Howard & Leo & Willie & Carol & Art & Michael & Vasco & Janis & Jacqui & Jack: A Speakership Fight In California, Part 2
By Jamie WolfOctober 12, 2012
Continued from Part 1
How personal all of this is. Willie's backing of Leo, for instance, is not some mere casual, retaliatory, get-back-at-Howard swipe — nor even entirely cool-headed maneuvering for another chance at the brass ring. Oh, to be sure, there's plenty of that involved: "Leo's a dead man," Willie tells Howard, a few days after Howard's taken him to dinner to inquire about his support — a pro forma discussion, really, and he's said as much; has listed the reasons (getting even and having a shot at picking up the pieces and all that) that he's counted Willie solid for Leo; suggests they now drop the subject and just have a congenial evening — unless for some reason he's wrong. And Willie — "And he's so good at this,” says Howard, laughing helplessly — tells him that these speculations are logical, but that they don't apply: what he's really interested in is the role he might play on each side — and the role of his group, of course. Howard's already told him, virtually any role you want, but Willie then goes to meet with Leo anyway, and then, a few days later, phones Howard to report his choice. "And I ask him why?" says Howard, "and he says, “'Oh, 'cause I think I can be Speaker in December. Leo's a dead man — I'm gonna carry the corpse.'"
But there's something else fueling it, too, rawer and more intense than self-interest; an operatic quality that makes the ardent subtext underlying the most routine political imagery — wooing and courting and bedfellows and so forth — come freshly to life. If Howard's precipitating reaction has been anger and hurt at a broken contract, a kind of dissatisfied partner's reaction that eases fairly rapidly, and can give rise to a civilized divorce; and Leo's has been that of a wounded patriarch, or surprised spouse, in that odd unsortable mixture of husband and wife and son and father and brother they all are to each other, and his response turns on his challenged dignity and feeds on itself; then Willie's response is that of the spurned suitor seeking vengeance (although a suitor, as Howard points out, who never actually voiced a proposal). Willie, having accomplished the retaliation, having kept Howard from the speakership as thoroughly as Howard had kept it from him — and not yet at that point anywhere within striking distance of securing it for himself (how much of a fluke his eventual victory was remains underappreciated: Frankie Vicencia, after Leo's November losses, was actually the McCarthyites' compromise choice), so that one would think his focus would be on the sheer fact of its having been denied him — Willie is still, in the spring of 1980, awash in an extravagance of emotion, nursing grievances so bitter they seem to stem not from six years but from six months before. And it is Howard he is talking about, with scalding force, in language that is extraordinary, to say the least, obsessively returning to it again and again: "He did me in! He abandoned me! He left my home to find a new home, a place in the sun greater than that which I could offer him..."
And even factoring out, as one must, Willie's penchant for hyperbolic effects ("I don't do marriages of convenience," he intones in the midst of this, with mesmerizingly convincing disdain) and mindful of the need to keep a sense of proportion ("I don't think," Howard observes dryly some months later, "that Willie would have run for a job he didn't want to run for, just to get back at me"), there's no mistaking the note of genuine, felt pain.
Which in the end, it turns out, will be Howard's major error — failing to take the full force of these currents into account. Leo's stung pride, which had him dig in when acquiescence might have served him better, the convolutions of Willie's brooding: "It was the emotion that kept it all together," says Jack later, looking back at it. "And if there was any miscalculation in terms of what we had done, it was not weighing those kinds of feelings strongly enough — or maybe not really comprehending that they would exist to that extent." True, Howard himself's been propelled into it that way, emotion acting as a catalyst, but he's mounted the challenge on rational political grounds — it's almost as if making the decision's freed him from the emotional undertow — and he honestly believes that once the vote is taken other people will come to view it that way, too: politically, rationally, from the standpoint of practical, collective self-interest. "I thought we would have a very short skirmish — it would be a short one, and then it would be over. And I would win or I would lose. Instead of its being that … no-man's land of 'Well, I won the fight I was fighting, but it didn't produce the victory I was seeking,' and so therefore I'm, y'know, locked into seeing the thing through to its conclusion."
