A Southern California congressional race marred by personal smears and finger-pointing descended into a Jerry Springer moment when two Democratic House members ended up in a physical confrontation during a debate in front of hooting college students.
The embarrassing moment — captured on video Thursday and splashed across the Internet — unsettled the close contest between Reps. Howard Berman and Brad Sherman and left the two campaigns fighting over what happened in a San Fernando Valley auditorium and why.
The brief altercation between the fellow Democrats speaks to an ever-deteriorating political culture and the tumult created by new California election laws that resulted in a handful of highly charged, same-party runoffs.
"Nationally we are going to be a laughingstock. It makes us look like idiots," said former California Assembly Speaker Bob Hertzberg, a Democrat who decided to endorse Berman after seeing the video. "This is not right."
Eric Bauman, vice chair of the California Democratic Party and head of its Los Angeles County chapter, called the skirmish "unfortunate for the candidates, for the community and for the Democratic Party."
Tensions had been escalating for months as Sherman's campaign accused Berman of scamming taxpayers for first-class trips overseas and stuffing his brother's pockets with campaign funds, while Berman's campaign attacked Sherman as a mail-it-in congressman who bilked thousands of dollars from his own campaign while collecting donations from predatory lenders.
In the midst of an argument about authorship of a bill in Congress, the taller Sherman seized the shoulder of 71-year-old Berman, yanked him toward his chest and shouted, "You want to get into this?"
Sherman, 57, told The Associated Press on Friday that he regretted forcefully grabbing Berman but never intended to bully his smaller rival, which left Berman incredulous.
"Truth has never been one of Brad's strong suits," Berman told the AP.
Sherman and Berman share similar-sounding names, liberal pedigrees and they both live in Los Angeles' sprawling San Fernando Valley. But they have never been close, in friendship or in style.
Berman, the ranking Democrat on the House Foreign Affairs Committee, has spent years cultivating a statesman's reputation and extensive Washington connections. His list of endorsements showcases his ties to the political elite in both major parties, ranging from Republican Sen. John McCain to California Gov. Jerry Brown. He mixes company with celebrities and counts directors Robert Redford and Rob Reiner among his supporters.
Sherman recalls the moniker once embraced by former New York Sen. Al D'Amato — Sen. Pothole, for his attention to local affairs. Sherman's known for holding dozens of events in the district and paying close attention to the pulse back home. That helps explain why he won the endorsement of the Democratic Party of the San Fernando Valley, an umbrella group for 27 Democratic clubs.
The lawmakers were pulled into the same district after an independent panel established by voters recast California's political boundaries. They were the top vote-getters in the June primary and went on to the general election because of California's new primary system, which sends the top two finishers to the runoff regardless of party affiliation.
Sherman stopped short of blaming Berman for instigating the confrontation, but emphasized that Berman had walked across the stage and was shouting in his face. A transcript shows Berman said Sherman was "delusional or a liar."
"I touched him, I put my arm around his shoulder, I should not have done that," Sherman said.
The two men later stood nose-to-nose exchanging words before a sheriff's deputy emerged behind them and briefly placed his hand on Sherman's shoulder. Sherman sat down, and the debate resumed.
Sherman said in the telephone interview that his supporters would not be distracted by the confrontation.
"They are not focused on a video that makes good entertainment television for somebody who wants to do a show about congressmen behaving badly," he said.
But Berman said voters would recognize that Sherman was unsteady and prone to misleading statements. Bullying, he said, "has always been part of how he operates."
Associated Press Writers Donna Cassata in Washington and Garance Burke in San Francisco contributed to this report.