Mercury General Chairman Gives Nearly 17M To Prop. 33

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It might not get the attention of some of the other propositions, but Proposition 33 is attracting some big money, at least on one side and from one person. The measure would allow car insurers to give discounts to drivers who have maintained continuous coverage and to charge more to drivers without such an insurance history.

George Joseph, the chairman of insurer Mercury General Corp., has given $16.9 million to the Yes campaign, or 99 percent of the total $17.1 million raised, according to MapLight, a nonpartisan organization in Berkeley that studies money and politics.

The No campaign has raised only $275,700, with top contributions from the California Nurses Association and Consumer Watchdog.

Joseph recently told an LA Times columnist that he hoped the measure would enable Mercury to lure customers away from other insurers and that the company could offer larger discounts for drivers with a history of coverage — “if I could charge new people the proper rate,” meaning a higher rate. State law prohibits insurers from factoring a driver’s insurance history when setting rates.

Joseph’s money has allowed the Yes campaign to advertise across the state. And from Oct. 1 to Oct. 20, the campaign spent more than $2.8 million on radio and TV ads in the San Francisco market, according to campaign finance data.

“They’re obviously hoping to dupe San Franciscans into doing what they couldn’t be duped into doing the last time,” said Consumer Watchdog president Jamie Court, referring to Proposition 17, a measure similar to Prop. 33 that state voters defeated two years ago. Bay Area voters showed stronger opposition to Prop. 17 than those in other parts of the state.

A California Business Roundtable/Pepperdine University poll released Oct. 30 found 48.8 percent support for Prop. 33 and 37.4 percent opposition, with 13.8 percent unsure, and both sides say they are optimistic about the race. Court said support for the measure has been falling in the poll since early August, but Rachel Hooper, a consultant for the Yes campaign, said the campaign’s internal polling showed the Yes side was ahead.

The fight over the measure has gotten personal. In a debate between Court and Hooper last month on KGO radio that went on for more than 40 minutes, Court attacked Hooper, who works at Marketplace Communications, for being a paid spokesperson. He said she should be ashamed of herself for standing up for Prop. 33 and brought up Hooper’s husband, who is black.

“You should be ashamed, particularly given who your husband is, particularly given the people in this state who have been discriminated against by this insurance company,” Court said, arguing that Mercury Insurance has a history of discriminating against minority drivers. “You should quit tomorrow, you should get another job, you should fight for consumers if you really care about them.”

Hooper said the exchange upset her husband.

Court, whose wife is black, wrote in a Huffington Post column last week about how Prop. 33’s “price discrimination would fall hardest on people of color.”

“Prop 33 hurts all of us by putting more uninsured motorists on the road, and raising our uninsured motorists premiums, but its attempt to punish communities of color is outrageous,” Court wrote.

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