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Jones, Villines for state insurance commissioner

The state insurance commissioner is one of the most powerful consumer advocates in California, wielding unique influence over how auto, property and health coverage is priced and sold. With the current occupant, Republican Steve Poizner, running for governor, the race has attracted three state assemblymen who are barred by term limits from seeking reelection — Dave Jones (D-Sacramento), Hector de la Torre (D-South Gate) and Mike Villines (R-Clovis). Brian D. Fitzgerald, a longtime enforcement attorney in the Department of Insurance, faces Villines in the GOP primary, and four candidates are running unopposed in smaller parties.

On the Democratic side, both De la Torre and Jones are proven consumer advocates who are well versed in insurance issues, and little separates them on questions of policy. Although either one would be a strong voice for consumers in Sacramento, we believe Jones’ mastery of complex issues gives him a slender edge in the Democratic primary.

Jones, a former Legal Aid lawyer, has accomplished much in his six years as a legislator, pushing nearly 90 measures through the Legislature. His current efforts include a proposal to give the insurance commissioner more control over health insurance premiums. With 58 of his bills having been signed into law, his work has yielded significant new protections for consumers and taxpayers.

Jones proposes to use the insurance post to clamp down on premium increases and prod insurers to put more of their investment dollars into green technology and clean energy. His pro-consumer rhetoric sometimes seems too adversarial to insurers, whose services are vital to Californians. But he also acknowledges that it can be too hard for insurers to introduce products in the state, and supports letting them respond faster to new opportunities.

A good-government reformer who helped clean up city government in South Gate, De La Torre has tried in the Legislature to stop health insurers from rescinding policies without justification and to require individual coverage to include maternity care, only to be blocked by vetoes. He says he is just as committed to consumer rights as Jones but more pragmatic in approach, and he’s offered good ideas for making the department work better for both consumers and businesses.

Democrats would wind up with a good candidate with either De La Torre or Jones. Still, The Times favors Jones because of the intellectual firepower he would bring to the job and the vigor he has shown in protecting consumers.

On the Republican side, Fitzgerald’s main pitch seems to be his ability to get more out of the department’s staff, a disappointingly inward focus for such an important policymaking position. We think Villines is the better candidate, in part because of the political courage he showed in helping to end a debilitating stalemate in the budget talks last year. Our biggest complaint about Villines is that he doesn’t seem prepared to be insurance commissioner. If he hopes to challenge Jones or De La Torre in November, he will have to demonstrate a much better grasp of the job he’s seeking.


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