Certainly once he does win — at least by the rules they've always played by; wins several times — once he has the majority of the caucus, he thinks the opposition will start to fold. Of course he's aware of the Rule of 41 — Mel Levine is quoted as saying the team had no strategy for it, which gets interpreted as if it were unexpected, but Howard's only too acutely aware of it — hasn’t his concern about its continuing existence been part of what set things off? And he doesn't think Leo will hesitate to invoke it. But he doesn't think he'll be able to make it stick; he doesn't think House Democrats, in a critical election year, will want that kind of a division to stay on.
And if there's an element of calculated hardness to this reasoning, a manipulative intent to force Leo's hand, there's also a genuine concern and preoccupation with the interests of the party, and thus surprise at the number of people willing to put it into apparent jeopardy. Michael Berman and Bill Lockyear are more jaundiced; they think from the beginning that it will last throughout the year. But Howard is so anachronistically, thoroughly partisan — a Democrat in an almost stolidly old-fashioned way, as if the sophisticated ideological free-float of the new politics had somehow passed him by — that, as skilled and technically adroit an operator as he is, the alliance that will end up defeating him comes as an authentic minor shock. Even by summer, wised-up a bit, his habits of partisanship are still so deeply rooted that the specter of a coalition with the Republicans, defended by just the kind of non-partisan rhetoric that will in fact surround it, and by now looming as a real possibility, finds him resistant, disbelieving:
Oh, I don't think anybody's going to buy that… Do you think that line can sell, in a reapportionment year? With the vital kinds of — I mean, there is a constituency of the Democratic Party, working people and union people and the aged and civil liberties groups and minorities, who will say, if major positions in this house are being pedaled to Republicans, that they've been sold out... And that is the only way you can put together a coalition with the Republicans, to give 'em something, which means districts in terms of the reapportionment and chairmanships in terms of policy. I don't think any non-partisan rhetoric can cloud that, do you?
It's not that he hasn't reckoned the emotion in at all; he has, he's foreseen it. What he's misjudged is its scope, its peculiar transforming tenacity, its timbre.
And the contagiousness of it! The fallout! Vasco, who’s backing Leo, walks into caucus one morning with a book he's carried to breakfast, a dictionary of puns, and Art Torres (who's switched from Leo to Howard during the recess: "I suppose that should have told me something," says Howard ruefully, it being Torres' subsequent defection to Willie that will start the post-November slide), is sitting two seats away and asks to see it, and Vasco is feeling crabby, so he tosses it over, and Art thinks he's thrown the book, in anger — Art is his closest friend in Sacramento, and he gives him such a hurt and wounded look and won't speak to him for several days. And then Vasco makes things worse by mentioning to a reporter something the two of them have discussed, something Art considers confidential. How can they have a friendship, Art asks him, if everything he says gets back to the newspapers? Maybe the truth is, they can't. And Vasco is really flattened by this, wracked by it, and finally he writes him a long letter telling him how much their friendship means to him, and hand-delivers it, but then Art doesn't answer for 20 hours — Vasco's convinced that it's over.
