Insurance Nominee Pledges Neutrality;

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Some question his ability to be an advocate

San Francisco Chronicle

Retired Justice Harry Low sailed through his first confirmation hearing to become insurance commissioner yesterday, but the San Francisco native offered few details on how he would approach critical insurance issues.

Members of an Assembly committee questioned Low repeatedly about his ability to be not just an impartial judge, but an advocate for consumers. Low said that as commissioner he will “administer” the laws.

“I believe that my role as insurance commissioner will be to fairly and impartially administer the laws as the Legislature enacted,” said Low, who will become the highest-ranking Asian American in state government if he is confirmed. “However, the laws are also directed toward the protection of consumers, and I intend to enforce the laws. However, as commissioner you must be fair to everyone, and that includes businesses.”

Gov. Gray Davis named Low, a former state appeals court justice, to serve out the remaining two years of former Insurance Commissioner Chuck Quackenbush‘s term. Quackenbush resigned earlier this year to avoid almost certain impeachment.

The Assembly committee approved Low on a unanimous bipartisan vote, and his confirmation is also expected to sail through an Assembly floor vote, and votes in the state Senate later this week.

Low said he would resign from all other activities, including his current job as a mediator and arbitration judge. Two independent lawyers reviewed the rulings he made while on the bench and said they were extremely thoughtful and fair.

But some lawmakers and consumer advocates were clearly concerned that Low’s self-described neutrality is not pro-consumer enough.

“He still has not promised the consumer that he will be there for them,” Doug Heller of the Foundation for Taxpayer and Consumer Rights said after the hearing. “He has a huge move to make toward the position of being an advocate rather than a judge. He’s no longer a judge.”

Assemblywoman Sheila Kuehl, D-Santa Monica, also said she was concerned about the language she heard.

“I haven’t heard the word tough,’ ” she said. “Although evenhanded and fair are good, I think tough implies that there will be rigorous enforcement.”

Low said he would be tough if companies were clearly wrong, but often repeated his desire to be seen as fair to all sides.

“I hope to be fair, and I hope that the public — and the public includes businesses — views me as a fair person,” he said. “I can’t say I’d necessarily be an advocate for one group or another. I see my role as an administrator — to administer the laws and I intend to do that.”

Assembly Speaker Robert Hertzberg, D-Sherman Oaks, also cautioned Low against being influenced by Davis, who received significant campaign contributions from insurance companies.

“The voters in California made a decision to create a constitutional officer with this position, and now we have a situation where the executive made the choice, not the voters,” Hertzberg told Low. “It’s difficult when our allegiance is to someone who appointed us to remember that we must be independent, and to represent all the people.”

For his part, Low repeated his pledge not to accept any money from insurance companies or any other donors. And while this would make it difficult to seek the office in two years, Low has not yet ruled it out.

Lawmakers also asked a series of questions on issues ranging from the Northridge earthquake claims to low-cost auto insurance and workers’ compensation.

Mishandling of the earthquake claims brought down Quackenbush, and Low said he supports efforts to try to get the settlements made with insurance companies voluntarily rescinded.

Low also said that upon taking the office he will immediately take steps to improve morale, hire staff and investigate whether the state should be paying Quackenbush‘s legal fees.

Consumer Watchdog
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