Insurance Chief Candidates Like Night and Day;

Published on


The Sacramento Bee (California)

SACRAMENTO, CA — The men who want to be California’s next insurance commissioner — Lt. Gov. Cruz Bustamante and businessman Steve Poizner — are as different as their physiques.

Bustamante is portly — even after shedding more than 60 pounds this year — and has spent his adult life in government. Poizner is a slender Silicon Valley entrepreneur who never has held elective office.

Bustamante was the first Latino speaker of the Assembly, the first Latino to win a statewide race this century and runner-up in the recall election that swept Gov. Schwarzenegger into the Capitol.

“Who has 20 years of experience understanding government and who has been involved in major public policy decisions?” Bustamante said, referring to himself.


Poizner, 49, is a Republican who flaunts his lack of government experience and touts his business acumen. He sold his last company — SnapTrack Inc., which developed a global positioning feature that enables emergency personnel to locate cellular telephone users — to Qualcomm Inc. for $1 billion.

“I’m an executive, I’m a leader, I run things,” he said. “The insurance commissioner is autonomous. It’s an executive position and you need someone who will get things done.”

The stakes in the Nov. 7 election are not insignificant. The commissioner oversees California’s $120-billion a year insurance market, sets rates for auto and property insurance and, to a lesser extent, weighs in on workers compensation and health insurance.

Bustamante, 53, has promised his wife this is the last political office he will seek. A victory could launch Poizner on a path to higher office.

“I don’t think he’s spending all this money because he wants to be insurance commissioner,” said Allan Hoffenblum, a Los Angeles-based GOP strategist. “If he wins, he will be perceived as a serious contender to succeed Arnold.”

While likening himself politically to Schwarzenegger, Poizner portrays himself as a political outsider. But he poured $6 million into his unsuccessful 2004 race for the Assembly and contributed $4.2 million to a losing campaign to change how voting lines are drawn in California.

Democrats outnumber Republicans in the state, and Bustamante had a five point lead over Poizner in a Field Poll released Aug. 1.

But Bustamante’s high name recognition has a down side; 43 percent of likely voters hold a negative view of him, compared with 38 percent with a positive view, according to the same poll.

“I’ve been in elective office, I’ve run statewide three times; so people know me and they have made a choice as to whether they like me or not,” Bustamante said. “Democrats like me and a lot of Republicans don’t.”

Poizner is largely unknown outside business and political circles. But between now and Election Day, he will use his considerable financial advantage on campaign ads to raise his profile among voters.

He has placed no limits on how much money he is willing to spend, poured at least $2.5 million of his money into the campaign, and began advertising on television last month.

Bustamante has raised about $1 million, acknowledges he is “struggling” to raise more, and has not begun airing ads. Two years ago, he paid $263,000 in state penalties for improperly raising $3.8 million in his bid to become governor.

The son of a San Joaquin Valley barber, Bustamante contends that Poizner — who grew up in Texas, the son of a geologist father and a schoolteacher mother — “has tried to buy every campaign he’s been in.” And, he notes, “the political battlefield is littered with millionaires who want to be politicians.”

Poizner, who came to California to attend business school at Stanford University and stayed to become a fixture in the Silicon Valley, is sensitive to the perception that he is trying to buy his way into office. He said has been “raising lots of money” to demonstrate he has broad support.

Poizner has criticized Bustamante for accepting campaign contributions from the same insurance industry he would have to regulate. He vows to never “to accept a dime” from the industry.

Bustamante said he has returned about $150,000 in contributions from industry sources during his primary race because the money “sent mixed signals.”

The Foundation for Taxpayer and Consumer Rights — whose founder, Harvey Rosenfield, wrote the 1988 ballot that created the office of commissioner and tightened insurance regulations — cannot endorse candidates because of its nonprofit tax status.

But Doug Heller, the group’s executive director, said “the fact that (Bustamante) didn’t have the sense to reject insurance money outright cast some doubt on his judgment.”

During his Assembly campaign, Poizner proclaimed one of the reasons he was running was that restrictive government regulations were impairing job creation in California.

But like Bustamante, he vows to protect the interests of consumers by pushing for lower insurance premiums, reducing costly fraud and stopping insurers from canceling policies if a homeowner files a claim.

The candidates back Insurance Commissioner John Garamendi‘s decision to prohibit auto insurers from basing rates mainly on a driver’s residential ZIP code, rather than a driving record.

Heller noted, however, that in the Assembly, Bustamante supported unsuccessful legislation, backed by a campaign donor, that would have reduced premiums for good driving records and given greater weight to ZIP codes.


Bustamante said he supported the legislation because he was “concerned” the rate structure at the time would hurt residents of Fresno and rural communities he represented in the Assembly.

“What I’ve learned in the past decade in dealing with this issue is the damage that comes to people across both geographic and economic lines in this process,” he said.

Poizner said he admires Bustamante “in a lot of ways,” but “the insurance commissioner is a job that requires a huge amount of horsepower.”

“I’m interested in the details and getting the policy right, and it’s not his cup of tea from a skills-set standpoint,” Poizner said.

Bustamante takes umbrage at Poizner’s contention. He counters that Poizner has not demonstrated he can succeed as an elected official.

“I’m the one who has a record of protecting consumers,” the lieutenant governor said. “He has a record of knowing how to make a lot of money.”


* PARTY: Democrat
* AGE-BIRTH DATE: 53; Jan. 4, 1953; in Dinuba
* EDUCATION: Bachelor’s degree in interdisciplinary studies from California State University, Fresno, 2003
* EXPERIENCE: Director of the summer youth employment program for the Fresno Employment and Training Commission, 1977-83; district representative for Rep. Richard Lehman, 1983-88; district administrative assistant for Assemblyman Bruce Bronzan, 1988-93; state assemblyman, 1993-98; Assembly speaker, 1996-98; lieutenant governor, 1999-present
* FAMILY: Wife, Arcelia; children, Leticia, Sonia and Marisa
* QUOTE: “We spend $20 billion a year on obesity in California, in lost work productivity, workers compensation, excessive medical care and excessive medical prescription drugs. Twenty billion dollars a year — now, that’s a lot of money.”


* PARTY: Republican
* AGE-BIRTH DATE: 49; Jan. 4, 1957; in Houston
* EDUCATION: Bachelor’s degree in electrical engineering, University of Texas, 1978; master of business administration, Stanford Business School, 1980
* EXPERIENCE: CEO, SnapTrack Inc., 1995-2000; White House fellow, 2001-2002; teacher, Mount Pleasant High School, 2002-2003; unsuccessful Assembly candidate, 2004; co-chairman, Proposition 77 campaign (redistricting) in 2005
* FAMILY: Wife, Carol; daughter, Rebecca, 14
* QUOTE: “I’m most interested in reducing the cost of insurance for families in California, and (for) small businesses. That’s my top priority.”

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