This is the point where everybody is writing letters, or thinking about writing letters, thinking they should, with all the sturm und drang of adolescents at an isolated boarding school, or members of a company doing summer stock. Jack Mayesh and Art Agnos have been close as brothers, they've gardened together every Saturday for years; when Art's son is born he doesn't take him home from the hospital, but straight to Jack and Suzanne's, and puts him in a basket on the doorstep and hides in the bushes… Jack's voice gets quivery when he talks about it. Art really is Leo's loyal lieutenant, he's a protégé of his, used to be his chief of staff, is much closer to him personally than Howard has ever been; at any rate, he's the most hot-headed of the pro-Leo forces, and so now he and Jack don't speak, although he's told people he can't believe Jack's really involved — which is demeaning, come to think of it, like Leo and his Michael Berman-as-devil theory; if Jack didn't believe in what Howard was doing, would he still be working for him? Is he that easily pushed around? Besides, it trivializes issues that Jack feels as strongly about as Howard does, and can discourse on, in many cases, more fully and eloquently than Howard himself: the institutional importance of majority rule and party discipline — back to the Federalist papers on this, on what makes a government run and how it works and how a progressive coalition can rule in a non-progressive society — and how essential it is that a Speaker concentrate his energies entirely on the Assembly, the incompatibility of the job with aspirations for higher office. (He's said as much to Howard: "End of the line, fella, if you get it …; You have to face looking baldly political to do it right, and once you start seeing it as a springboard" — Unruh and Moretti have fallen down here before Leo — "you can't do it well anymore.") And he's tried to talk to Art about this — bumping into him having lunch with Leo at Fat's one day and drawing him aside — and Art's agreed at least on principle that they ought to sit down together and have a real discussion, but then the next thing he knows, Art's going around telling people he's sick and tired of seeing Mayesh's "long sad face," so where does that leave him? Heartsick and stymied. Maybe he should try to put his feelings in a letter; he doesn't know what to do.
Even Janis gets caught in the maelstrom — Janis, who’s been so adamant about keeping the personal aspect of things separate from workday strife that she 's been in the habit of taping a sign on the front door before parties reading "Lighten up!" Janis and Howard are also friends of the Agnoses; Janis, especially, feels close to them. Art and Sherry have just bought their dream house, in Sacramento; they're fixing it up, and Janis has wanted to get them something really special for it. So in August of 1979 she's gone to Geary's in Beverly Hills and ordered a set of house numbers on Spanish tile, and written out a card: "Through thick and through thin" — this is before anything has happened — “we really consider you friends and may we always keep in touch for the rest of our lives. " She fervently means this. But the tiles have to be custom-made, so they aren't delivered until the fight has started — actually, as irony would have it, until the day after the whole thing breaks. She doesn't know what their reaction will be … And then a few days later she's coming out of Howard's office and she sees Art in the hall, and they both cry and embrace and say whatever happens, they have to go on; she feels they have an understanding. She's so reassured by this that she keeps getting after Jack to make more of an effort; he's carrying negative energy, she tells him. That was in the beginning, and afterwards she's talked to Sherry on the phone, and in fact — by now it's three months later — they were supposed to get together, the four of them, the past weekend; the baby's played such a role in Howard and Janis' lives that they haven't been able to make it happen yet. They will, though, she says, with wistful, heartbreaking brightness, they're going to do it soon…
But the resumption of the friendship doesn't come to pass. "I think maybe she was a little naive about it," says Howard, gently, by summertime. One of the things that makes it difficult, of course, in this incestuously interlocking little world, is that Sherry works for Leo as a consultant, in the Speaker's office, on the environment, primarily, and other issues; she talks to her counterpart in Howard's office several times a day, as they always have, about scheduling, and the wording of bills and so forth, and so it's Sherry who's the conduit for the bulletins on Leo's mood, the constant stream of messages about how he's so depressed he doesn't even feel like coming in to work anymore, and it’s she who's asked to transmit some of the other zingers: One morning, in the midst of the pre-primary jostling, Leo sends word of his distress that Howard is using his capitol office for the conduct of political activity — which is pretty funny, come to think of it — where's Leo conducting his political activities, out in the hall? And Howard, who for the most part is actually quite punctilious about making the distinction — who says "Use the political credit card on this one" on call after long-distance call — Howard spends the rest of the day making jokes about it: "Health planning as a political activity.” Which of course it is, in a sense, it has those ramifications: Do you assault Curtis Tucker, now a floater, whose speakership vote you're hoping to win in December and who's carrying a health care bill that’s an alternative to yours, as frontally as you would have in another year? No, you don't; Howard's the first to say so. Howard can, in fact, laugh off most of the barrage, but even he's not totally immune, and undertones of bitterness and incredulity begin to surface in his conversations.
