Insurers Assailed for Poll Conduct

Times Staff Writer

It may be payback time this summer for Insurance Commissioner John Garamendi.

And Wednesday he came out swinging at the state's insurance industry after emerging victorious from this week's Democratic primary election for lieutenant governor.

He blasted the industry's $2 million of preelection advertising attacking his proposal on auto insurance rates and vowed to move quickly this summer to hold hearings aimed at slashing homeowners' insurance bills.

"This is a culmination of the work we've had in process for three years," Garamendi said. He likened his rush to reduce premiums to playing "a good fourth quarter" when he was a lineman on the 1965 UC Berkeley football team.

Insurance executives were unimpressed; they dismissed the commissioner's upcoming hearings as political grandstanding.

"It's no different than what we've seen in the past" from Garamendi, said Bill Sirola, a spokesman for State Farm Mutual Insurance Co., the biggest home and auto insurer in California with 4.4 million policyholders in the state.

Garamendi, who is in his second term as elected insurance commissioner, was victorious in a three-person Democratic field with 43.3% of the vote Tuesday. He defeated state Sens. Jackie Speier and Liz Figueroa, and faces conservative Republican state Sen. Tom McClintock in November.

Now, he plans to use his last few months as insurance commissioner to grab media attention and boost his campaign for lieutenant governor, a post known for its anonymity and undefined role.

The commissioner's game plan could prove uncomfortable for the insurance industry, a deep-pocketed political player in Sacramento.

"Garamendi has been a thorn in their side, and now the thorn is going to be a lot bigger and a lot sharper," said Amy Bach, executive director of United Policyholders, a Bay Area consumer group.

Garamendi in late May said he wanted State Farm to appear at a public hearing in Los Angeles to defend rates that he said seemed "excessive."

He has also put California's other top 19 homeowner's insurance carriers on notice that they will be called to their own hearings in the summer and fall.

At the same time, Garamendi is close to issuing final regulations that would change the way automobile insurance rates are figured, probably lowering premiums in voter-rich Los Angeles, the Bay Area and Sacramento, while raising them in suburban and rural areas.

Just before the election, insurers countered Garamendi's proposed regulations with a television and direct mail campaign, warning voters in suburban and rural areas that their rates could be hiked arbitrarily.

The move infuriated Garamendi, who accused insurers of pressuring him by offering to scuttle the ad campaign if he dropped his proposed auto rate regulations.

"They attempted to extort, blackmail or bribe me," he said. "They carried out their threat, but it didn't work."

The coalition of insurance companies that bankrolled the television and direct mail blitz denied any wrongdoing and argued that it was a "public education campaign."

Political and industry insiders said Garamendi's plan to run for lieutenant governor while pummeling insurance companies could prove a winning strategy.

"He's able to tap into issues that resonate with voters and develop a reputation as somebody who cares about consumers," said Mark Baldassare, director of research for the Public Policy Institute of California. "It shows people that he takes his job as a statewide officeholder very seriously."

But there may be a cost to Garamendi in making his performance as commissioner a high-profile part of his race for lieutenant governor. McClintock said he intended to run on Garamendi's "proven record of increasing the tax and regulatory burdens of California."

Times staff writer Jordan Rau contributed to this report.

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