ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:
Longtime Democratic Congressmen Howard Berman and Brad Sherman used to be political pals. They represented adjacent districts in L.A.'s San Fernando Valley. Well, then came redistricting. Now, the onetime allies are opponents in the newly drawn 30th Congressional District. As California's June primary approaches, NPR's Ina Jaffe reports that the Berman-Sherman battle has become one of the most hotly contested and closely watched races in the nation.
INA JAFFE, BYLINE: For a couple of guys fighting tooth and nail to hang onto their political careers, Howard Berman and Brad Sherman sure do spend a lot of time together, and not just at their many debates.
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JAFFE: On a recent Saturday night, they were both celebrating Vaisakhi, an important harvest festival in northern India and for the Indian community in the San Fernando Valley.
REPRESENTATIVE HOWARD BERMAN: (Foreign language spoken)
JAFFE: That's Howard Berman on the festival stage showing off his Hindi, another way of reminding the crowd that his nearly 30 years in Congress has made him the senior Democrat on the House Foreign Affairs Committee.
BERMAN: In addition to the historic civil nuclear agreement, the law I wrote and passed, our countries are now collaborating in a number of important areas.
JAFFE: By our country, Berman means India and the United States, though certainly many people in this crowd are citizens and can vote in this election. Otherwise, Berman probably wouldn't be here.
When it's Brad Sherman's turn to speak, he doesn't brag that much about the laws he's helped pass, maybe because his name isn't on that many bills. He's more likely to brag about the many town halls he's held in the district. Like his website says, talk to me. I'm listening.
REPRESENTATIVE BRAD SHERMAN: I want people to know about our constituent service booth over there and let me tell you a little bit about our constituent service program. Imagine a federal agency makes a mistake. It could happen.
JAFFE: One service Sherman provides at his booth, a lot of free, blue plastic combs with his name and office phone number printed on them. He acknowledges that it's an unlikely souvenir for a guy who hasn't had any hair on top of his head for quite a while, but it's not all about him.
SHERMAN: This is the best-groomed area of America because Brad Sherman has passed out over 200,000 combs in the San Fernando Valley because the vast majority of people in the valley have more use for a comb than I do.
JAFFE: Howard Berman doesn't have much more hair than his rival, but he does have lots more endorsements. California Governor Jerry Brown, L.A. Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa, U.S. senators, Dianne Feinstein and Barbara Boxer. Even the show business icon Betty White cut a video endorsement with her "Hot in Cleveland" co-star, Wendie Malick.
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WENDIE MALICK: Betty, if you want a friend in Washington, do you know what you do?
BETTY WHITE: Get a dog. That's what I've been told.
MALICK: And what else?
WHITE: Reelect Congressman Howard Berman.
JAFFE: It's fine to have famous backers, says political scientist Raphael Sonenshein. He's the director of the Pat Brown Institute at Cal State University - L.A., but Sherman, he says, has territory. More than half of the new district used to be part of Sherman's old one while less than a quarter of it belonged to Berman.
RAPHAEL SONENSHEIN: About half the people in the district have previously had a chance to vote for Brad Sherman and that's not true of Howard Berman. Familiarity with voters is a phenomenally important characteristic of politics.
JAFFE: There are some other candidates in this primary. Republicans and Democrats with little name recognition and little money, but Sherman and Berman have each raised millions, helping them cope with a big change in California politics.
The primary system is no longer a party affair. Every candidate, regardless of party, appears on the same ballot. The top two finishers then face off in November and, in this heavily Democratic district, that's likely to be Howard Berman and Brad Sherman, so they'd better conserve their resources, says Raphael Sonenshein. There may not be a lot more coming this fall.
SONENSHEIN: Because some of that money's going to be sucked up by the presidential race. And I think a lot of people will start to say, do we really want to spend all of our time determining which of our friends gets elected to Congress? It's not necessarily the end of the world if it's one or the other.
JAFFE: Unless you're the guy who's the other instead of the one that the voters pick. Ina Jaffe, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright National Public Radio.