California needs an insurance commissioner with ethics. This candidate could restore trust
EDITORIAL BY THE SACRAMENTO BEE EDITORIAL BOARD
May 8, 2022
Among California’s cornucopia of elective offices, insurance commissioner is rivaled only by the tax-setting Board of Equalization in perpetually making the case for its own elimination. In the absence of such a step by the Legislature and the voters, who created the office in 1988 to protect consumers from insurance abuses, ridding it of its current occupant is the next best answer.
Ricardo Lara, the Democratic commissioner currently seeking a second term, has managed to make his potentially dull office all too interesting in a short time, amassing an astonishing series of ethical face-plants that, in and of themselves, should disqualify him from reelection.
A longtime Sacramento insider who previously served as a legislative aide, assemblyman and state senator from the Los Angeles area, Lara brought his troubles on himself even before he set foot in his new office. He did so during his 2018 campaign by taking contributions connected to the insurance industry he would be responsible for regulating. He thereby broke with a custom rightly observed by his predecessors since Republican Chuck Quackenbush resigned from the office in disgrace amid revelations that insurers had showered him with money and favors.
Worse, after pledging to return the contributions and eschew industry support going forward, Lara took more insurance-linked money for his reelection campaign during his first year in office, the San Diego Union-Tribune reported, prompting an underwhelming apology and another promise to forgo potentially compromising support. Worse still, the commissioner and his subordinates intervened in cases to the benefit of his political supporters, compounding the appearance of conflicts of interest. Lara raised even more questions by meeting with an insurer’s chief executive and subsequently resisting disclosure of his calendars and other public records.
The commissioner and his staff maintained that their decisions were dictated by the law and precedent and that Lara’s meeting with the executive did not touch on the cases. But his original sin of repeatedly taking the industry’s money invited justified and unnecessary suspicion.
Lara, whose primary residence is in Los Angeles, further underscored the impression of ethical obliviousness by making the unorthodox decision to charge taxpayers for a Sacramento pied-à-terre; accepting Beyoncé tickets from a natural gas company shortly before his election; assuring an industry gathering, in one of several questionable contacts with those he regulates, that he would be “receptive” to ideas such as advanced driver data gathering; and maintaining a policy of aggressively automatically deleting department emails and other records.
All of this is that much more regrettable for coming at a time of heightened relevance for the commissioner’s office. California’s increasingly catastrophic wildfires are driving a homeowner insurance crisis far-reaching enough that a former state insurance commissioner, Steve Poizner, recently detailed his own struggle to keep his house covered. Moreover, Poizner’s successor and Lara’s predecessor, Dave Jones, showed that the commissioner could play an activist role on a major component of the fire threat, climate change, by, for example, highlighting the industry’s investments in and enabling of the fossil fuel industry. Lara hasn’t had that kind of impact, and even if he had the will to become an influential regulator, he would be unlikely to have the capacity as long as he is hobbled by a yawning trust deficit.
In contrast to the consummate party loyalist in office now, Assemblyman Levine has shown a healthy contrarian streak that would suit the regulator of a powerful industry. And as a representative of the Bay Area’s northern suburbs, which have been ravaged by wildfires in recent years, he has grown well-versed in many of the issues he would grapple with if elected commissioner.
Levine has a record of pushing difficult legislation to require transparency of governments, campaigns and businesses, a principle that could help restore confidence in the Insurance Department and give consumers more leverage against an industry worth more than $300 billion. He was perceptive and courageous enough to oppose his fellow Democrats’ bailouts of Pacific Gas and Electric Co. He even outdid the party establishment in going against the gun lobby, a fight Sacramento Democrats typically relish, proposing an excise tax on firearms that fell short of passing last year.
Levine appears to have the will and the ability to return the commissioner’s focus to consumers and the public by making coverage more predictable, comprehensible and accountable and by putting climate change back in the crosshairs. Another candidate, independent Robert Molnar, who was a special assistant to Poizner, is well versed in the department and sensible about the changes it needs. But Levine is better positioned to unseat an incumbent backed, to what should be its abiding embarrassment, by most of the Democratic Party establishment. If he can overcome that, Levine has a shot at restoring this office to its noble original purpose.