Sunday, April 8, 2012

As Hollywood Watches, SOPA Champion Berman Fights for His Seat


One of the biggest advocates of controversial antipiracy legislation finds himself in the political fight of his life. But Rep. Howard Berman’s career is not in peril because of his stalwart support for the Stop Online Piracy Act -- which was strongly backed by movie studios, record companies, and other content creators and opposed with equal fervor by tech firms and Internet activists.

In fact, the California Democrat, who was first elected to the House in 1982, is touting his strong support for the entertainment industry and its interests in Congress as one of the reasons why voters should send him back to Capitol Hill. But Berman’s legislative career was put in question when an independent panel redrew the state’s congressional map after the 2010 census, placing him in the same district as Rep. Brad Sherman, D-Calif.

The entertainment industry has long been a supporter of Berman, both for his work in protecting the industry’s interests as the top Democrat on the House Foreign Affairs Committee and as a senior member of the House Judiciary Committee. Berman was an original cosponsor of SOPA, a bill aimed at curbing piracy and counterfeiting on foreign websites. Berman and other supporters of the bill contended that current U.S. laws do not provide effective tools to target infringement on foreign websites.

Tech companies, civil libertarians, and others argued that the bill would stifle free speech and innovation on the Internet. Supporters were forced to shelve the bill in January after an unprecedented protest by critics that culminated with a daylong partial and full blackout of thousands of websites, including Wikipedia and Google.

So far, the issue hasn’t been a major factor in the race against Sherman, who also signed on as a SOPA cosponsor. However, Berman has been critical of Sherman for backing off his support by saying the bill is flawed and needs to be fixed.

Sherman said in a recent interview that the issue isn’t in the “top 25” concerns he’s heard from voters during the campaign. And while he supports the goals of SOPA, he said the bill as originally drafted was flawed and the uproar from critics was a sign that it needs more work. “I could see the handwriting on the computer screen and realized that we have to change the bill,” Sherman said.

Berman, however, has said he still supports SOPA even though he acknowledged the bill is effectively dead. He said he wants to work with supporters and critics to find an alternative approach and criticized Sherman for backing away from SOPA after it became political kryptonite. “I try not to sponsor or cosponsor a bill as a symbol of my support for a general position even though I think the language is stupid,” Berman said at a February debate.

Although the race is largely known as the “Berman-Sherman fight,” the two Democratic lawmakers will face off on June 5 against not only each other but another Democrat, three Republicans, and a Green Party candidate. Under California’s new electoral process, all candidates will appear on the same primary ballot and the top two vote-getters, regardless of party affiliation, will proceed to the general election in November.

Berman and Sherman are expected to emerge from the June balloting in the heavily Democratic San Fernando Valley district.

Sherman, who is in his eighth term, was viewed as having an edge in the new 30th District given that it encompasses more of his old district and that more voters are used to seeing his name on the ballot, said Raphael Sonenshein, executive director of the Pat Brown Institute of Public Affairs at California State University (Los Angeles). Sherman released an internal poll this week showing him with a huge lead, but no independent polls have been conducted recently.

Berman, however, has strong backing from the entertainment industry and much of the state’s Democratic establishment, including Gov. Jerry Brown, Sens. Barbara Boxer and Dianne Feinstein, and a majority of the state’s Democratic congressional delegation.

“The motion-picture and recording industries are the lifeblood of the Valley’s economy,” Berman said in a statement. “I’ve spent my career fighting to protect the good-paying jobs held by the working men and women who create and produce the films and music loved all over the world and will continue to do so when I’m reelected.”

People in the movie and television industry are the top contributors to Berman’s campaign, donating $337,000 so far during the 2011-2012 election cycle, according to the latest figures from the Center for Responsive Politics. Contributors include the PACs of Time Warner, Fox-News Corp., and Sony Pictures, each of which has given Berman $10,000, as well as executives such as Paramount Pictures CEO Brad Grey, Sony Pictures Chairman and CEO Michael Lynton, and Universal Pictures President Mike Knobloch, according to the latest reports from the Federal Election Commission.

“There are a lot of people who work in the [movie] industry and live in the district,” Sonenshein said. “I think Berman will lock up that entire industry pretty much. But that can only get you so far.”

Sherman’s top contributors come from the real-estate industry and law firms. He had more than $3.6 million in the bank at the end of 2011, compared with $2.8 million for Berman, according to the latest FEC figures.

But Sherman, who is chairman of the Congressional Entertainment Industries Caucus, said he also has garnered some support from the entertainment industry, pointing in particular to backers such as actor Ed Begley Jr. and Bill Prady, executive producer of the CBS series The Big Bang Theory.

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