With Election Day fewer than three weeks away, this is as good a time as any to revisit the race for California Insurance Commissioner.
California in this election cycle seems to be home to the very model of a modern disengaged electorate. There is no sense of any general enthusiasm or even focus on any of the races for statewide office. It says something about the voters' lack of interest that in a predominantly Democratic state, the Democratic candidate for Governor can campaign in Democrat-heavy West Hollywood accompanied by his party's most recent candidate for President and still draw only 75 people to the rally. (This may also reflect on the hapless nature of the Angelides campaign, but my sense is that a broad voter malaise is a major factor.)
Under these conditions, you can imagine that the race to become California's next elected Insurance Commissioner is not getting any major play. All signs, though, seem to point in a surprising direction: the prospect that Californians may elect a Republican with a strong business background to what is generally postured as a "consumer protection" position.
To recap, the leading party candidates for Insurance Commissioner are, for the Democrats, Cruz Bustamante -- currently Lieutenant Governor looking, as is true of virtually every other Democrat in statewide office, for a fresh position as he is term-limited out -- and, for the Republicans, Steve Poizner, Silicon Valley entrepreneur and associate of Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger.
Decs&Excs previewed the race in late July, comparing and contrasting the candidates' websites, with Mr. Bustamante coming out the loser. Since then, Bustamante has acquired an actual campaign website, but Google searches such as "bustamante insurance commissioner" are still more likely to lead you to his weight loss site, "Start with Cruz." (I suppose, the appealing rhyme notwithstanding, calling the site "Lose With Cruz" would have sent the wrong message.)
A quick look at the Bustamante endorsements page tells an interesting story. Better than 80% of the endorsements listed come from labor unions, as reliable a Democratic constituency as this state can produce. But there is, notably, only one newspaper on the list: the Bay Guardian, San Francisco's leading "alternative" newsweekly. The Guardian's endorsement is at best lukewarm, and is based on two areas over which the Insurance Commissioner has only limited control: workers' compensation rates and the quest for "single-payer"/universal health coverage. There is, also notably, only one other statewide Democratic figure listed among Bustamante's endorsers: current state Attorney General Bill Lockyer. Lockyer, however, who is himself running comfortably ahead in the race for state Treasurer, is proving to be not the most enthusiastic supporter Bustamante could wish. (Link via California Insider.)
To the extent they count for anything, all of the major newspapers in the state have been throwing their endorsements to Steve Poizner, often for the reason that they find themselves actively unimpressed with Cruz Bustamante. From the Los Angeles Times:
When [Bustamante] ran for governor in the campaign to recall Gray Davis, he misused donations from Indian tribes and was heavily fined. As a candidate for insurance commissioner, he accepted insurer contributions, then returned them when it became a campaign issue. It was not a proud day for Democrats when it became clear that he would be their nominee. His election would be a step backward for consumers.
Similar observations have been voiced by the San Jose Mercury News, the Sacramento Bee ["Bustamante touts his experience in office (six years in the Legislature, plus eight years in the ineffectual post of lieutenant governor), but he hasn't impressed during that time."], and even the reliably Democratophilic San Francisco Chronicle:
Their debate before our editorial board . . . accentuated the differences between these two candidates. Poizner was clearer in his priorities, more conversant in the details of the issues and more persuasive in making the case that he will be an advocate for consumer interests.
The LATimes, incidentally, has since reported that Bustamante has hedged a bit on those promises to return insurer contributions:
Just before the June primary election, Bustamante, facing criticism for taking insurance money, announced that he would repay such contributions, then estimated at $158,000. He has since given some of that money back and used some to reduce an old campaign debt.
Meanwhile, he has accepted new donations from groups affected by an insurance commissioner's actions: companies that sell home warranty policies; attorneys and healthcare providers involved in workers' compensation cases; bail bond companies — which are regulated by the state Department of Insurance — and lawyers who represent insurance companies before the state.
And it is not just newspapers whose endorsement Bustamante might have expected but has not received. The prime mover behind Proposition 103 -- the initiative that radically revamped California insurance ratemaking and that made the Commissioner an elective office -- Harvey Rosenfield has thrown his support to Steve Poizner:
Rosenfeld [sic] said Poizner's agreement to strictly enforce Prop. 103, along with his pledge not to take insurance company money either during the campaign or while in office sealed the deal.
'The contrast between the two candidates could not be more vivid,' he said. '. . . At best [Bustamante is] treating the campaign as a lark and at worst he's in the pocket of the insurance industry.'
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Rosenfeld also said Bustamante's campaign, which focused on his weight loss during the primary, was disrespectful to voters. 'His campaign is thin on substance and fat on insurance industry contributions,' Rosenfeld said.
Decs&Excs has been critical of Harvey Rosenfield in the past (various examples linked here, with more to come no doubt) but he went to the trouble of sending a personal e-mail to alert me to his endorsement of Poizner.
Consumer-oriented insurance law blogger Jonathan Stein threw his support to Poizner on Tuesday of this week. Jonathan has also prepared a helpful overview of all of the candidates for Commissioner, including those from the "minor" parties, noting that only one among them -- Libertarian actuary (!) Dale F. Ogden -- actually possesses practical knowledge concerning the insurance industry.
The last widely circulated public polling on the Commissioner's race dates back to late August and showed Bustamante and Poizner in a statistical dead heat (albeit with Bustamante slightly in the lead). Will Poizner's endorsements, campaign advertisements and momentum carry him into office? As they say in the journalism racket, time will tell. As will Decs&Excs in about three weeks.