Get email updates:

San Jose Mercury News Editorial: "Elect Levine to end Lara’s insurance commissioner scandals"

California needs consumer protection, not partying, dining and cozying up with industry lobbyists and executives

By the Mercury News Editorial Board

April 28, 2022

California needs a new insurance commissioner — one that voters can feel confident represents their interests.

Incumbent Ricardo Lara purports to be the champion of the people. But the past four years of scandal and cozy ties to the insurance industry have shown otherwise. It’s time for a leader who walks the talk of consumer protection.

Voters in the June 7 primary should back Assemblyman Marc Levine to lead the department of 1,400 employees responsible for overseeing health, auto and homeowner insurance rates — for regulating companies that collect more than $371 billion in premiums annually in California.

Levine, who has represented Marin and Sonoma counties for nearly 10 years, started diving deeply into insurance issues following the 2017 wine country wildfires that killed 44 people, consumed 245,000 acres and destroyed 8,900 structures, including thousands of homes and businesses.

He vows to be an activist leader, holding the more than 1,400 companies overseen by the Department of Insurance accountable while ensuring that they are financially solvent. He wants to end the abrupt and often-unexplained cancellations of insurance for homeowners living near forested lands, while incentivizing them to better safeguard their properties against fire dangers.

He promises to protect the availability of health insurance to California residents, require more transparency of companies’ rate-setting and investments in fossil-fuel industries, and end auto insurance discrimination based on occupation or education.

Some of his proposals are ambitious and could test the limits of the authority of the insurance commissioner. But we’re OK with that. Voters in 1988 created the independently elected insurance commissioner because they wanted a leader who would fight for their interests, not the industry’s.

Lara an embarrassment

While Levine and Lara are both Democrats, they are ethically miles apart.

The incumbent’s term has been an embarrassment reminiscent of the ignominious tenure of Chuck Quackenbush, the state insurance commissioner who resigned in 2000 amid allegations that he tried to extract settlements from title insurance companies to finance an advertising campaign that would benefit him politically.

After that debacle, California’s insurance commissioners turned away campaign contributions tied to the single industry they regulate — a recognition of the need for independent oversight untainted by political money.

That is, until Lara came along.

He vowed to not accept insurance industry money. But he broke that promise in his 2018 campaign and then after his election quickly began raising more money from the industry for this year’s campaign.

He tried to blame others for accepting the contributions, but he was his own campaign treasurer. The San Diego Union Tribune calculated that Lara collected at least $270,000 from 56 people and companies with insurance industry ties.

It didn’t stop there. Senior Department of Insurance officials overturned administrative law judges at least five times, each time benefitting a company tied to some of the donors, the Union Tribune reported.

On the New Year’s Eve after his election, Lara partied in London with an industry lobbyist and two months later lunched in Sacramento with lobbyists and industry executives who had business pending before him, the Sacramento Bee reported. He even billed California taxpayers for rent on his Sacramento apartment, Politico reported.

As a consumer watchdog group was suing Lara for records from communications within his office and with lobbyists representing key campaign donors, his agency last year suddenly adopted a policy of automatically deleting emails after six months. But after media scrutiny, the agency rescinded the policy in January.

Protecting consumers

To understand just how squishy a conversation with Lara can be, we asked him what he thought of pending legislation, introduced by Levine, that would require state agencies to preserve public records for at least two years. Lara evasively kept repeating that he would “follow the law.” Finally, when pressed, he begrudgingly said he would support it.

For all his claims that he embraces transparency, Lara has repeatedly resisted it. For all his claims that he’s a friend of consumers, his broken promises, acceptance of industry money, partying with lobbyists and interference on behalf of the industry he regulates demonstrates he can’t be trusted.

To be sure, Lara and Levine are not the only candidates on the ballot. Among the other notable candidates, Republican Greg Conlon, who ran unsuccessfully three times for state treasurer, did not return our emails.

Robert Molnar, who was an adviser to Steve Poizner when he was insurance commissioner, is running without party affiliation. He is well-versed on many of the issues, but he has no elective-office experience and his cynical approach to the election is disconcerting. He has apparently built little in the way of a campaign and candidly told us his strategy is to slip into the runoff if Lara and Levine divide the Democratic vote.

What the state needs is an insurance commissioner willing to campaign and willing to work hard to protect consumers and ensure healthy industry competition and solvency. Levine is the only candidate who meets those criteria. Californians should back him in the June 7 election.

Read the editorial here.