CAMPAIGN JOURNAL : Collis Ties Political Fortunes to Father of Proposition 103

TIMES POLITICAL WRITER

Maybe Conway Collis never heard the old wheeze about paddling one's political boat a little on the left and then a little on the right to keep it centered in turbulent waters. And don't tell him about getting from Point A to Point B by some silly straight line.

In an exuberant--perhaps overly so--zigzag chase down the path of greatest political opportunity, Collis has gone from a champion of welfare for the "little guys" back in the 1970s to a champion fund-raiser among the "big guys" in the 1980s.

And now in the 1990s, he's attempting his most difficult twist of all as a Democratic candidate for state insurance commissioner: to convince voters he is a fire-breathing populist outsider who can stand up to the giant insurance companies, and a level-headed, experienced government insider who can tame the bureaucracy of the state Department of Insurance.

Never heard of him?

Collis, 42, has been an upward-bound political stripling for a dozen years and now holds one of the state's more obscure offices: member of the State Board of Equalization. This is one of two state tax agencies. It has jurisdiction over the application of sales, use, motor vehicle, alcohol and tobacco taxes, and hears appeals from taxpayers with gripes about state income taxes.

For purposes of the 1990 campaign, though, Collis should be known as the insurance commissioner candidate backed by Harvey Rosenfield, founder of Voter Revolt and chief sponsor of the Proposition 103 insurance initiative. The 1988 consumer-oriented ballot measure ordered auto insurance rate rollbacks of 20%--a promise stubbornly unmet--and established that the state insurance commissioner be independent and elected, rather than an appointee of the governor. The first insurance commissioner election occurs this year.

"Conway is the only guy who I am confident will not compromise away 103," Rosenfield said, by way of explaining his endorsement.

Actually, endorsement is a colossal understatement. More accurate is that Collis and Rosenfield have thrown in together--the man who wrote Proposition 103 alongside the man he thinks can carry it out.

Some months back, Rosenfield said his support would go to the candidate who could show the willingness to undertake insurance reform from the bottom, from the grass roots, the way he wanted it undertaken. Collis alone among the major Democratic commissioner candidates took the challenge. Collis is the only one to endorse a follow-up initiative now being advanced by Voter Revolt--a radical measure that could lead to the eviction of private auto insurance companies from California and have policies written by state government.

For that matter, he is the only candidate who has boldly promised both to "roll back rates" and put balky insurance executives "in jail where they belong" if they knowingly try to resist Proposition 103's reforms. He also has promised, by virtue of his tenure in the state bureaucracy, to reshape the Department of Insurance "from a backwater agency to an activist fighter for consumers."

Today, Collis and Rosenfield are almost inseparable. Two men wearing matching shirts and loosened ties, coatless even when standing outdoors against a chill winter wind; two men who talk so much alike they can finish each other's sentences . . . and perhaps finish each other's mission.

Rosenfield is taking a leave as director of the Voter Revolt political organization to campaign full-time. For Collis, still little known to many voters and maybe suffering a lingering reputation as a grandstander, the partnership/endorsement is his chief hope.

But it has come at a price. Rarely, if ever, has a candidate depended so much on a single endorsement. When you ask Collis a question, Rosenfield is apt to answer first and loudest. "Hey, you go ahead," Collis seems to say. "No, no, you go ahead," Rosenfield indicates back. Then sometimes they both start talking at the same time. An interview is more of a three-way conversation than two-way.

The partnership with Rosenfield was an abrupt shift in course for a man who already has undergone his share.

After law school in the mid-1970s, Collis started as a staff counsel for the U.S. Senate Public Welfare Committee, with responsibility for legislation dealing with domestic poverty programs and legal assistance for the poor. It was a logical step for a young do-gooder who had earned his way through Occidental College as a "house parent" for delinquent boys.

He took up big-time politics, and made a noticeable change in direction, in 1980 on behalf of U.S. Sen. Alan Cranston's reelection. Collis was assigned to be the campaign's field director. But even do-gooders know the realities of California politics. With Cranston's blessing, Collis shifted to take over as political finance director.

"I realized that if I wanted to get into politics myself I needed to get some experience in fund raising," Collis explained.

That he got. Voters may not have known much about him, but the community of Democratic political donors soon did. To them, he was a terrier who would latch onto their pant legs with needled incisors and locked jaw.

After the election, he served two years in charge of fund raising for the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee in Washington, D.C. He returned in 1982 to run for the Board of Equalization, and won reelection in 1986.

Eager to move out of the backwater, Collis began testing populist waters in 1988. He pondered running for lieutenant governor and sponsored an unsuccessful ballot proposition to help the homeless. When that failed, he shifted to insurance.

This was a watershed. He had to choose: Should he go the traditional route, raising huge amounts of money and trying to buy an image on television? Or should he team up with Rosenfield, try to grab hold of Voter Revolt's squads of volunteers, kiss his Establishment contributors goodby and mortgage his home?

"You have to understand," he said. "People are fed up with politics as usual--with raising money and buying commercials on TV. Prop. 103 showed there is room for a kind of politics that comes from the grass roots."

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