California: Twenty-Sixth District|
Rep. Howard L. Berman (D)
Last Updated June 9, 1999
A hiker looking north from the crest of the Santa Monica Mountains in 1910 would have seen spread out, almost totally empty and barren, 20 miles wide and 12 miles deep, the San Fernando Valley. Separated by the Cahuenga Pass from rapidly growing Los Angeles and Hollywood, the Valley was bought up in massive tracts by civic leaders even as they were urging city engineer William Mulholland to build a huge 250-mile aqueduct from the Owens Valley to give Los Angeles water and persuading the city in 1915 to annex 200 square miles of the Valley. In the years after World War II, this was modern suburbia, filled with Leave It to Beaver families. Today the San Fernando Valley is postmodern urban, with a look you can see in exaggerated form in Disney headquarters buildings in Burbank or Universal City's CityWalk shopping mall: The driver topping the crest today sees office towers looming out over slightly hazy air, shopping centers, occasional palm trees, lines of grid streets stretching out into the distance beyond stucco subdivisions and the squat factory and warehouse buildings that make Los Angeles County the nation's number-one manufacturer.
The people in the Valley have also changed. The white Anglo families with stay-at-home moms in the 1950s have been replaced by hard-working Latino families, with children waiting at the bus stops for schools and parents juggling two jobs. But there is continuity: These remain places where people work hard and try to raise children who will have better chances and make better livings than they have. Pacoima, at the northern end of the Valley, where Rodney King was pulled over and beaten and arrested, is mostly black and Latino. Farther south, in Canoga Park, Van Nuys and Burbank, are the big aerospace plants and the GM assembly plants that have been shut down since 1989, with thousands of jobs lost; less visible are the hundreds of small factories and multimedia plants where thousands of jobs have been created. The lower income areas here are farther from the central city; the southern rim of the Valley, around Studio City and North Hollywood, is still heavily Jewish and is attracting new families who often send their kids to religious schools.
The 26th Congressional District consists of the Golden State and Hollywood Freeway corridors of the Valley--roughly its eastern half--proceeding as far west as Van Nuys and the San Diego Freeway. Overall, the district was 53% Hispanic in 1990, but even in the late 1990s Latinos are not the major voting bloc here; many are not citizens, many are children or young people not yet in the voting stream; and the tradition among Latinos in the 1990s, as among Italians in the 1910s, is to trust family and hard work, not politics and government, to get ahead. The rising Democratic percentages here are due as much to Jewish as to Latino voters, who have both trended Democratic in the late 1990s, one group in response to the emergence of the Christian right, the other in response to the campaign for cutting off aid to illegal aliens which suggested, wrongly, that Latinos are interested more in welfare than hard work.
The congressman from the 26th is Howard Berman, one of the most aggressive and creative members of the House--and one of the most clear-sighted operators in American politics. He grew up in Los Angeles in modest circumstances, got involved in politics, and was elected to the Assembly from a formerly Republican Hollywood Hills district in 1972, at 31. This was the beginning of the so-called Berman-Waxman political machine--not so much a precinct organization as a group of consultants who raised money, redrew district lines and endorsed candidates through direct mail. Their core constituency was liberal Westside Jews. Berman became Assembly majority leader in his first term. In 1980 he tried to unseat Speaker Leo McCarthy; ultimately both lost to Willie Brown, who served 15 years. Berman's consolation prize was a Valley-based congressional seat in 1982. The machine fell on hard times in the 1990s, as Republicans seized control of redistricting, the feminist left became the Democratic Party's driving force and Berman-Waxman ally Mel Levine lost the 1992 Senate primary to Barbara Boxer. Since then, Berman has been a political force on his own, with a record that is mostly but not always liberal.
Berman has been an active legislator even more than a political operator, and on all manner of issues. On foreign policy, he started off less as a Vietnam war dove than as a backer of Israel, and he is not one of those Democrats who think America has habitually been on the wrong side in the world. For a decade he floor-managed foreign aid bills, defending aid to many countries as well as Israel. With Henry Hyde he wrote the law authorizing embargoes on nations that condone terrorism; in April 1990 he called for sanctions on Iraq, four months before Saddam Hussein invaded Kuwait. Berman voted for the Gulf war resolution, but was understandably critical of the administration--if it had followed his advice there might well have been no need for war. More recently, Berman has worked to stop the export of missile and nuclear weapons technology--an uphill battle in the Clinton years. He also was among the few Democrats to buck organized labor and back President Clinton's request for fast-track trade authority. ''We can't afford to sit on the sidelines while the rest of the world hammers out new trade agreements,'' he said.
