By the Times Editorial Board
April 28, 2022
Ricardo Lara’s first year as California insurance commissioner — the elected office charged with regulating the state’s $310-billion insurance industry — was an ethical disaster.
In March 2019, Lara, a Democrat, held a lunch meeting with insurance company executives who had business pending before his department, for the purpose, records showed, of building a relationship that would benefit his reelection campaign. In April, he accepted more than $50,000 in campaign donations from insurance industry representatives and their spouses, including from people with ties to the company at the lunch meeting the month before. In June, Lara overruled decisions his department had previously made in ways that benefited the company.
None of this is illegal. But it looks horrible for someone whose job is to protect consumers from being overcharged by insurance companies.
Insurance commissioners have enormous power to impact the industry by approving or rejecting rate increases and investigating insurance fraud. To avoid the perception that money can buy favorable treatment, most of California’s past insurance commissioners have shunned campaign donations from the industry. Lara, too, pledged not to take insurance money when he ran in 2018.
After news broke that he’d taken the donations, Lara apologized and returned the money. He’s since cut ties with the political fundraiser who solicited donations from the insurance industry and says he put new practices in place to vet donors.
But Lara has also had other ethical lapses during a dozen years in public office, creating a troubling pattern.
In 2019, Lara billed taxpayers for maintaining an apartment in Sacramento while keeping his primary residence in Los Angeles, something other statewide officials don’t do. He gave up the apartment after it hit the news.
In 2013, as a state senator, Lara planned a political fundraiser at a Las Vegas casino that was lobbying the Legislature to approve a gambling compact for a California Indian tribe. The casino donated hotel rooms, food and tickets to a mixed-martial arts fight for Lara’s fundraising event — which was to take place the same week senators could vote on the gambling compact. Lara canceled the fundraiser after it hit the news.
Lara was right to change course when reporters exposed his questionable decisions. But Californians deserve elected officials who will operate ethically regardless of whether their name is in the headlines. For this reason and others, we believe Assemblymember Marc Levine will make a better insurance commissioner.
Although they are both Democrats, Lara and Levine have very different styles as politicians. Lara is a California Democratic Party insider who rose through the ranks with strong ties to labor unions and other powerful interest groups. Levine has an independent streak, as shown by his move to challenge an incumbent Democrat in this race — and in 2012 when he bested another Democratic incumbent to win a seat in the Assembly.
During his decade in the Legislature, Levine has built a reputation as a somewhat-prickly but conscientious lawmaker who has proposed bills to tax guns to fund violence prevention programs, make environmental reviews available online and require government agencies to retain email and other public records for at least two years. He operates outside of the Capitol’s social-climber atmosphere, and is known more for focusing on constituents than for partying with lobbyists in Sacramento.
Levine represents a region north of San Francisco that’s been hit hard by wildfires. His interest in insurance issues began in 2017 after the devastating Tubbs fire destroyed nearly 3,000 homes in Sonoma County. He started to hear from constituents panicked because their insurance companies were refusing to renew their homeowner policies, an issue that has grown into a crisis in fire-prone parts of the state as conflagrations exacerbated by climate change become more common and more destructive. As a result, he wrote bills meant to prevent homeowners from becoming under-insured by requiring insurance companies to send updates on their property values and to give businesses and homeowners more leeway to rebuild in a different location following a fire.
As insurance commissioner, Lara developed new rules that require insurers to discount policies if homeowners take steps to mitigate their fire risk, such as installing fire-resistant roofs or clearing combustible vegetation from their properties. But under the proposed rules, an insurance company could choose not to cover a home, or an entire subdivision, even if it had been hardened to reduce fire risk.
Levine says he’s going further to help consumers by writing legislation requiring insurance companies to issue policies to homeowners who do such mitigation work.
Levine also says he would go further than Lara has in using the insurance commissioner’s authority to fight climate change. Insurance companies can support fossil fuel production in two ways: by insuring specific projects, such as a natural gas well or oil extraction site, and by investing in fossil fuel businesses. After facing pressure from environmental and consumer advocates, Lara recently released a new database showing how much insurance companies are investing in fossil fuels. Levine says he would push to make insurance companies report even more information, such as the carbon emissions from fossil fuel projects they underwrite and whether their requests to raise rates are tied to losses on fossil fuel investments.
The race also includes Robert Molnar, a top aide to former Insurance Commissioner Steve Poizner who is running without party preference; Democrat Vinson Eugene Allen, a medical doctor who owns a chain of urgent care clinics; and several lesser-known candidates who have never held elected office.
Levine stands out from the pack as the candidate who will best look out for consumers and the planet.