Berman Sherman Debate Turns Ugly over Appeal to Party Base

berman sherman debate Photo: Jay L. Clendenin[/caption]

The increased political competition made possible by the California Open Primary has led to numerous circumstances in which members from the same party will face off. In those instances, the candidates can take one of two potential strategic moves: They can either try to show how much more loyal they are to their party base than their opponent or they can attempt to reach out and attract new voters who would not normally vote for them.

The Berman Sherman debate was held on October 11 at Pierce College as part of their Politics at Pierce series. The conversation turned sour when the candidates’ attempts to out-Democrat each other quickly dissolved into a near-physical altercation.

At issue was the authorship of the Dream Act, which provides a path to citizenship for a limited number of undocumented immigrants who came to the US as children. The candidate who can align him or herself with the Dream Act and similar legislation would likely obtain support from Latino voters who already vote heavily in favor of Democrats.

Tensions rose as the two candidates, both Democratic incumbents from redrawn districts, argued over who deserved more authorship credit. The current version of the Dream Act is sponsored in the House by Berman who introduced the proposed legislation in March 2009, while Sherman signed on as a co-sponsor in November 2010. It should be noted that the earliest incarnation of the Act appeared in 2001 by Senator Orrin Hatch (R-UT) and that the current version of the Act still stands under consideration and has not been enacted.

As the moderator attempted to gain control of the situation Sherman shouted “Don’t you dare stand up here in the West San Fernando Valley and get in my face!” At that point Sherman placed his arm around Berman and then the two stood face to face before a sheriff’s deputy could intervene.

The Berman campaign seized upon the opportunity and distributed a 22-second clip of the incident and a press release entitled “Brad Sherman attempts to start fight at college debate.” A slightly longer clip has been circulated and is available here:

Voters have now learned that appealing to the party base leads to unconventional tactics including physical intimidation. At the very least, the old days of voter intimidation are hopefully behind us, but what remains is equally distasteful. Voter registration records for the California 30th Congressional District show that there are nearly 75,000 registered voters who are listed as no party preference. This accounts for almost 20% of the district’s population. There’s also no shortage of funds to reach out with either, with the CA-30 Congressional race being perhaps the most costly in the state. Candidates in that race have raised a combined $6 million.

Rather than engaging in physical stand-offs, the candidates might be better served by reaching out to those independent voters, many of whom will likely be unimpressed by a display of force. The candidates should recall that they are best served by encouraging voters to show up at the polls, not turning them off to the entire electoral process.