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In Calif., 2 Democrats, 2 Incumbents, 1 Race

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ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:

From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Robert Siegel. It is Berman versus Sherman, one of the toughest and strangest congressional races this year in California's San Fernando Valley. Howard Berman and Brad Sherman are both incumbents, redistricting through them into the same territory. And here's the strange part: both men are Democrats. In California's new primary system, the top-two finishers face off in the general election even if they're from the same party. NPR's Ina Jaffe explains.

INA JAFFE, BYLINE: So now the voters of California's 30th Congressional District have a choice between two balding, bespectacled Jewish liberals with very similar voting records and rhyming names. The commission that put both men in the same district was a new, nonpartisan citizens' panel created by voter initiative. Both Howard Berman and Brad Sherman have appeal in a district where roughly half the voters are Democrats. The difference between the two, according to Berman, is that his opponent, Sherman, is all talk and no action.

REPRESENTATIVE HOWARD BERMAN: This is a man who in 15 years in Congress has passed three pieces of legislation, two naming post offices. Brad is wonderful at talking. Translating it into anything that is actually helping people in terms of government actions he's weak on. I'm much better.

JAFFE: Berman spoke those words as he sat right next to his opponent at a recent debate before a local business group. The 71-year-old Berman has served in Congress for 30 years. He's a senior Democrat on the House Foreign Affairs Committee. Brad Sherman, on the other hand, keeps things local. He touts the scores of town hall meetings he's held during his eight terms in Congress, and his efforts to protect property values in his district. He says it's not all about grabbing credit.

REPRESENTATIVE BRAD SHERMAN: I'm not there to be a tagger. I'm not there to say how many bills do I have my name on. I have co-sponsored over 200 bills that are now law.

JAFFE: But his rival Berman has the glitziest endorsements: California Governor Jerry Brown, L.A. Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa, both of California's U.S. senators, as well as Republican Senators John McCain and Lindsey Graham.

BERMAN: I've got a level of political support that's really quite stunning given a race between two people of the same party.

JAFFE: And yet, Berman lost to Sherman in the primary by 10 points, maybe that's because what Sherman lacks in glamorous endorsements he makes up in territory. More than half of the new 30th Congressional District was part of Sherman's old one. Less than a quarter of it was Berman country. A recent poll sponsored by an L.A. TV station shows Sherman maintaining that 10 point lead. Jeffrey Dar, who's an enthusiastic supporter, says maybe that's also because of Sherman's strong connection to the district.

JEFFREY DAR: Brad, certainly in my mind, clearly has at heart, in his soul, the district and its constituents. I think Brad Sherman will be the person who best represents our district in the future.

JAFFE: Another member of the debate audience said he was still very much undecided. Like about a quarter of the voters in the 30th Congressional District, Dave Burtch is a Republican, and he's not crazy about his choices.

DAVE BURTCH: I'm kind of up in the air. I like some things that both of them said. Didn't like some things that both of them said. So, tough decision. I'm going to have to study some more.

JAFFE: The Berman campaign is now accusing Brad Sherman of making hundreds of thousands of dollars by charging interest on personal loans to his campaign committees. That's not illegal by the way. Sherman's campaign counters that Howard Berman's funneled even more money to his brother, a campaign consultant, even though Berman often had just token opposition. If anything, the Berman-Sherman race is proof that a general election contest between two Democrats can be just as bruising as one between a Democrat and a Republican. Ina Jaffe, NPR News.

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