SACRAMENTO (AP) — Gov. Gray Davis on Monday nominated retired Judge Harry W. Low as California’s new insurance commissioner, promising that Low’s “unquestioned integrity and absolute independence” would restore confidence in a scandal-stained department.
Low is “above reproach and, equally important, above politics,” Davis said at a news conference.
“I believe at the end of the day, if anyone on the planet can restore integrity and credibility to the office of the Department of Insurance, that person is Harry Low,” Davis said.
Low, 69, heard a wide array of insurance cases as a municipal and Superior Court judge and as an appeals court justice in San Francisco before retiring eight years ago.
Since then, he has worked as a mediator considering, among other matters, insurance disputes, including disagreements over Northridge earthquake claims. Consumer complaints about those claims sparked the department’s scandal last spring.
Low would be the highest-ranking Asian American in state government if his nomination is confirmed by the Legislature.
He said he had not thought about whether to seek election to the commissioner’s job in 2002, but would not rule it out. Davis had preferred someone without a powerful interest in running.
Low’s level of political ambition is a critical question, because former Insurance Commissioner Chuck Quackenbush accepted campaign contributions from several of the companies he regulated, and critics said he gave those firms favorable treatment. Low said he had no intention of raising money for such a run.
As speculation about Low’s possible appointment intensified in recent days, interest groups have been scouring his record. Monday, there appeared to be consensus he is generally fair, although the appointment left one consumer advocate disappointed.
“From what we have been able to research, he is a very fair-minded and evenhanded judge,” said Dan Dunmoyer, president of the Personal Insurance Federation of California, an industry group. “We believe those qualities will be essential for him to have in order to address some of the complex issues left by his predecessor.”
Consumer advocate Harvey Rosenfield, who co-authored a 1988 ballot initiative that made the commissioner post an elected position, agreed that Low’s record suggested he is evenhanded, but questioned whether Low could be an industry watchdog.
“He had a balanced record as a judge,” Rosenfield said.
But, he said: “We’re disappointed that the governor didn’t pick an aggressive advocate for consumers.”
The insurance commissioner is charged with regulating the industry. Davis said he had discussed with Low the importance of “championing every valid consumer complaint.” Low said that “the insurance department must protect consumers against unfair practices, excessive or discriminatory insurance rates, and ensure financial stability.”
Rosenfield argued that an aggressive, even adversarial watchdog approach is critical.
Rosenfield was one of the most vocal critics of Quackenbush, who left office July 10 after revelations he allowed insurance companies to donate to a nonprofit fund that helped him politically, rather than face huge fines for their alleged mishandling of Northridge earthquake claims.
“As we’ve seen with Quackenbush, the insurance companies can take care of themselves,” Rosenfield said. “The commissioner has to go up against the companies every day, and he’s supposed to be someone who’s strong and can aggressively protect consumers.”
Low responded: “It’s true that throughout most of my career I’ve been viewed as a neutral and impartial person. But the law is what it is. Certainly the law is designed to be protective, and I certainly intend to administer the law as fairly and forcefully as possible.”
Assemblyman Fred Keeley, D-Boulder Creek, a member of the Assembly Insurance Committee, said he believed the post is meant to bolster consumers’ confidence in the industry.
“The job of the regulator isn’t to beat the industry into submission, it’s to assure consumers there is fair dealing in the marketplace and appropriate behavior on the part of this powerful industry,” he said.
“That takes someone who is very, very smart, not subject to the kinds of pressures that powerful interests can place on someone,” he said. “A sense of independence and integrity is critically important, and from everything I understand about the judge, he fits the bill.”
Low said he will review insurance claims from the 1994 Northridge earthquake that were at the heart of the Quackenbush scandal, though he offered few specifics.
Department audits found that insurance companies in many cases lowballed consumers on settlements and stalled on paying them out.
Low’s appointment to the post, which pays $132,000 a year, requires confirmation of a majority of both the Assembly and Senate. Keeley predicted that approval would come next month.
The Legislature reconvenes Aug. 7 and is in session through the end of the month. Low said he is not available for the job before mid-September.
Davis consulted with judicial, business, legal and political advisers on the appointment. Among Low’s biggest boosters was Supreme Court Chief Justice Ronald George, the governor said.
Like Davis, Low has spent more than two decades in public service.
Low, a Democrat, began his public career when he joined the state attorney general’s office under Gov. Pat Brown, a Democrat. A decade later, Brown appointed Low to the state Worker’s Compensation Appeals Board, and a year after that, to the San Francisco Municipal Court.
In 1974, Low was elected to the San Francisco Superior Court.
In 1982, Democratic Gov. Jerry Brown promoted Low to the 1st District Court of Appeal, and he was the presiding justice of Division 5 of that district.
He served as head of the San Francisco Police Commission from 1992, when he retired from the bench, until 1996. Low is now an arbitrator and mediator.
Low is also president of the San Francisco Human Rights Commission. He said he will resign that post and will leave the mediation business if confirmed.
He lives in San Francisco, but said in an interview he plans to find part-time housing in Sacramento, where the Department of Insurance‘s headquarters is located. He plans to spend three to four days a week in Sacramento, he said.
When Low was asked why he would want the job of heading the beleaguered department, Davis stepped in and joked, “Please, do not talk him out of it!”