What has happened, in short, in this wrought-up, emotionalized climate, is that the fight very soon takes on a life of its own. So that every harsh word and skirmish itself becomes part of the record, the bill of particulars on each side; the torrent of words, each new bit of maneuvering, all become additional fuel for the flame. The prolongation affects it — the longer it lasts, the worse it gets, or at least the less susceptible to any reasonable, amicable working out. The habit of not being friends begins to take over from the habit of being friends; and it has little to do with how the fight started or why: like a bitter, drawn-out divorce or a long-time family feud, it goes on because it has gone on.
And like a divorce that's now being waged over the very grounds it's being waged on — over the terms of the settlement — its texture, its focus, its complexion has changed. Clearly on Howard's part it's not just about Democrats winning seats in November anymore, nor about Leo's accessibility, nor about his housekeeping style — in fact, one of the disconcerting wrinkles of the thing, the awkwardly paradoxical situation Howard finds himself in, at least from a public relations standpoint, is that, as he concedes, "so many of the things that were going wrong, that caused me to do what I did, were automatically cured by my having done it." The challenge, in other words, has corrected much of what it was launched to protest, and Howard's position, inherently less sympathetic to begin with, becomes, with fewer operational grievances to point to, even less palatable as time passes. ("Trying to kill the king," says Gray Davis, "is a problem if he, from his hospital bed, recovers.")
Leo opens a members' lounge in Bob Tweegle's old office: There are drinks — “and dip," Howard says, deadpan — in the evening; there's coffee and orange juice in the morning; cold cuts in the afternoon. Leo shifts his attention back to the legislative races; pledges the money he's already raised to this purpose — or at least to the races planned by his supporters — and sets about raising more. Now he is stroking the guys, he's talking to them, he's worrying about their re-elections. ("Ah, but that's the point," says Gray. "Who deserves credit for that, Leo or Howard?") On a smaller-scale, more individuated level — the magical efficacy of such unstrenuous devisings underlining, perhaps, the degree of insensitivity that had prevailed before — Leo becomes transcendently solicitous: Bob Tweegle's brother, the Ag Committee consultant whom John Thurmond has objected to being pressed to hire, suddenly decides he prefers a career in private industry and leaves to seek it, and two more consultants, to be chosen by Chairman Thurmond, are found all at once by Leo to be vital to the committee's function. Curtis Tucker, who for some time has felt unappreciated — all he wants, it turns out, is to be chairman of Public Employees and Retirement, and doesn't he deserve it? Two years ago he's flown up to Sacramento from his sickbed to give Leo a crucial budget vote — now finds his dissatisfaction to be perceived and corrected; he gets his chairmanship, and along with Thurmond and Bruce Young and Norm Waters, peels off from the Berman camp, and supports the caucus motion to suspend the speakership question.
Leo's more in touch than he has been for ages — doing, in this sense, a better job as Speaker than he has since the beginning of his term. And so the tone of the fussing in the editorial pages and the complaints from reporters muttering in bars (even from the few who thought the challenge might have been warranted in the first place, and certainly from those who saw it as unsavory from the start) all become directed at the question of why Howard doesn't stop; why, with these concessions pried, these improvements exacted, he doesn't call the whole thing off. All right, so he did have the majority; so Leo changed the scoring method in midstream and caused the prolongation, if you want to look at it that way. But Howard's the one who was talking about strengthening the Democratic party, and now it's hopelessly split, barely anything in the Assembly getting done ("Compared to what?" says Howard, somewhat acerbically. "Compared to how breathtakingly effective we were last year?"); members distracted by the infighting from the problems at hand (actually, although what has in fact developed is a semblance of three parties — McCarthyites, Bermanites, and Republicans — both Howard and Leo have been fairly conscientious about trying to keep certain legislative issues clear of the fray); the shards of shattered relationships everywhere; tension and trauma; primary fights planned against incumbent Democrats in some districts (as if just sponsoring competing candidates in the open seats weren't divisive enough) — what could be more inconsistent with Howard's professed objectives, what could be worse for the party than this?
