Both leading candidates for state insurance commissioner in the June 3 primary election call themselves consumer advocates. But that's where the similarities end.
Incumbent Democrat Dave Jones, 52, a Sacramento lawyer and former legislator, enthusiastically wields his authority to regulate all types of property and casualty insurance, including auto and property coverages. He also has limited review powers over health insurance.
After four years in office, Jones actively is campaigning for more clout, seeking voter approval of a statewide initiative on the November general election ballot. He wants the same approve-or-deny authority over health insurance premiums that he now has for auto, property and casualty insurance rates.
"I have been a fair and balanced regulator, as I promised I'd be," Jones said. "I take companies to task when they are violating the law, but I also recognize at the end of the day that we need active and vibrant insurance companies and markets."
His Republican opponent, Ted Gaines, 56, a state senator and an independent insurance broker from the Sacramento suburb of Rocklin, wants to ease up on regulation and inject more competition into the insurance market.
He also would use the office's bully pulpit to fight what he calls big government's expansion into health insurance in the form of President Obama's Affordable Care Act. Gaines concedes, however, that administering Obamacare is not part of the insurance commissioner's job.
"I consider myself to be the ultimate consumers' advocate," he said, likening his insurance agency clients to California consumers, always looking for the best coverages and prices. "I think that transfers beautifully to the Department of Insurance."
The platform of the third contender, Nathalie Hrizi, 33, a San Francisco teacher, strays even further from the commissioner's duties. Hrizi, who's running on the Peace and Freedom Party ticket, seeks to create a government-run, single-payer health insurance program that provides free coverage for all paid for by the state or federal government.
She also wants to get rid of for-profit insurance companies and create publicly owned agencies to sell low-cost auto and property policies.
"People should have a right to these things," she said.
Minor party candidate Hrizi, who has no significant financial backing, is expected to be eliminated in the state's new "top-two" primary election format. As a result, Jones and Gaines will probably face off in the fall.
California voters in 1988 approved Proposition 103, which gave broad new powers to the insurance commissioner. It also made the post elected rather than appointed by the governor. The first elected commissioner took office in 1991.
The position is partisan with a four-year term and a current annual salary of $139,189. All but one elected commissioner have been Democrats.
The commissioner runs the 1,300-person Department of Insurance. The agency licenses, regulates and examines the financial strength of insurance companies; deals with public complaints and questions about the insurance industry; and enforces California insurance laws and regulations.
So far, the Jones-Gaines matchup is shaping up to be not much of a contest — at least until the general election. But it's still early; the race might heat up by October.
According to Maplight.org, an elections and campaign finance website, Jones has raised $1.4 million in contributions so far, and Gaines has collected $28,500.
Additionally, Jones and the Democrats have an edge in voter registration. Democrats make up 43.48% of current California registered voters. Republicans lag behind with 28.55%. No preferences account for 21.06%, and others 6.91%.
Jones "is definitely going to be the odds-on favorite come November," said Scott Hauge, an independent insurance broker from San Francisco, who also leads a statewide, small-business advocacy organization.
Hauge said he and other insurance executives had concerns before Jones took office that the new commissioner might be too aggressive and unreasonable toward their industry.
"On balance, I think he's done a pretty good job," Hauge said. "He's been consistent. He's not grandstanding. There aren't a lot of surprises."