Column by Dan Walters, CALMATTERS
January 30, 2022
We can pretty much assume that Gavin Newsom will be re-elected this year to a second term as California’s governor.
Given that near-certainty, 2022’s most significant statewide race will be Attorney General Rob Bonta’s bid for a full term amidst rising public angst about crime. Newsom appointed Bonta last year after Xavier Becerra resigned to become secretary of Health and Human Services in President Joe Biden’s cabinet.
Bonta is strongly identified with the criminal justice reform movement that critics say is at least partially responsible for the uptick in property and violent crimes by reducing punishment for lawbreakers and putting more of them back on the street rather than behind bars.
A leading critic, Sacramento District Attorney Anne Marie Schubert, is not Bonta’s only would-be challenger, but probably would be the one with the greatest chance of unseating him. It’s a test of whether California voters see crime as a game-changing issue.
However it would play out, a Bonta-Schubert duel would be a straightforward contest between two ideological foes.
A more complex and therefore more interesting political match is emerging for the lesser office of state insurance commissioner, with Democratic incumbent Ricardo Lara facing Democratic Assemblyman Marc Levine.
Lara, a former legislator from Los Angeles, and Levine, who represents Marin County, may not be ideological twins, but both are more or less conventional liberals who generally pay homage to the Democratic Party’s established list of do’s and don’ts.
Their contest is becoming a case study in what happens when one party is utterly dominant. It fragments into internal factions — in essence, quasi-parties — defined by personality, ethnicity, gender or minute ideological differences that vie for influence.
One sees it in the perpetual infighting among Democrats in party strongholds such as San Francisco and among Republicans in the few places where the GOP prevails, such as Kern County. Nature abhors a vacuum and in the absence of two-party competition, it becomes internalized.
Accordingly, Lara and Levine are assembling coalitions of Democratic Party factions. Lara, who is Latino and gay, is counting on support from organizations that represent those two groups, for instance. Levine, meanwhile, has picked up major backing from the California Nurses Association.
Are there any real issues separating the two? Levine, whose district has been wracked by wildfire, basically accuses Lara of being too cozy with the insurance industry he regulates.
From the onset of Lara’s term three years ago, he’s taken fire from Consumer Watchdog, which sponsored the 1988 ballot measure that, among other things, converted the insurance commissioner from an appointee of the governor into an elected position.
Lara, however, has depicted himself as a stern and effective regulator while dealing with an insurance crisis ignited by the spate of wildfires.
Insurers have paid out billions of dollars to compensate victims of recent wildfires and some have threatened to refuse to cover property in fire-prone areas and/or abandon California altogether. Lara has intervened with a series of orders to insurers that they continue coverage in areas hit by fire, invoking a power from legislation he sponsored as a state senator.
The orders he says, “help give people the breathing room they desperately need as they recover.” He’s also ordered the Fair Plan, the state’s insurer of last resort, to offer more comprehensive coverage and proposed other insurance reforms.
It’s unclear, whether insurers will help Lara fend off Levine’s challenge. Were they to jump in with big campaign checks, it might hand Levine a weapon to persuade voters that Lara is their protector, rather than their regulator.
Dan Walters has been a journalist for nearly 60 years, spending all but a few of those years working for California newspapers. He began his professional career in 1960, at age 16, at the Humboldt Times… More by Dan Walters