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The Waxman-Berman Machine Finally Shuts Down The Waxman-Berman Machine Finally Shuts Down

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Magazine / CONGRESS

The Waxman-Berman Machine Finally Shuts Down

Once, the path to power and political office in Southern California ran through Howard Berman and Henry Waxman. The pair’s time together in Congress has come to an end.

The men to see: The now-retired Howard Berman (left) and Henry Waxman (Photos: AP/Pablo Martinez Monsivais, left, Susan Walsh)  

The phrase “Waxman-Berman machine” first appeared in The Washington Post almost four years before Howard Berman was even sworn into Congress. The year was 1979, and the occasion was when Rep. Henry Waxman, then a relatively junior Democrat from California, pulled off an upset win for the chairmanship of the Health Subcommittee of the powerful House Energy and Commerce panel.

Waxman did it, in part, by tapping the network of wealthy Los Angeles donors whom he and Berman, then a state Assembly member, had cultivated to cut $40,000 worth of checks to his congressional colleagues, including eight on the Energy and Commerce Committee. Sure enough, the recipients of his largesse helped Waxman leapfrog a more veteran lawmaker to secure the gavel.

“Some people were shocked that I would try to help Democrats on my committee,” Waxman recalled in a recent interview. “It was one of the first examples of a leadership PAC, of a member helping other members. Now, almost everybody does it.”

 

The coup was just one of the many exploits that Waxman and Berman pulled off over the years, forever linking the names of the two liberal Jewish Democrats from the west side of Los Angeles. From the late 1970s until the early 1990s, they operated the most potent political machine in California. A Waxman-Berman blessing could make a political career. The two dished out campaign cash, forged alliances, drew districts for friends (and themselves), and developed microtargeting techniques before a word for it even existed. “When I was a kid, I remember reading and hearing about the Waxman-Berman machine and what a powerhouse they were in Democratic politics,” says recently retired GOP Rep. David Dreier, who had represented Southern California for 30 years in the House.

The Waxman-Berman political machinery rusted and fell into disrepair by the early 1990s, but the pair have remained a force in the biggest congressional policy battles, both foreign (led by Berman) and domestic (led by Waxman) for three decades. Berman has been influential in reshaping immigration and intellectual-property laws; fighting apartheid; pushing for stiff sanctions on Iran; advocating unflinching support for Israel; and, most controversially, contributing a leading Democratic voice in support of the second Iraq war. Waxman, meanwhile, was a driving force behind expanding Medicaid for poor children; strengthening the Clean Air Act; taking on big-tobacco interests; investigating President George W. Bush from his perch atop the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee; and, most recently, shepherding Obama’s health care law through the House. The two worked in different fields and on different committees, but almost invariably they stuck together in the belief that two votes were better than one.

That era ended on Jan. 3. For the first time since Ronald Reagan was California governor and The Brady Bunch was churning out new episodes, Waxman and Berman don’t both hold elective office. Although Waxman survived his closest contest in decades, voters unceremoniously dumped Berman for fellow Rep. Brad Sherman, D-Calif., after the two members were drawn into the same district. For foes, it was a dose of delicious irony: Berman, a politician whose career was abetted by political mapmaking, was ultimately undone by the same arcane process.

“I hate to see Howard Berman go,” Waxman said. “It’s a real loss for the Congress and the country.”

BAD TO THE BONE

Berman, now 71, and Waxman, 73, met as college students at the University of California (Los Angeles) more than 50 years ago. They were fast friends and partners as leaders of the college’s Young Democrats. When Waxman made a 1968 bid to unseat an incumbent for state Assembly, he hired Howard’s brother, Michael, as his campaign manager. Together, they scored a stunning upset over a 25-year veteran lawmaker.

Once elected, Waxman turned his attention to bringing Howard Berman to the Statehouse along with him. Waxman landed as chairman of the committee charged with redrawing the state’s political maps after the 1970 census, and Michael Berman joined the panel’s staff.

“I did everything I could to get him elected. We drew a district for him” in 1972, Waxman said. Although Gov. Reagan vetoed Waxman’s map, it gave the duo their first taste of the power of reapportionment. Michael, meanwhile, honed his skills as a political cartographer. It was a task he would take to, playing a part in drawing (and, critics said, manipulating) California’s political boundaries over the next three decades.

“I think the word ‘gerrymandering’ has been around a long time. We didn’t invent that,” Howard Berman said. He paused. “Not that anything we did was gerrymandering.”

His hopes for a tailored district nixed, Berman ran for the Assembly in 1972 anyway, unseating a longtime Republican member with the help of Waxman, who then moved on to Congress in 1975. On opposite coasts, they expanded their network of alliances, particularly in the Jewish community, electing friends and divvying up campaign money. By decade’s end, Waxman had risen to the Health Subcommittee chairmanship in D.C. and Berman was a legislative leader in Sacramento, spearheading the historic fight for farmworkers’ rights in California.

The 1980 census—and the new political boundaries that came after it—offered Berman a chance to join Waxman in Washington. Michael Berman was in the middle of the action, as usual, designing a map that carved out an extra half-dozen Democratic congressional seats, including one custom-made for Howard and another for Waxman-Berman ally Mel Levine. Between 1982 and 2010, neither Berman nor Waxman ever sunk below 60 percent of the vote.

