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.