Insurance commissioner race pits two starkly different candidates

Incumbent Dave Jones, a liberal lawyer, is the early favorite in the California insurance commissioner race

SACRAMENTO — Few jobs at the state Capitol have more effect on citizen pocketbook issues than California's elected insurance commissioner.

The commissioner oversees a $123-billion-a-year industry that includes automobile, homeowner and dozens of other types of insurance coverage that most Californians are required to purchase. And a fight is underway over how much power to give the office over the hot-button issue of health insurance rates.

On election day, Nov. 4, voters will choose between two starkly different candidates for the powerful post: incumbent Democrat Dave Jones, elected in 2010, and a Republican challenger, state Sen. Ted Gaines.

Jones, 52, a former state assemblyman from Sacramento, is a liberal lawyer who not only wields the insurance commissioner's vast powers but wants to expand them further. He is a major booster of Proposition 45, a voter initiative also on the November ballot that would give him new authority to approve or reject proposed health insurance rates if deemed "excessive."

Jones, who calls himself a longtime consumer advocate, says he wants to save consumers money on health insurance in the same way he's handled other kinds of insurance. He boasts that he has saved policyholders $1.67 billion by holding down rates for auto, homeowner and other policies since 2011.

"I believe it's important to regulate insurance companies," he says.

Gaines, 56, a state senator representing the eastern Sacramento suburbs, is a conservative, independent insurance agent who wants to reduce government red tape and rate-setting so that insurance companies can more freely compete in the marketplace.

Gaines says his experience running a family-owned insurance agency makes him the true consumer advocate. "We have to satisfy the needs of the customer," he says. He opposes Proposition 45 because it would give the commissioner too much power.

Whoever wins in November gets a $133,491-a-year salary and a big job. The commissioner runs the 1,300-person Department of Insurance. The agency licenses and regulates 325,000 agents and hundreds of insurance companies, takes complaints from the public, combats fraud and enforces state insurance laws and regulations.

So far, the contest for insurance commissioner has garnered little public attention in what's expected to be a low-turnout general election. The candidates have been engaged in quiet campaigning, and there are no debates scheduled.

Jones is an early favorite in the race, mainly because Democrats account for 43.4% of registered voters, compared with 28.2% for Republicans. Jones also has much more campaign money. He has raised $2.1 million as of Sept. 3, according to Maplight.org, a nonpartisan election information service. Gaines has raised $141,000 for the same period. Candidates must file updated campaign finance reports Monday.

A Sept. 9 Field statewide voters poll showed Jones leading with 47%. Gaines had 32% and 21% were undecided.

marc.lifsher@latimes.com

Twitter: @MarcLifsher

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