If it’s true that Leo — and Willie — share the responsibility for sustaining the divisiveness and prolonging the agony, still, Howard's the one who originated the action; it's up to him to withdraw, and the fact that he doesn't confirms that it's merely an exercise in power now — no philosophy to it anymore, if it ever existed in the first place; just rampant ambition and wanting the job himself; nothing but pure politics after all.
And in truth — though with a slightly different face to it — it is pretty much pure politics, the most elemental of pure politics, that are governing things now: certain exigent, immutable political realities, ineluctable political laws. At a certain point — really, from the moment the fight went public, but certainly from the time the first vote is taken and he doesn’t decisively win or lose it — an escalation of commitment is set in motion, and Howard's options are no longer completely preserved.
The emotional dynamic that will culminate, as it will, in Willie's victory — that will make that victory, as emotionally driven as it is, essentially incidental to the process, which is really more the product of actions and attitudes on Leo's part — has its own momentum, its own primitive kind of trajectory, which, once embarked on, is enormously difficult to arrest. If you’ve been attacked, though not definitively vanquished, and the moment of possibility for dignified, civilized agreement has passed, you need to defend yourself at all costs — or risk looking cowardly. It becomes an agenda. Thus for Leo, whose public image, for both political and personal reasons, is of considerable concern to him, backing down is never a real option. What would that say about him? Either it would demonstrate weakness, hardly a magnet for support in future endeavors, or it’s an admission of the validity of Howard's point of view.
Howard, to be sure, as comfortable as he is with the notion of blatant strategizing, the possessor of such a serene and uncanny equanimity about the way he appears to others, seems a less likely participant in the driven, entangling drama of saving (or, in Willie’s case, regaining) face. But there's another, parallel dynamic at work here, less Racinean but equally inexorable: the age-old political need — and its tangible consequences, in a system where committee seats and chairmanships and office staff and space are the spoils — to punish and reward.
The inalterable convention of retaliation is an element that Howard, if he’d won the first round, might well have jettisoned, in the interests of future amicable working relationships, or — a more likely reason — in the interests of utilizing his restraint from it as a powerful co-optation tool. Leo, however, is a traditionalist, and he needs to put these retaliations into effect, if only, from a technical standpoint, in order to have the rewards and enticements available to offer to those whose votes he’s courting. And so, as the fight continues, various prominent Bermanites are, in fact, promptly stripped of positions and privileges, and given inferior office assignments. The result is that Howard, now placed in the position of watching his supporters undergo severe and palpable consequences for having backed him, is in the purest political sense immobilized; checkmated, as it were. The appearance of weakness is something he could have, if he’d wanted to, chosen to disregard; but the disloyalty of backing down, of saving your own skin, after your guys have been hung out to dry, would have constituted a political act from which it’s virtually impossible to recover. In these circumstances he's forced to continue the fight.
And so, after the fall recess (during which time Art Agnos, working in his Capitol office, occasionally blasts the song "Take This Job and Shove It" from the office stereo), they take the vote. And on December 2, 1980, Willie, by virtue of his support from four Republican members who now, because of the continuing existence of the Rule of 41, have the deciding vote in the matter, becomes the Democratic Speaker of the California State Assembly.
In the fall of 1982, after the fight is permanently over, Howard will run for a seat in the U.S. House of Representatives and win handily. He has been in Congress ever since, with virtually no election competition — until the somewhat farcical situation of the current election cycle. Leo will go on to run for Lieutenant Governor, and win; he'll serve two terms under George Dukmejian, interrupted by two losing campaigns for the U.S. senate, and one term under Pete Wilson. His 12 year stretch in that office will be ended by the 1990 initiative on term limits, and he'll retire from politics, founding a San Francisco investment company, establishing the Leo T. McCarthy Center for Public Service and the Common Good at the University of San Francisco, and more or less disappearing as a political force. He dies in 2007, at the age of 77, after a long bout with kidney illness.
