By Richard Halstead, MARIN INDEPENDENT JOURNAL
February 28, 2022
It appears the gloves are off in Assemblyman Marc Levine’s bid to unseat state Insurance Commissioner Ricardo Lara in the June 7 primary.
Both Levine and Lara have recently sent out mailers designed to tarnish the reputation of their opponent. Levine’s mailer charges Lara with corruption for accepting money from insurance companies seeking favors. The headline on the mailer asserts, “Re-electing Ricardo Lara would mean endorsing his corruption as insurance commissioner.”
Lara’s mailer reads, “Get the facts about Marc Levine’s Anti-Union Record,” and cites Levine’s votes on various bills to make its case.
The mailers will give Democrats attending the party’s state convention from March 4 to 6 something to talk about as they decide whom to endorse. Levine, a Democrat who lives in Greenbrae, said he targeted Democratic Party central committee members and members of the media with his mailing.
On Tuesday, Levine announced he has introduced two new bills to “restore ethics and transparency at the Department of Insurance.”
“Californians need to regain trust in the Department of Insurance,” Levine said, “and have faith that the public officials entrusted to protect consumers are fighting for them, not for insurance companies.”
David McCuan, a political science professor at Sonoma State University, said Levine has “a tall task” in challenging Lara, a Democrat with an impressive liberal biography.
“But he’s done a lot of things right early on,” McCuan said. “He’s going to have to fight from behind, which means he’s going to have to attack.”
Lara grew up in East Los Angeles, the son of undocumented immigrants, and is the first and only non-White, LGBT+ person elected to statewide office in the United States.
Lara also has endorsements from Gov. Gavin Newsom, Lt. Gov. Eleni Kounalakis and “every state constitutional officer,” McCuan said.
“Lara’s list of endorsements reads like a veritable ‘Who’s Who,’” he said.
Nevertheless, McCuan said, Lara’s uneven tenure as insurance commissioner has left Levine an opening.
In 2018, when Lara was running for insurance commissioner against Steve Poizner, he took $50,000 from medical malpractice firms and other insurers, after pledging that he would not take insurance industry contributions during the campaign.
Then in July 2019, seven months after Lara began his term as insurance commissioner, the San Diego Union-Tribune reported that his reelection committee had accepted more than $54,000 in donations from insurance company executives and their spouses after taking office.
Much of that money came from an executive employed by Applied Underwriters, a workers’ compensation insurer owned by Berkshire Hathaway, and his spouse. The sale of an Applied subsidiary was pending at the time and required Lara’s approval.
The newspaper also reported that shortly after receiving the contributions, Lara intervened in four proceedings involving Applied, at the request of its president, Steven Menzies.
In an interview with KQED, Lara said he met with Menzies after taking office.
“Nothing in that meeting that came out changed the course of my decision,” Lara said.
Consumer Watchdog, a public-interest nonprofit in Los Angeles, has sued Lara to obtain emails and other documents related to communications with Applied Underwriters or its agents. In that suit, the nonprofit stated that Menzies stood to lose $60 million if the sale of the Applied subsidiary was not completed by Sept. 30, 2019.
In January 2021, Rusty Areias, a former Democratic member of the state Assembly, and Mercury Public Affairs, where Fabian Nunez, a former Assembly speaker, served as a principal, sued Applied for $2 million. According to the suit, the plaintiffs had been promised $2 million if their lobbying efforts resulted in the sale of the Applied subsidiary.
None of the documents the Department of Insurance supplied to Consumer Watchdog had mentioned either Areias or Nunez.
“We knew they were hiding something because of the Nunez lawsuit,” said Jamie Court, president of Consumer Watchdog.
Consumer Watchdog’s suit is still working its way through the courts. A hearing is scheduled for next week.
Levine’s mailer provides a succinct recounting of these events.
“I think it is completely accurate,” Court said of the mailer.
Lara did not respond to a request for comment on Levine’s mailer or the Consumer Watchdog suit. Instead, a campaign aide supplied a copy of Lara’s mailer.
Levine says his new legislative package — Assembly Bill 2323 and Assembly Bill 2370 — would make the Department of Insurance more transparent.
AB 2323 would prohibit ex parte communications among the insurance commissioner, department staff and an interested party unless the commissioner and department staff disclose those communications on the department’s website.
AB 2370 would require all state agencies to retain emails and other public records for a minimum of two years. Levine said this law is needed because in late 2021, the Department of Insurance attempted to institute an email retention policy under which all emails would automatically delete after 180 days unless manually archived.
Lara’s mailer cites a slew of Levine votes on bills to make the case that Levine has an anti-union record. It states that Levine voted “against wages on publicly subsidized projects, overtime pay for farm workers and holiday pay for workers on Thanksgiving and against workplace protections for grocery workers.”
The mailer also accuses Levine of opposing bills that would have increased charter school accountability and boosted tenant protections from eviction.
Levine, a former San Rafael councilman, was elected to the Legislature by upsetting Assemblyman Michael Allen, who was backed by the Democratic Party establishment. Levine courted Republican voters and benefited from spending by two large agricultural trade associations that opposed Allen because of his support for legislation protecting farmworkers.
“There are many people, particularly on the labor side, who have not forgotten that race,” McCuan said. “Michael Allen was very close to labor.”
In California, “Labor is a big deal,” McCuan said. “The Democratic Party has progressive elements but labor controls a lot of the party.”
Richard Halstead is a news reporter covering Marin County news, politics, health care, social services, Fairfax and San Anselmo.