Michael ran the operational arm of the Waxman-Berman organization, along with his business partner, Carl D’Agostino. They went by the acronym BAD Campaigns (Berman And D’Agostino). Smoke hung thick in their Beverly Hills offices. There was a certain image to project.

Sheila Kuehl was one of many Democratic pols who made the pilgrimage to BAD’s offices, hat in hand. She still vividly recalls film canisters strewn about, each overflowing with a “little mountain” of cigarette butts. “It was sort of a bizarre experience,” she recalls, likening the visit to a scene from the God-father movies.

Kuehl wanted them to back her, or at least not oppose her. She got her wish and went on to become the first openly gay member of the state Legislature.

Another who made the trek was Gray Davis, the future governor of California. He’d already served as chief of staff to Gov. Jerry Brown, but if he wanted to seek office on his own, he needed Waxman-Berman. In 1982, Davis wanted to run for the Assembly seat the House-bound Berman was leaving behind, in the heart of the Jewish west side. The problem: Davis isn’t Jewish. “That just was not going to be possible without Howard and Henry’s blessing,” he recalls. He got it, launching a 20-year run in elected office.

What made the Waxman-Berman machine so feared, says Bill Carrick, the late Sen. Edward Kennedy’s political director during the 1980s, was BAD Campaigns’s embrace of new technologies and techniques. They produced targeted mailers for different demographics—young, old, black, white, Latino, and even groups as obscure as the state’s Armenian population—far before computers and the Internet eased such fine-tooth communications. “Before we even knew there was a such thing as microtargeting, Michael was doing microtargeting,” says Carrick, now based in Los Angeles.

BAD’s other pioneering enterprise was slate mail. Candidates would pay the Waxman-Berman machine to appear on popular mailers that featured candidates up and down the ballot. It raised gobs of money for the organization and cut costs for the campaigns. In Democratic primaries, it might as well have been the Good Housekeeping seal of approval. By 1990, the campaign strategists were printing 17 million slate cards in the primary and general elections.

Berman and his brother also understood early on the power of juxtaposing candidates for multiple offices—sometimes deceptively. In Berman’s first 1972 race, the liberal Democrat sent mailers to GOP voters touting “Republicans for Nixon-Berman.”

Where exactly BAD Campaigns ended and the Waxman-Berman alliance began was blurred. It was part of the machine’s mystery. What was clear were the alliance’s bare-knuckle tactics and long memories.

Los Angeles Mayor Tom Bradley had been a longtime ally, but ahead of his 1985 reelection bid, he allowed oil drilling on the coast, angering the environmentalist pair. For months, they let him publicly dangle, refusing to endorse him until it was absolutely necessary.

By the next mayoral campaign, BAD Campaigns was actively recruiting an alternate to Bradley. In 1988, the Los Angeles Times published a controversial campaign memo from the group urging a potential Bradley foe to cozy up to environmentalists: “Hug every tree, moon every mountain, stop every building.” The candidate, Zev Yaroslavsky, eventually dropped out. And the reporter who broke the story, Bill Boyarsky, wrote early last year that Michael Berman hadn’t spoken a word to him in the 24 years since he’d called for comment on the story.

While enemies faced retribution, allies were lavished with cash. Waxman, Berman, and the junior member of the group, Levine, were among the most generous givers on Capitol Hill. An LA Times investigation in 1990 found they had bundled $453,000 in contributions to more than 250 candidates ahead of the 1988 elections, a sum that would still attract attention a quarter-century of inflation later. Among those they had helped, the paper reported, was a Nevada politician by the name of Harry Reid. They raised $75,000 for his 1986 Senate bid.

The share-the-wealth strategy is now so commonplace as to seem banal. It’s one of the ways that Majority Whip Kevin Mc-Carthy, R-Calif., skyrocketed to the No. 3 post in the House. It’s how Speaker John Boehner, who travels the country extensively to shake loose money for GOP colleagues, keeps his members indebted to him. And fundraising prowess—along with willing­-ness to share the proceeds—is how Nancy Pelosi remains entrenched as the House Democratic leader, two election cycles after losing the majority.

By the late 1980s, money had helped install Waxman, Berman, and their allies as power brokers in Los Angeles, Sacramento, and Washington. Loyalty was prized above all else in their shadow party. “There was all this nonsense about political machines,” Berman says today. Adds Waxman: “It was a political alliance of like-minded people. Machines usually mean corruption or patronage. We didn’t have either.”

CHANGING TIMES

What made their partnership unique is that they straddled the politics/policy line so successfully for so long. Even as a junior House member, Berman played a part in the 1986 immigration overhaul, and he methodically climbed the ladder of the Foreign Affairs Committee, which he would eventually chair. Waxman, while busy recruiting “like-minded” allies for obscure state legislative seats, wielded his subcommittee gavel for 15 years. He was versed in legislative arcana and reveled in all-night deal-making sessions. After a 1990 negotiation over a landmark air-pollution law broke through a logjam at dawn, Republican Sen. Alan Simpson of Wyoming declared, “It was rich, profane, embittered. I learned that Henry Waxman is tougher than a boiled owl.”

