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Villines wins GOP nomination for state insurance commissioner

After a month of ballot counting, Assemblyman Michael Villines of Clovis eked out a victory in the Republican primary for Insurance Commissioner, defeating his little-known opponent, insurance department lawyer Brian FitzGerald, by 16,346 votes.

Villines’ primary race was perhaps most remarkable for his weak showing against a virtual unknown. Even FitzGerald, a Napa attorney who has worked at the insurance department for 16 years, joked about his low visibility before the primary — calling himself “Fitz the obscure” and explaining why he was running in his “Mani-fitz-o” on his blog.

FitzGerald said he spent a grand total of $4,292 on his campaign — which paid for his filing fee, his ballot pamphlet statement and travel expenses for a meeting with the Los Angeles Times editorial board — yet he lost to Villines by only a 1% margin according to results announced by California Secretary of State Debra Bowen late Friday night. Villines spent more than $220,000.

Elected to a state Assembly seat representing Fresno and Madera counties in 2004, Villines became the Assembly’s Republican leader in 2006. But the one-time aide to former Gov. Pete Wilson angered Republican activists and became a target of talk radio hosts, including John and Ken on KFI-AM in Los Angeles, after backing a 2009 budget deal that temporarily raised taxes.

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While Villines easily overpowered FitzGerald in the Central Valley counties that he represents, FitzGerald beat Villines by a margin of nearly 10% or more in the Southern California counties of Los Angeles, Riverside and San Bernardino.

In a statement, Villines said he was focused on “protecting consumers, re-building our economy and cracking down on fraud.” He praised his primary opponent for showing “that you don’t have to have a lot of money to run for office — an important example for other Californians who would like to go into public service.”

This fall, Villines will face off against fellow Assemblyman Dave Jones (D-Sacramento), who coasted to an easy win over Assemblyman Hector De La Torre of South Gate in the Democratic primary. Jones said Saturday in a statement that he was running as a “strong and consistent consumer advocate.” He charged that Villines “has repeatedly sided with the insurance industry against consumers.”

California’s next insurance commissioner will play a significant role in implementing the healthcare reform package passed by the Obama administration. Jones has advocated giving the state insurance commissioner greater discretion over rate increases such as those proposed by Anthem Blue Cross, which sought to raise premiums on individual policies by as much as 39%.

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Statewide turnout in the June 8 primary election was 33.3%, according to results certified Friday by Bowen. But participation did not fall below California’s all-time low for a statewide primary, which was 28.2% in 2008.

Nearly 58% of ballots were cast by mail, and turnout in the counties of Los Angeles (23.5%) and San Bernardino (27.2%) lagged behind all of the other counties in the state.

maeve.reston@latimes.com


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