And then, of course, Willie.
Willie Lewis Brown will serve as Speaker for 15 years, the all-time record, longer than even the legendary Jesse Unruh or Bob Morretti. He undergoes a striking transformation and becomes the Legislature's most effective fund-raiser-for-others ever. (It's largely in reaction to his perceived domination of the Sacramento landscape that the 1990 term limits initiative is adopted.) Anticipating being termed out as Speaker, after three final two-year stints, he 's elected Mayor of San Francisco in 1995, and serves highly visibly and somewhat controversially until 2004, when he bumps up against the term limits for that office. (There is a wonderful, essence-of-Willie story that has him, in anticipation of his forced retirement as mayor, persuading Gray Davis, by then a year into his second term as California governor, to name him to a well-compensated position on the board of CALPERS, the California State Employees Retirement System. The morning Willie receives the appointment letter, so the story goes, he drives over to Sacramento and has Secretary of State Bob Jones swear him in right then and there. Then, when Gray, having heard rumors about a pending FBI investigation of Willie, calls that afternoon and says, “ Really sorry, pal, but I’m going to have to rescind the appointment,” Willie tells him, “You can’t do that.” Gray says, “Of course I can; it’s right here in the statute”, and Willie replies, “No, you could have done that, but now you can’t, ‘cause I got sworn in this morning and it’s a lifetime appointment...”)
Art Agnos serves one term, preceding Willie's, as the mayor of San Francisco. He supervises rescue efforts during the Loma Prieta earthquake and the rehabilitation afterwards, and later serves in the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, as well as helping Leo to establish his center at the University of San Francisco, and continuing to work on issues involving homelessness, which becomes his specialty.
Jack Mayesh goes into private life, into the savings and loan and then the mortgage business; and Vasco serves until 2004 in the legislature, and then starts an organization to promote "The Politics of Trust," while serving on the board of, among other institutions, the Center For Attitudinal Healing. Mel Levine wins the 29th district seat for the U.S, Congress, in which he serves for 10 years, then joins a prestigious Los Angeles law firm; and Janis becomes Los Angeles mayor Richard Riordan's ombudsman for a while and then serves for a period as the head of the city's Science Museum in Exposition Park.
Gray, of course, after being re-elected as governor, is subsequently recalled in favor of the Schwarzenator. And Jerry Brown, having served as the two-term mayor of Oakland, and then as California Attorney General, then goes on to win his extraordinary third term as governor, at the age of 72.
And Howard, during in his tenure in Congress, where he eventually chairs the Foreign Affairs Committee and becomes the second-ranking Democrat on Judiciary, fills an almost identical role to the one he played in the Assembly, serving as a low-key, effective behind-the-scenes negotiator. (In 2010 the National Journal Almanac describes him thus: "One of the most creative members of the House and one of the most clear-sighted operators in American politics," adding praise for "his vast institutional knowledge.") He's instrumental in the resolution of the Clinton impeachment hearings; he originates legislation that limits the scope of the Patriot Act concerning library and bookstore records, as well as legislation attempting to halt runaway film production. (Representing, as he does in his district, much of the Los Angeles entertainment industry, he stays diligently attentive to Hollywood concerns about copyrights and intellectual property and tax credits throughout his tenure.) He does a stint as chairman of the House Ethics Committee, pursuing the matter of Mark Foley's attentions to House pages ("It's an honor I could have done without," he says of the position; although Norm Ornstein, the token liberal at the American Enterprise Institute, writes at the time, “The House Ethics Committee’s tattered reputation is on the line, and two words are keeping it from total collapse: Howard Berman.”) More significantly, he's one of the key drafters of the sanctions against Iran intended to inhibit the development of its nuclear capability; and he's a major sponsor of legislation permitting 20,000 immigrant visas for migrants without close relatives in the United States to be selected randomly by computer — these are now called "Berman visa applications."
