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Disparate Experience in Insurance Race

Times Staff Writer

The two candidates vying in a low-decibel race to be elected California’s top insurance regulator couldn’t have more different qualifications for the job.

One has worked for government all his adult life. The other has spent all but two years in the private sector. But each claims his experience gives him the talents and tools to protect consumers and bolster the state’s business climate.

They are Democratic Lt. Gov. Cruz Bustamante, and Silicon Valley businessman Steve Poizner, a Republican. And, along with a handful of minor-party candidates, they are running to succeed John Garamendi as state insurance commissioner. Garamendi is running for lieutenant governor.

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The insurance commissioner “has a very direct impact on consumers’ pocketbooks,” said Darry Sragow, a Los Angeles attorney and Democratic political consultant. “Insurance covers almost every aspect of most people’s day-to-day lives.”

Bustamante contends that being a career politician, including the last eight years in the obscure post of lieutenant governor, is perfect training to be insurance commissioner. “This is the culmination of my life’s work,” he said.

Poizner, for his part, said his two decades building high-tech businesses provides the executive experience to oversee California’s $120-billion insurance market. “The skills are extremely relevant,” he said. In addition to his private-sector experience, Poizner spent one year as a teacher and a year as a White House fellow.

Although the race, which will be decided Nov. 7, is largely lost in the televised din surrounding the governor’s contest and several initiative battles, the job of insurance commissioner is especially important to millions of Californians with auto, health, homeowner and earthquake insurance.

The two candidates have engaged in little debate over the issues and appear to agree on major challenges that the next commissioner will face.

Both say they back new regulations by Garamendi that prohibit auto insurers from basing rates mainly on a policyholder’s residential ZIP Code, rather than his or her driving record.

They also promise to push for lower premiums, reduce costly fraud and stop insurers from canceling policies if a homeowner files a claim.

The commissioner, a partisan officeholder elected to a four-year term, has plenty of resources to do his job. The California Department of Insurance is one of the larger state agencies, with 1,300 employees and a $197-million annual budget.

The department has major offices in San Francisco, Sacramento and Los Angeles. The commissioner earns an annual salary of $140,004.

Besides the two major-party candidates, four other Californians are vying for the job: Jay E. Burden of the American Independent Party, Larry Cafiero of the Green Party, Tom Condit of the Peace and Freedom Party and Dale F. Ogden of the Libertarian Party.

Bustamante and Poizner promise to make protecting consumers their top priority. Next on their list is watching out for the financial health of insurance companies to see that they don’t go broke and leave customers with unpaid claims. They also promise to watch out for the interests of small-business owners and large employers, who pay taxes and create jobs.

What’s more, they both are keeping their distance from the politically powerful insurance company lobby.

“A regulator has to be fiercely independent, totally financially independent,” Poizner said.

The 49-year-old entrepreneur from Los Gatos can afford such independence after selling his Silicon Valley firm, SnapTrack Inc., to Qualcomm Inc. for $1 billion in 2000. SnapTrack developed a global positioning feature that enables emergency personnel to locate cellular telephone users.

Poizner has refused to take any contributions from the insurance industry and has poured at least $2.5 million of his own money into his campaign. Last month, he began advertising on television, and he said he expected to spend a total of $11 million by election day.

Bustamante accepted insurance-company contributions until June, when he announced that he was returning to insurance-related donors about $150,000 of the approximately $1.2 million of the contributions from all sources that he has raised.

“I’m going to protect the consumer, and I wanted to make sure there were no mixed signals,” he said.

Bustamante, 53, the son of a Central Valley barber who now lives in the Sacramento bedroom community of Elk Grove, doesn’t have a personal fortune to bankroll his candidacy. He said he hoped to raise as much as $3 million for his campaign, and he expected to air at least one TV commercial statewide.

He has spent his entire adulthood living on a government salary as a legislative staffer, member of the state Assembly and lieutenant governor. He first garnered statewide attention as the first Latino speaker of the Assembly and then for his unsuccessful run against Arnold Schwarzenegger to replace recalled Gov. Gray Davis in 2003.

Bustamante’s decision to return the money -- days before his Democratic primary victory over John Kraft, a political unknown -- coincided with his move to focus more closely on insurance issues.

During the first half of the year, Bustamante seemed to spend most of his time publicizing his personal battle against obesity and keeping track of his weight loss: so far, 64 pounds, down to 214 pounds.

The diet, said Bustamante, convinced him that there’s a nexus between good nutrition, personal responsibility, public health and the cost of insurance.

“I found out that obesity costs the state of California over $20 billion a year,” he said.

Poizner, meanwhile, says he has been concentrating on learning the often arcane details of insurance regulatory law.

Harvey Rosenfield, the author of Proposition 103, an initiative passed by voters in 1988 that made insurance a highly regulated industry, said he has had several lengthy conversations with Poizner.

“There’s no doubt in my mind that he comes from a free-market orientation, but he’s carefully studying the issues and he’s taking the race seriously,” Rosenfield said.

Rosenfield and his Santa Monica-based Foundation for Taxpayer and Consumer Rights has yet to endorse a candidate. Neither have other consumer groups or insurance trade organizations.

Two statewide opinion polls on the race show Bustamante leading Poizner among likely voters, but in both polls, his lead was within the margin of error.

A Los Angeles Times Poll released Friday put Bustamante at 43% among likely voters and Poizner, 38%, 4% for other candidates and 15% undecided. The Field Poll released Aug. 1 had similar results. Although California is a heavily Democratic state, Republican Poizner has a shot at beating Bustamante, especially if Schwarzenegger wins big, Republican political strategist Dan Schnur predicts.

“The biggest disadvantage a Republican normally has is being tied to the insurance industry,” Schnur said. “Insurance companies are only a little bit more popular than tobacco companies. But, in this campaign, that’s a bigger problem for Bustamante.”

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marc.lifsher@latimes.com

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Begin text of infobox

At a glance

Steve Poizner

* Party: Republican

* Occupation: Entrepreneur

* Age: 49, born in Houston

* Residence: Los Gatos, Calif.

* Personal: Married

* Education: Bachelor’s degree, electrical engineering, University of Texas, 1978; MBA, Stanford University, 1980.

* Career highlights: Founder of Strategic Mapping Inc. and SnapTrack Inc., which he sold for $1 billion to Qualcomm Inc., 1995-2000; White House fellow, 2000-2001; teacher, Mount Pleasant High School in San Jose, 2002-2003; unsuccessful candidate for state Assembly, 2004; co-chairman Proposition 77, redistricting initiative effort, 2005.

* Platform: Lowering insurance rates for families and small businesses; making the office of insurance commissioner nonpartisan; preparing the state for a major disaster, such as an earthquake.

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Cruz Bustamante

* Party: Democrat

* Occupation: Lieutenant governor

* Age: 53, born in Dinuba, Calif.

* Residence: Elk Grove, Calif.

* Personal: Married

* Education: Bachelor’s degree, interdisciplinary studies, Cal State Fresno, 2003.

* Career highlights: Assemblyman 1993-98; speaker of the Assembly, 1996-98; lieutenant governor, 1999-present.

* Platform: Help consumers by lowering auto and homeowner’s insurance rates; combat fraud; attempt to centralize regulation of workers’ compensation and health insurance in the California Department of Insurance.

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Source: Times research

Los Angeles Times


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