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Berman, Howard Lawrence


BERMAN, HOWARD LAWRENCE (1941– ), U.S. congressman. Raised in a traditional home in Beverlywood, Los Angeles, by an Orthodox Polish-immigrant father, Berman spent several summers at Machene Yehuda, a Jewish camp in the hills northeast of Los Angeles' San Fernando Valley. The camp's head counselor was the young Rabbi Chaim *Potok (1929–2002). Berman always considered his summers at Machene Yehuda to be "the single-most important Jewish experience" in his life.

Berman entered the University of California at Los Angeles (ucla) in 1958, where he majored in political science and became active in the California Federation of Young Democrats, where he was befriended by the head of the Draft Stevenson campaign, fellow Angelino Henry Waxman. The two became fast friends, eventually forming (along with Howard's brother Michael) an informal political alliance known as "The Waxman-Berman Machine." After graduating from ucla in 1962, Berman went to the university's School of Law, receiving his LL.B. in 1965.

By 1965, Waxman had become president of the California Federation of Young Democrats (cfyd). Along with Waxman, Berman and the cfyd gravitated toward the party's insurgent faction, led by future United States Senator Alan Cranston, and against the party's more established wing, controlled by California Assembly Speaker Jesse ("Big Daddy") Unruh. By 1967, when Howard became a vista (Volunteers in Service to America) volunteer, he was irrevocably hooked on politics. Following his year with vista, Berman went into private practice, specializing in labor law. Meanwhile, brother Michael was masterminding Henry Waxman's election to the California State Assembly. Named chair of the Assembly committee that oversaw reapportionment in 1972, Waxman hired Michael Berman to help him draw up district lines. Part of their plan was to create an Assembly district for Howard right in his own backyard of Beverlywood. When California Governor Ronald Reagan vetoed the Waxman-Berman reapportionment plan, Howard moved from Beverlywood into a district that ran along the Santa Monica Mountains from Hollywood to the San Fernando Valley and successfully ran against a twenty-six-year incumbent Charles Conrad, the Assembly Republican leader.

Within days, the freshman legislator was named Assembly majority leader – the youngest in California history. As majority leader, Berman passed legislation that imposed stiff penalties on California banks that joined the Arab boycott against Israel. In 1980, after five years as Assembly majority leader, Berman narrowly lost a bid to become that body's speaker. After his defeat, Berman allied himself with San Francisco-area Congressman Phillip Burton in the 1982 congressional reapportionment plan. Burton, working alongside Michael Berman – who, by then had become a major player in California Democratic politics – managed to secure a congressional seat for Howard. Howard Berman was elected with 60 percent of the vote.

Upon entering the House of Representatives, he quickly broke out of the freshman pack by getting himself a seat on the Democratic Steering and Policy Committee. Berman managed to get himself seated on both the House Committee on Foreign Affairs (later renamed "International Relations") and House Judiciary – two plum assignments for a newly minted legislator. In Congress he forged a reputation for being "one of the most aggressive and creative members of the House – and one of the most clear-sighted operators in American politics."

In Los Angeles, Berman was one half of the powerful "Waxman-Berman Machine" that raised enormous sums of money, mainly from Jewish liberals. The Waxman-Berman Machine changed the face of American politics: they were the first to make contributions to the campaigns of other like-minded candidates.

Berman was one of Israel's strongest voices in the halls of Congress. He arranged tens of thousands of visas for immigrants without close relatives in the United States. These visas, selected randomly by computer, came to be known as "Berman visa applications" and were a boon to thousands and thousands of Soviet Jewish émigrés who settled in America in the 1980s and 1990s.


K.F. Stone, The Congressional Minyan: The Jews of Capitol Hill (2000), 30–34; Almanac of American Politics (1982–2004).

[Kurt Stone (2nd ed.)]

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