And following the 2000 census, when Michael Berman plays a major part in the Assembly's redistricting process (intense consultations with Howard, naturally, included), and Brad Sherman, the occupant of the district adjoining Howard's, thus complains that Howard has "stabbed him in the back" by facilitating the addition of considerable number of Hispanic voters to his heretofore predominantly Jewish constituency, Howard agrees to make an adjustment, and Sherman’s district ends up with the Hispanic vote reduced to 37 percent while Howard's own district adds them and becomes 56 percent Latino. Which is why the vehemence of Brad's opposition in the current election — he has a chance to run in yet another newly-drawn district and declines to take it — comes as something of a surprise.
Sherman's a not-so-amiable, balding, bespectacled middle-aged man, widely regarded, except by his actual supporters, as having minimal influence in Washington — although, despite his reputation for being available for practically every bar mitzvah and car-wash opening in both the new district and his old one, he's actually a resident of D.C., where his children attend school. (He maintains a Valley condo for the sake of his district-qualifying status, in contrast to Howard, who's lived in the same Valley Village house for most of his life). In the opinion of Barney Frank of Massachusetts, the past chairman and now (since the Democrats' devastating defeat in the 2010 Congressional elections), the ranking member of the House Financial Services Committee, to which both contestants belong, Sherman's election "would be an absolute travesty of the democratic process."
"Brad and Howard," says Frank, a famously astute evaluator of talent, who's retiring at the end of this term after 32 years in Congress, "represent the exact opposite ends of the spectrum when it comes to what they contribute legislatively. Brad represents the lowest possible level — he does nothing remotely useful; he only knows how to sit back and take potshots — whereas Howard is the very best there is." Frank makes these remarks at an LGBT fundraiser for Howard being held upstairs at the Planet Hollywood restaurant in North Hollywood's Universal City Walk, an incongruously glittery place (no doubt largely from the accumulated wattage of the sequined costumes displayed in its vitrines) for what's a veritable orgy of warm testimony attesting to Howard's steadfastness and integrity, as proclaimed by several public officials (Henry Waxman is there, too, in addition to Barney Frank, and so is Jackie Goldberg, the former long-time Los Angeles city councilperson, who happens to be Howard's cousin), as well as a number of attorneys and some prominent gay businessmen, many of whose friendships with the candidate reach back some 30 years.
The Berman-Sherman race has been notoriously unpleasant, and hugely, ludicrously costly. (It's estimated that each side will have raised and spent $4 to $5 million dollars by the time of the November election, putting the contest into contention for being the most expensive Congressional race of the year.) Howard, discouragingly, comes in 10 points behind Sherman in the June primary (by the rules of the new California system the top two vote-getters, no matter what their party affiliation, oppose each other in November). It's a startling outcome — or, possibly not so startling, considering that the new district includes only one-third of Howard's old one, whereas 60 percent percent of it encompasses the area that used to be Sherman's.
The outcome may also have stemmed from a no-holds barred barrage of vituperatively negative campaigning on Sherman's part, much of it concentrated on condemning votes of Howard's on which their two positions turn out to have been identical, and even more intensely focused (in a number of mailers he's sent out) on accusations that Howard has missed — as indeed he has — a multitude of votes on the House floor. That the majority of the missed votes occurred while Howard, as chairman of Foreign Affairs (and then, following the debacle of 2010, in his new role, demoted, like Barney Frank, to the position of its ranking member), has been overseas or in conference at the State Department, negotiating matters like the sanctions against Iran — or, in earlier days, peace proposals in Northern Ireland — or, for that matter, coincident with his participation in a group of meetings largely responsible for moving the beginning of work on the 405 Freeway expansion a decade ahead of its previously-scheduled start-date, is a nuance that, like some of Howard's more subtle explanations for the speakership fight, may end up travelling over the heads of those responsible for the eventual decision. It's possible, too, that Howard's endorsement by 23 of the 25 members of the California congressional delegation, as well as by all five members of the L.A. County Board of Supervisors, may in the end prove irrelevant to Valley-centric voters.
