republicans in the running, author and businessman Mark Reed.
It was a dynamic and often contentious debate, with Sherman and Berman repeatedly assailing each other, as Reed and tried, and often succeeded, in scoring points with the crowd.
In opening statements, Berman quickly surveyed his considerable accomplishments in Congress.
Sherman attacked him almost immediately for his support of the Iraq War resolution, which Berman said he signed based on “erroneous information” that Iraq had weapons of mass destruction.
Talking as if on the floor of the House, Sherman then went after Berman for his support of 2008's federal bank bailout program, known as TARP.
“My friend Howard talks about leadership,” he said. “It’s important that you lead in the right direction. I was a leader in an effort to stop the $700 billion bank bailout.” The crowd cheered. He added: “I’ve been a leader in stopping trade deals that send our jobs overseas.”
Sherman then described his campaign against Super PACs, displaying a big poster of his anti Super-PAC pledge, which he repeatedly raised and asked Berman to sign.
Shelley and Reed repeatedly returned to Republican themes of less government, especially in regard to taxation. Shelley’s chief proposal was to replace our current tax code with a 5 percent flat tax, which she said would transform America.
“Think about it,” she said. “If we turn the U.S. into the greatest tax haven in the world, businesses from around the world will come here and hire people, and new businesses would start up. What would any of you do tomorrow if you knew you could keep 95 percent of everything you [make]? I think it’s time we stopped asking the government what it needs, and start telling the government what it can have.”
Shelley expressed doubt about the accuracy of recent reports of decreasing unemployment, as did Reed, who enumerated what he felt were the requirements for addressing joblessness.
“Real job growth will start when the government gets out of our way,” Reed said. “Real job growth will take place when Congress gets serious about the debt, gets serious about stopping the spending and borrowing, and the Federal Reserve stops printing money and devaluating our dollar.” The crowd responded with much applause, but their support waned quickly when he suggested that government benefits encouraged people not to work.
When Reed and Shelley both expressed their beliefs that less governmental regulation would be good for California, Berman reminded everyone that clean-air regulations have resulted in a better Los Angeles.
“Thirty years ago,” he said, “the smog was so thick in the Valley that you couldn’t see the mountains. It’s not that way anymore. Have you noticed how clear and beautiful these days have been? That is the direct result of regulations we put into place decades ago.”
Both Berman and Sherman had a big contingent of support present, and each scored many points so that a victor could not be easily declared. Sherman received his most fervent response from the crowd when he spoke of the need to transform U.S. trade policies.
“If we’re gonna have jobs, we’ve got to change our trade policy,” he said to much applause and cheering. “We have an $800 billion trade deficit. That’s why we have to get away from NAFTA, and MFN [Most Favored Nation status] for China, and the South Korea Free Trade deal, and demand a system of balanced and fair trade. People ask over and over, ‘Where are the jobs?’ They’re in China.”
Limited time left no opportunity for the audience to ask questions, resulting in several interruptions by audience members attempting to be heard. Kwazi Nkruman, an activist with Occupy the Hood and Occupy L.A., repeatedly yelled out: “Occupy homes. Stop foreclosures.” He was asked by security to leave, which he did.
After the debate, audience members expressed mixed reactions. In a longtime Democratic district, it was not surprising that for most, the choice appeared to come down to Berman or Sherman, both of whom have the loyalty of their constituents.
Terry Walcek, 87, who attended with her 91-year-old husband, summed up the sentiment of many in the crowd by saying, “I like Berman and Sherman. They’re both good men. I think it’s terrible that we have to lose one of them.”
You can read other accounts of the debate here: