State Insurance Commissioner Race Unusually Heated

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The governor's race is getting more attention, but the campaign for state insurance commissioner might have higher stakes, as federal health care reform barrels toward California.

"From a pocketbook perspective, the insurance commissioner's race has more of an impact on the daily lives of Californians than any other race," said Doug Heller, director of Consumer Watchdog, a nonpartisan advocacy group in Santa Monica. "The insurance commissioner is often consumers' first and only line of defense against the insurance industry."

The insurance industry has poured more than $4.5 million into the race, setting spending records for an office that rarely receives attention. Most of the money has gone to support Republican Mike Villines rather than Democrat Dave Jones, a Sacramento assemblyman.

At stake is federal health care reform in California. The insurance commissioner will have control over how, and when, it's implemented in the state, affecting millions of residents who currently lack insurance as well as the rates for those who already do have insurance.

"This is an important race because of national health care reform and the ever-rising premiums in health, auto and home insurance," said Barbara O'Connor, professor of communications at Sacramento State University. "The insurance commissioner is really the state's watchdog, and in the past has been very successful in reversing some rate hikes. That office provides very important consumer protections."

Jones says he'll push to quickly implement national health care reform in California, taking extra steps to protect women's reproductive health options and obtaining low rates for the state's 6 million residents who are currently uninsured.

Jones has had success in the past fighting the insurance industry. He launched the legislative investigation when Anthem Blue Cross raised its rates 39 percent in California, resulting in the insurance giant lowering the increase to 14 percent. He also authored a bill, which became law last year, to prohibit insurance companies from discriminating against women.

"People spend a lot of money on insurance. It's a tremendous part of a family's and business' budget," he said. "I think the job of insurance commissioner can be California's most important consumer protection agency. Right now it's not, but I think I can do some good there."

Villines, an assemblyman from Fresno, opposes most aspects of national health care reform but said he would push hard to protect people with pre-existing conditions and to make the process more transparent.

Earlier this year, the governor signed a bill Villines authored that helps those with pre-existing conditions obtain health insurance.

Villines said that if elected he would crack down on fraud, cut bureaucracy so insurance companies can bring new plans to California faster, and seek to lower workers' compensation rates.

"You have to be willing to listen and work with folks from both sides," said Villines, who pointed to his accomplishments in the Legislature despite being a member of the minority party. "I have a long history of negotiating compromises and taking a pragmatic approach."

Insurance companies, because they're regulated by the insurance commissioner's office, cannot donate directly to candidates' campaigns. Many of the pro-Villines donations are through the California Chamber of Commerce and a group called Jobs Pac. George Joseph, chair of Mercury Insurance, has given $1 million to Jobs Pac.

Villines said he has no control over how the insurance companies choose to spend their campaign dollars.

"I really don't know what they're doing. I can't speculate," he said.

Four minor-party candidates are also running. The winner will replace Steve Poizner, who quit to run for governor.

In some other state races, the incumbents appear to be comfortably ahead, at least in terms of campaign contributions.

In the race for controller, incumbent John Chiang faces Republican state Sen. Tony Strickland, who helps run a green energy company in Southern California.

Bill Lockyer, former attorney general and longtime East Bay state senator, is seeking a second term as treasurer, facing Republican Mimi Walters, a state senator from Orange County.

For secretary of state, Democrat Debra Bowen faces Republican Damon Dunn, a retired NFL wide receiver and Orange County real estate developer.

E-mail Carolyn Jones at [email protected].

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