Showbiz behind Berman, but will it matter?

Democratic primary pits congressman against Sherman

With just two weeks to go in a hotly contested San Fernando Valley congressional race, pitting longtime Democratic incumbents Howard Berman and Brad Sherman against each other in the June 5 primary, one question that came to the fore last week was: How much will showbiz matter?

Berman, with strong support from studio and recording-industry leaders, as well as the endorsement of IATSE, went on an “accomplishment tour” of Valley sites last Tuesday that included a stop at the Universal lot. As he has before, Berman highlighted the front-and-center role he has taken in championing anti-piracy legislation, as well as a bill he recently introduced along with Rep. David Dreier (R-Calif.) to extend a tax deduction for film and TV production.

Berman said piracy creates a “massive disincentive” for the creative community to produce new product.

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“It has massive implications for jobs in Los Angeles and the San Fernando Valley, and we have to confront this,” he said on the soundstage for “Parenthood,” where he was joined by the DGA’s Kathy Garmezy and IATSE’s Thom Davis, as well as Assemblyman Bob Blumenfield and Mark Binke, senior VP, production of cable and digital production for Universal Cable Prods.

Sherman doesn’t have nearly the same level of support in industry contributions, but he is chairman of the Congressional Entertainment Industry Caucus. And as Berman has emphasized his Washington influence, Sherman has highlighted local connections, including frequent town hall meetings. He also has represented more of the newly drawn district, reconstituted after redistricting last year forced the two incumbents to face each other, along with Republicans Mark Reed and Susan Shelley. The district has a heavy concentration of industry employees and freelancers.

Berman has received more showbiz money so far this cycle than any political contender besides President Obama and Mitt Romney, collecting $363,010, according to the Center for Responsive Politics. Real estate, accounting and legal professionals are at the top of those contributing to Sherman.

Berman has played up that support from Hollywood figures — his campaign has an ad featuring an endorsement from Betty White and her “Hot in Cleveland” co-star Wendie Malick — but he has also used intellectual property protection as a talking point. It is featured prominently on his website, and he cited it frequently on the U lot.

Sherman says that while IP protection is important, jobs, the economy and even Social Security are far higher priorities according to an online survey his campaign has done.

The website Politico recently defined the differences between the two congressmen in kudos terms: If Berman is the Oscar, Sherman is the People’s Choice Award.

Divergent styles were on display Tuesday, as Berman criticized Sherman over the tax incentive legislation. After Berman proposed a two-year extension of the tax measure — allowing producers to deduct up to $15 million in expenses if 75% of production occurs in the U.S. — Sherman said that he intended to introduce a bill this summer that would make it permanent.

“I think people are too smart to get conned by legislation that will never be considered seriously by anyone, that has no prospect of ever becoming law, that is done for self-promotion as opposed to legislation for which there is a strategy to get the kind of support of the committee and on the floor,” Berman said of Sherman’s proposal.

Sherman, however, said that even though he would support two-year legislation, it isn’t that effective because part of it is retroactive to 2011, meaning that projects that already have been produced will benefit. “What we want to do is increase production,” he said. “You have got to have people go to a business meeting and say, ‘This pencils out because of a tax provision.'” Pressing to make the legislation permanent, he said, is “not a bad negotiating strategy.” “We have to fight to make it permanent,” he said.

The two Democratic incumbents were co-sponsors of the Stop Online Piracy Act, the anti-piracy legislation that was sidelined in January in the face of an online Internet “blackout,” but they view the aftermath differently. At a candidates forum in February, Sherman said that he saw the need for the legislation but said it needed to be improved, while Berman said the bill was the victim of unfair distortions and that his opponent backed away from it as it became controversial. “I try not to sponsor or co-sponsor a bill as a symbol of my general position even though I think the language is stupid,” Berman said.

In an interview on Tuesday, Sherman said that a recent visit to a North Hollywood high school was telling: Students were wearing anti-SOPA T-shirts. While he says he “supports just about every effort to protect IP,” the fate of SOPA proved that “it needs to be rebranded, and we need provisions in it that make clear that it is not going to shut down the free Internet as we know it.”

Whether copyright issues ultimately have an influence on the race may depend on how closely they are connected to jobs.

Sherry Bebitch Jeffe, senior fellow at the School of Policy, Planning and Development at USC, said that in talking about IP protection, “I am not sure (Berman) is talking to the average voter. I think he is talking to Hollywood and his contributors and his potential contributors.” But if the IP issue “is perceived as the congressman is talking about jobs, it will have an impact.”