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CALIFORNIA ELECTIONS INSURANCE COMMISSIONER : Bitter Charges Leveled in Race Among Democrats

TIMES STAFF WRITER

The race for state insurance commissioner, which probably will ultimately go to the winner of the Democratic primary, is coming down in this last week of spring campaigning to bitter contentions among the leading candidates about special interests the others are beholden to.

From all the statements one thing seems clear: The Democratic insurance commissioner’s race has become a battle of attrition to see which candidate can be besmirched the most in the days before the primary.

In a slashing advertising attack on rivals John Garamendi and Conway Collis that he formally unveiled Wednesday, television commentator Bill Press accuses Garamendi, a state senator, of taking more than $100,000 over his 16 years in the Legislature from insurers, and Collis, chairman of the State Board of Equalization, of taking money from various corporate interests while voting them tax breaks.

Garamendi and Collis partially contest the charges or explain their actions. And they point out that unlike Press, they are not taking hundreds of thousands of dollars to finance their bids for commissioner from any special interest affected by insurance regulation.

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Press, they note, has taken at least $273,500 from trial lawyer interests that rely on the present legal system governing auto insurance for much of their income.

A fourth Democratic candidate who has been among the top three of the seven Democrats in the polls, Walter Zelman, former director of the state Common Cause organization, is not accused by anyone of taking from special interests. But Zelman has raised so little money that he is virtually absent from television and campaign mail in this last week, while the three spending leaders send out of hundreds of thousands of dollars of advertisements.

As far as can be determined at this point, Garamendi has raised $1.4 million for his campaign, Press and Collis each a little more than $1 million, and Zelman about $150,000. Few observers think Zelman stands a chance.

Garamendi and Collis have raised at least half of their money by each lending themselves nearly $700,000.

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As was repeated several times in a half-hour debate among the Democratic candidates Wednesday on Century Cable, it is a tough choice for the voters.

Alhambra Councilman Michael Blanco, one of the little-known and poorly funded candidates, had precise policy proposals in the debate. He wants no-fault insurance and an end to the state’s mandatory insurance law, so the poor will not be at the mercy of high-charging companies.

Zelman and Press talked about one day providing health insurance for all. Collis talked about enforcing Proposition 103, as did candidate Ray Bourhis. Garamendi said he would build the best consumer protection agency in the nation, and former insurance agent Larry Murphy said he had learned enough about dirty-dealing by the companies to know how to crack down on them.

But the sparks in the debate came when Collis, Bourhis and Press began to throw accusations that Garamendi and others were beholden to special interests--Garamendi to the insurance industry, which all Democratic candidates have damned in the campaign.

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Garamendi called it “mostly hogwash” on the air, and spoke of his “unblemished reputation.”

Later, when word reached him that the new Press ad recited Garamendi’s 16 years of insurer contributions, the state senator said:

“I have not accepted a single dime from any insurance industry source in this race, and as insurance commissioner I will not accept any insurance industry or trial lawyer PAC money. Bill Press, however, has raised nearly $300,000 from the trial lawyers and more than $50,000 from chiropractors, both of which have a vested interest in the outcome of this race.”

Collis, saying that he has stopped taking money from corporations with matters before the State Board of Equalization, said of the Press ad, “It is McCarthyism for a candidate to pick up those kinds of attacks. . . . Bill Press is trying desperately to deflect attention from the fact that he is the candidate of the California Trial Lawyers Assn.”

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Press responded through his campaign manager, Michael Ganley, who said, “The facts speak for themselves. Collis and Garamendi are not running on their records. They are running from their records.”

Said Zelman: “Of the leading candidates, and I do consider myself one of them, I’m the only one without special-interest ties, and a long history of consciously maintaining my independence from special interests.”


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