Berman passed a law banning the double-issuing of U.S. passports to coddle Arab countries who refuse to honor passports with Israeli marks. He pushed through the International Broadcasting Act of 1994, consolidating and downsizing agencies but maintaining Radio Free Europe and establishing Radio Free Asia. He worked hard to save the National Endowment for Democracy. He led the successful fight to scuttle the Republicans' Contract With America call for reducing U.S. participation in UN-led peacekeeping operations. He has worked on reorganizing the State Department and other foreign policy agencies.
On the Judiciary Committee, Berman has been a major force on immigration. In 1988 he sponsored the provision allowing 20,000 immigrant visas for migrants without close relatives here, to be selected randomly by computer--''Berman visa applications,'' they are called. He secured in 1990 more family reunification slots, expediting the immigration of Soviet Jews (a vivid presence in L.A. these days), and gaining amnesty provisions for more family members to remain in this country. He worked to get the federal government to acknowledge responsibility for state spending on illegal immigrants. On the 1996 immigration bill he made two major contributions. With Republican Dick Chrysler, he sponsored the amendment separating legal and illegal immigration; its passage on the floor by 238-183 in March 1996 and the nearly simultaneous passage of a similar amendment by Republican Spencer Abraham in the Senate Judiciary Committee ended the drive by the two immigration subcommittee chairmen to cut legal immigration. Berman also weighed in heavily against Republican Richard Pombo's amendment to let in 250,000 guest farm workers.
Some of Berman's issues have local angles. He worked to get $8.6 billion in emergency aid after the January 1994 Northridge earthquake. In 1991 he helped establish CALSTART, to produce electric cars in the Valley; in a closed defense plant in Burbank, electric car parts and infrastructure for electric vehicles and electric buses are now produced. Berman is not without leverage in the Republican House, but he is clearly frustrated being in the minority. In the spring of 1996 he contemplated running in the April 1997 election for mayor of Los Angeles. But he banked on a Democratic majority returning and made no move to run, and when Republicans retained the House in 1996 he judged it was too late to challenge incumbent Republican Richard Riordan. That was not all the bad news: In 1997 Minority Leader Richard Gephardt prevailed on him to become ranking minority member of the ethics committee, badly scarred by partisanship during the investigation of Newt Gingrich. ''In the end I decided that there is an obligation to the House … to devote some portion of your time to the institution rather than issues,'' he said.
In 1998 Berman faced his first vocal electoral opposition. The Latino population in the district had been growing, and more Latinos were registering to vote, with the Latino percentage of registered voters rising from 18% in 1990 to 30% in 1997. A vitriolic primary in the 20th state Senate district between Anglo Richard Katz, a former Assembly speaker, and Latino Richard Alcaron, a city councilman, was won by Alarcon in June 1998 by only 29 votes. In December 1997 Berman sent a letter to constituents warning about ''vandals, burglars, rapists and murderers that roam our streets,'' and arguing that though improvements have been made, ''the crime rate in our area remains appallingly high!'' Raul Gordinez, mayor of the enclave-town of San Fernando, took umbrage, noting that crime in San Fernando was down 20% in three years. Berman responded, ''The crime rate is still too high.'' In March Godinez started running for the 26th District seat, portraying himself as a David challenging a Goliath, criticizing Berman's efforts to create a recreation area at Hansen Lake in the northern Valley. Berman campaigned hard in district neighborhoods, and in the June primary got 61% to 30% for Godinez. No Republican ran, and Berman was easily re-elected in November.
After the election Berman, as a senior member of the Judiciary Committee, became a part of the impeachment debate. But unlike other Judiciary members of both parties, he avoided television interviews and public comment. He met with some Republican members early in the hearings and avoided incendiary comment; in debate he conceded that Bill Clinton had probably lied under oath but argued that his offense did not rise to the level requiring removal; he refrained from the partisan attacks on Chairman Henry Hyde or Independent Counsel Kenneth Starr that so many other Democrats reveled in. This showed some considerable restraint.
In the 106th Congress, Berman gave up his ranking position on the Asia and Pacific Subcommittee of International Affairs, and took the ranking position on the Courts and Intellectual Property Subcommittee of Judiciary, one of vital importance to Hollywood interests. He can certainly be re-elected as long as he likes; though redistricting looms, he has been the Democratic delegation's chief redistricting impresario.
Safe. This overwhelmingly Democratic district has been easily carried by Berman for the last 16 years. Don't expect a competitive race here.
- Pop. 1990: 571,538
8.3% age 65+;
- 53.6% White,
0.5% Amer. Indian,
52.2% Hispanic origin;
48.4% married couple families;
28.9% married couple fams. w. children;
40.1% college educ.;
median household income: $32,134;
per capita income: $12,198;
median gross rent: $561;
median house value: $186,600.
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