It's true that as the campaign progresses, Howard, as in the waning days of the speakership fight, is goaded into an unaccustomed display of defensiveness (a bit like Bill Clinton's when he's accused of racism during the 2008 Democratic presidential primaries), turning veritably peevish on occasion — "that's simply not true," he sputters, during a debate held in Sherman Oaks in mid-August, when Sherman attempts to make the case that he, too, is extremely well-respected in Congress; later that evening he becomes visibly exasperated at Brad's assertion that moving the capital of Israel to Jerusalem is the sine qua non of solving the problems of the Middle East. It seems illogical to him — really, it's nearly inconceivable — that a reformed redistricting process would have risked the loss of someone with his seniority and impact in Washington to someone with Sherman's mediocre reputation; it seems contrary to all reason, in much the same way it did that the Republicans ended up being the ones to decide a Democratic speakership fight. The Berman district office is heralded for the promptness and efficiency of its constituent services — is there a real chance that the hours Sherman puts in instead schmoozing one-on-one at local town hall meetings, will ultimately turn out to be the key factor in November? The campaign is making extensive efforts in the western part of the Valley, in what used to be Brad's district, to counteract that contingency, and Michael's role — Brad has filed a complaint with the Fair Elections Commission, alleging nepotism and overpayment on Howard's part over the past two decades, despite clear evidence of Michael's being in demand and copiously reimbursed by others during the entire period — has been officially, prudently diminished. (Michael was less comfortable, in any event, managing a defensive race.) Brandon Hall, the strategist generally considered responsible for saving Harry Reid's Senate seat in 2010 has been put in charge of the campaign. In addition the campaign has also established a website highlighting the inaccuracy of various Sherman accusations and representation called BradShermanFacts.com, or as they refer to it in their news releases — purely in acknowledgement of Brad's initials, of course — "The B.S. Report." In mid-October, during the course of another debate, Brad belligerently grabs hold of Howard: Howard has moved closer to him on the platform as they argue, and Brad suddenly reaches around, clutches Howard's shoulder and shouts, "You want to get into it?" — an incident that the Berman campaign, naturally, loses no time in capitalizing on, sending out press releases and posting video snippets. But for the first time in nearly 30 years, Howard 's not entirely sure what he will be doing in January.
“So, is that it?” I ask Howard back in August of 1980, in the Los Angeles airport, at the bottom of an escalator on his way back to Sacramento, about the contentiousness and ill-will generated by the primary election competitions, and the addition burden they’ve placed on Democratic efforts for November. “As simple as that — just that you can’t make an omelet without breaking eggs?”
“Well...” Howard seems flustered and disconcerted for a moment, and goes silent. He looks somber. And then his customary equanimity returns, the extraordinary sense of balance that’s enabled him to make the speakership fight and take it utterly seriously, but to stay unconsumed by it, the same equanimity that will end up informing his other choices in the intervening decades and find him, at age 71, in a remarkable state of contentment, even while entertaining (although not altogether seriously) the prospect of an election upset, with fewer regrets and misgivings than practically any other sentient human being in public life. “Well...” Howard repeats, with his characteristic combination of jauntiness and gravity. “Gotta see the egg.”
Jamie Wolf is a journalist, essayist and photographer who’s been writing about politics and politicians for many years.
LARB Staff Recommendations
Howard & Leo & Willie & Carol & Art & Michael & Vasco & Janis & Jacqui & Jack: A Speakership Fight In California
Howard Berman fights for his political life...
AS ANYONE WHO’S TRIED to do antiwar work over the last few years knows, not only can the President pretty well get away with murder any time he wants to these days, but it can sometimes be hard to ...
Did you know LARB is a reader-supported nonprofit?
LARB publishes daily without a paywall as part of our mission to make rigorous, incisive, and engaging writing on every aspect of literature, culture, and the arts freely accessible to the public. Please consider supporting our work and helping to keep LARB free.