Retired judge nominated to lead insurance office

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San Jose Mercury News

SACRAMENTO — In a bid to restore faith in a scandal-ridden department, Gov. Gray Davis on Monday nominated a low-key former state appeals court judge from San Francisco to replace Insurance Commissioner Charles Quackenbush, who resigned in disgrace three weeks ago.

Davis’ choice, the highly regarded Harry W. Low, immediately drew widespread praise from lawmakers, industry leaders and some consumer activists. If confirmed by the Legislature, Low would become the third Chinese-American to serve in a California statewide office.

“If anyone on the planet can restore integrity and credibility to the office of the Department of Insurance, that person is Justice Harry Low,” Davis said.

The 69-year-old retired judge and registered Democrat, who would fill out the remaining 29 months of Quackenbush‘s term, would mark a stark change in leadership at the department.

Quackenbush was criticized for taking money from the industry he regulates, using his office to boost his political career and allowing earthquake insurance companies to shortchange victims of the 1994 Northridge earthquake.

In contrast, Low promised he would take no political donations and would take a fresh look at the Northridge claims at the heart of the controversy that forced Quackenbush from office. He did not rule out running for the office in 2002, a move that could keep insurance companies from taking him less seriously as a mere caretaker.

“My own priority is to bring trust and confidence in the department,” said Low, who was joined at a Sacramento news conference by his wife, youngest son and one of his four grandchildren.

To take over the $132,000-a-year post, Low must win support from a majority of lawmakers in both the state Senate and Assembly. Because of a quirk in the law, the Democrat-controlled Legislature could take as long as five months to act. But Davis asked lawmakers to vote before the end of this month.

Legislators from both parties — including the leaders of both houses — expressed support for Low and said they see little at this moment that could derail his nomination.

If he is confirmed, Low will take over for acting Insurance Commissioner Clark Kelso, a law school professor who stepped in temporarily for Davis.

Low would join March Fong Eu, who was secretary of state, and her son, Matt Fong, former state treasurer, as Chinese-American statewide officeholders.

Low was a judge for 26 years before retiring in 1992. His primary job in recent years has been as a private mediator for one of the largest arbitration and mediation firms in the country.

His work for the Judicial Arbitration and Mediation Service raised concerns for activists who had pushed Davis to appoint a strong consumer advocate.

Harvey Rosenfield, author of the 1988 ballot measure that created the elective insurance commissioner post, said Low’s record “is not that of an aggressive advocate for consumers, but rather as a judge and arbitrator.”

“Justice Low must demonstrate that he has the backbone to stand up to corporations that threaten the public with abusive policies and practices,” Rosenfield said.

While Low may be soft-spoken, some of those who worked with him said the retired judge has always been an advocate for the voiceless.

Dale Minami, a San Francisco attorney who has appeared before Low in both his role as judge and mediator, said consumer advocates have nothing to fear in the nominee.

“He has a terrific sympathy and compassion for the underdog and for everyday people,” Minami said. “He can walk with kings and yet not lose the common touch.”

Those qualities won Low praise from state leaders eager to bring a close to the insurance scandal that toppled Quackenbush, who was one of two Republicans in statewide office.

Industry leaders including Dan Dunmoyer, president of the Personal Insurance Federation of California, said they were encouraged by what they were learning about Low and said he appeared to know more about their work than either of the two previous elected leaders.

Quackenbush was forced from office last month amid growing evidence that the former Silicon Valley assemblyman used his state office to boost his political career. The U.S. Attorney and state attorney general have launched a criminal investigation of the allegations that paralyzed the state Department of Insurance and prompted all its top officials to resign.

Low, a native Californian born in the back of a hand laundry in the small Sierra Nevada town of Oakdale, has had a distinguished and varied career.

After graduating from the University of California-Berkeley, Low spent 10 years as a deputy state attorney general with Edmund “Pat” Brown. In 1966, after Brown became governor, he tapped Low to become a San Francisco Municipal Court judge.

Eight years later, Low was elected to the city’s Superior Court. In 1982 he was elevated to the First District Court of Appeal by then-Gov. Jerry Brown, Pat’s son.

During his 26 years as a judge, Low was praised for his stands on protecting the environment, helping troubled youth and barring property taxes on charities.

After leaving the appeals court in 1992, he remained active in San Francisco community and legal groups.

One of his biggest challenges came in 1992 as head of the city’s Police Commission when the body voted to fire Police Chief Richard Hongisto, who was accused of ordering the confiscation of a free newsweekly that carried an offensive cover photo of the chief.

Gen Fujioka, staff attorney for the Asian Law Caucus in San Francisco, said Low managed to navigate in the city’s volatile political climate with integrity. “In a city which can be highly partisan and divided, I think he’s remained above the fray and has the kind of integrity that people trust,” he said.

San Francisco attorney Minami said Low’s nomination sends a positive signal for Asian-Americans.

“We still continue to suffer the stigmatization of being foreign, and I think to have somebody like Judge Low ascend to a visible statewide office sends a message to not only our community of hope, but to the general public that, yes, Asian-Americans are here, and they’re not going anywhere,” Minami said.

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