Short, bald, and with a close-cropped mustache, Waxman is a bullet of a man and an acknowledged virtuoso at the inside game. (He even wrote a book about it, The Waxman Report: How Congress Really Works, in 2009.) His 1979 committee coup was only his first. In 2008, he squeezed past Rep. John Dingell, who had served since 1955, to take the gavel of the full Energy and Commerce panel when Democrats gained control of the House. Berman, balding but still with more than a few wisps of curly gray hair, has been one of Congress’s leading voices on international matters, teaming with Democrats and Republicans alike. Notably, Republican Sens. John McCain and Lindsey Graham both endorsed Berman in his losing 2012 reelection bid (albeit, against a fellow Democrat).

Even as Waxman and Berman hit their stride in the halls of Congress, however, California’s fast-shifting demographics —namely, the exploding Latino population—caught up with them back home. The political operation stopped recruiting as many candidates and winning as many campaigns. Waxman and Berman said they were focused on crafting accomplishments in Congress. Garry South, a sometime rival Democratic strategist from California, was less charitable. “You can’t have a political machine in California when it consists of mostly middle-aged white guys, most of whom are Jewish,” he said.

After the 2000 census, Michael Berman was enlisted, once again, to slice and dice California’s congressional districts on behalf of Democrats. Most of the state’s Democratic House delegation paid him $20,000 apiece to protect their seats—and their jobs. “If my colleagues are smart, they’ll pay their $20,000, and Michael will draw the district they can win in,” Rep. Loretta Sanchez told The Orange County Register in 2001. “Those who have refused to pay? God help them.”

Michael Berman devised a bipartisan gerrymander that protected incumbents in both parties. It was wildly successful. In the next decade, out of more than 250 congressional contests in the state, only a single seat switched party hands. Perhaps more important for the Bermans, the map staved off the Latino surge from swallowing Howard’s San Fernando Valley district. “It’s just assumed that was the first seat he drew,” says Gray Davis, who as governor signed the law.

But the 2000 gerrymander engendered much ill will. For starters, all the Latinos who were expected to populate Berman’s district were initially stuffed into the neighboring district of Rep. Brad Sherman, who was none too pleased. Neither was the Mexican American Legal Defense and Educational Fund, which sued. And, as the years passed and no seats changed hands, the public outcry over the backroom deal to protect incumbents grew. In 2008, voters stripped the Legislature of the power to draw maps and gave it to an independent commission. The days of Michael Berman carving up the state were over.

That new commission lumped Sherman and Berman into the same district in 2012. The clash was bitter. They disagreed little on policy (“Two Jews, One District” was the tag-line on a blog devoted to the race in the local Jewish Journal), but the attacks were fierce. The two nearly came to blows during a debate, until a police officer intervened. The contest was one of the nation’s costliest and, in the end, it was a blowout. Sherman, the backbencher, trounced Berman, the congressional heavyweight, 60 percent to 40 percent.

South said that Berman ultimately succumbed to that classic Washington syndrome: He lost touch back home as his profile swelled in D.C. and abroad. “It is very, very easy for a member of Congress to think you’re hot shit in Washington because your chairman of some committee,” he said. “It’s ‘Chairman This’ and ‘Chairman That.’ You think that’s filtered back to your district. Guess what: It’s not.”

Or, as one elected Democrat in Los Angeles put it, “Howard was busy trying to make peace in Israel, and Brad was attending Ari’s bar mitzvah in Encino.”

Shortly after the November elections, House Democrats gathered deep in the bowels of the Capitol as Pelosi announced she would stay on as minority leader. Reporters jostled in the hallway, hoping for insights and sound bites. Waxman and Berman emerged in quick succession. Waxman was mobbed by reporters wielding microphones and tape recorders: What did he think? What was the mood like? What exactly did she say?

As he regaled the reporters, Berman slipped past, almost unnoticed.

It’s not clear what Berman will do next. He is still weighing his options, which he hinted include taking a post in the Obama administration. “I’ll just say that if you’ve been in elected office for 40 years, unless you’re doing something that’s sort of illegal, you’re not considering yourself a wealthy individual,”he said. The private sector, in other words, is an option. (Berman had a net worth of between $1.14 million and $1.22 million in 2010, according to the Center for Responsive Politics, ranking 174th in the House; Waxman ranked 177th.)

Berman and Waxman teamed up for one last postelection battle: denying Sherman’s bid for the senior spot on the Foreign Affairs Committee that Berman vacated. “I don’t think he has anywhere near the stature,” Waxman sneered. Sherman had to withdraw.

Both are still adjusting to the idea of life without the other. Berman insisted it’s not the end of the Waxman-Berman era. “I think it’s the end of my era,” he said. Waxman, after all, remains the ranking Democrat at Energy and Commerce.

CORRECTION: An earlier version of this story gave the incorrect year for when Rep. Henry Waxman became chairman of the Energy and Commerce Committee. It was 2008, not 2006. 

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