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California needs a new insurance commissioner — one who voters can trust represents their interests.
Holder Ricardo Lara claims to be the people’s champion. But the past four years of scandals and close ties to the insurance industry have shown otherwise. It’s time for a leader who leads by example in consumer protection.
Voters in the June 7 primary are expected to back Assemblyman Marc Levine to lead the 1,400-staff department tasked with overseeing health, auto and home insurance rates — to regulate companies that collect more than $371 billion dollars in premiums per year in California.
Levine, who has represented Marin and Sonoma counties for nearly 10 years, began to dive deep into insurance issues following the 2017 wildfires that killed 44 people, consumed 245,000 acres and destroyed 8 900 structures, including thousands of homes and businesses.
He promises to be an activist leader, holding accountable the more than 1,400 companies overseen by the Department of Insurance while ensuring they are financially solvent. He wants to end the abrupt and often unexplained cancellations of insurance for homeowners living near forest land, while encouraging them to better protect their properties against the risk of fire.
He promises to protect the availability of health insurance for California residents, to demand more transparency in rate-setting and corporate investment in fossil fuel industries, and to end discrimination in health insurance. auto insurance based on occupation or education.
Some of his proposals are ambitious and could test the limits of the authority of the insurance commissioner. But we’re okay with that. Voters in 1988 created the independently elected insurance commissioner because they wanted a leader who would represent their interests, not those of the industry.
Lara an embarrassment
Although Levine and Lara are both Democrats, they are ethically miles apart.
The incumbent’s tenure was an embarrassment reminiscent of the ignominious tenure of Chuck Quackenbush, the state insurance commissioner who resigned in 2000 amid allegations that he tried to seek settlements from insurance companies titles to finance an advertising campaign that would be politically beneficial to him.
After that debacle, California’s insurance commissioners withheld campaign contributions tied to the single industry they regulate — a recognition of the need for independent oversight untainted by political money.
That is, until Lara arrives.
He has sworn not to accept money from the insurance industry. But he broke that promise during his 2018 campaign, then after his election he quickly started raising more money from the industry for this year’s campaign.
He tried to blame others for accepting contributions, but he was his own campaign treasurer. The San Diego Union Tribune calculated that Lara raised at least $270,000 from 56 people and businesses connected to the insurance industry.
It didn’t stop there. Senior Insurance Department officials have overthrown administrative law judges at least five times, each time in favor of a company linked to some of the donors, the Union Tribune reported.
On New Year’s Eve after his election, Lara partied in London with an industry lobbyist and two months later had lunch in Sacramento with lobbyists and industry executives who had unfinished business. ahead of him, the Sacramento Bee reported. He even billed California taxpayers for rent for his Sacramento apartment, Politico reported.
As a consumer watchdog group sued Lara over records of communications within her office and with lobbyists representing major campaign donors, her agency suddenly adopted an automatic email deletion policy last year. emails after six months. But after intense media scrutiny, the agency rescinded the policy in January.
To understand just how squishy a conversation with Lara can be, we asked him what he thinks of pending legislation, introduced by Levine, that would require state agencies to retain public records for at least two years. Lara evasively repeated that he would “follow the law.” Finally, in a hurry, he reluctantly said he would support him.
Despite all of his claims that he embraces transparency, Lara has repeatedly resisted it. For all his claims that he is a consumer friend, his broken promises, his acceptance of industry money, his nights out with lobbyists and his interference on behalf of the industry he regulates demonstrate that he cannot be trusted.
Granted, Lara and Levine aren’t the only candidates on the ballot. Among other notable candidates, Republican Greg Conlon, who ran three times unsuccessfully for state treasurer, did not respond to our emails.
Robert Molnar, who was adviser to Steve Poizner when he was insurance commissioner, is running without political affiliation. He is knowledgeable on many issues, but he has no elective experience and his cynical approach to the election is disconcerting. He apparently built little campaign and told us candidly that his strategy is to slip into the second round if Lara and Levine split the Democratic vote.
What the state needs is an insurance commissioner willing to campaign and work hard to protect consumers and ensure healthy competition and solvency in the industry. Levine is the only candidate who meets these criteria. Californians are expected to back him in the June 7 election.