SF Chronicle Editorial
San Francisco Chronicle
What will it take to restore respect to the scandal-tainted office of state insurance commissioner? One starting point would be curbing industry contributions that threaten to skew the race for a new insurance watchdog.
Money talks in this campaign. The insurance commissioner is the only statewide elected regulator of a single industry. This watchdog, created by voter initiative after a wave of insurance premium increases, oversees an $80 billion a year business that affects anyone who drives, owns a home or business, or holds a life insurance policy.
Last June former commissioner Chuck Quackenbush became a poster boy for reform. After collecting $8 million from insurers during his tenure, he was driven from office for failing to pursue consumer complaints and steering contributions to pet causes.
His departure created a pious uproar in Sacramento. His sins were detailed, but the Legislature did nothing to end a built-in conflicts of interest. The insurance industry can spend all it wants on a favorite candidate charged with regulating agents, companies and rates.
At least three reform measures that sought to cap or eliminate insurance contributions died at the hands of lobbyists and compliant legislators. Sen. Jackie Speier, D-Hillsborough, who wrote the last two reform bills rightly labels the anything-goes atmosphere as “unconscionable.”
With legislation unlikely, maybe public pressure will work. Three Democrats are vying in a primary next March. Republicans, badly scarred in the Quackenbush scandal, are not expected to field a major candidate.
Are the Democrats — assemblyman Tom Calderon, former insurance commissioner John Garamendi, and former Assemblyman Tom Umberg — willing to refuse insurance contributions? The question is being pushed by the Foundation for Taxpayer and Consumer Rights, a consumer group.
Garamendi and Umberg say they won’t take the money and will return any contributions to date. Calderon is the holdout. He’s collected $529,000 from the insurance industry since announcing for office last May.
Calderon claims he can handle the pressure. The other candidates have used private money or taken out personal loans, which aren’t available to him.
These sources of campaign money need examining too. But the basic problem remains: The industry is getting to choose its own “watchdog.”
Calderon should take the pledge.
FTCR note: The Foundation for Taxpayer and Consumer Rights does not take any position on candidates for any elected office and does not promote or oppose the election of any candidate for California Insurance Commissioner.