INSURANCE COMMISSIONER: Two Democrats Face Off to Face Poizner in Fall

In next week's primary, voters can choose between two Democrats for insurance commissioner, a regulatory office charged with policing the state's $119-billion insurance industry and signing off on rate changes proposed by carriers.

Lt. Gov. Cruz Bustamante and John Kraft, a South Pasadena businessman who ran unsuccessfully in 1994 and has yet to show he has the money to offset Bustamante's name recognition, will vie to face Republican candidate Steve Poizner, a Los Gatos technology millionaire who has never held public office. Several minor-party candidates are also running.

So far, the race for the powerful position has been low key, with most of the debate postponed to the fall.

Bustamante is running a campaign largely based on his attempt to lose weight, and Poizner has charged that the lieutenant governor is using his heft to disguise the fact that he's accepted contributions from insurance companies.

Poizner has said that he will not take money from the industry the commissioner regulates.

The winner in November will become the state's fifth elected insurance commissioner since Proposition 103 was approved in 1988.

Before that, the position was appointed by the governor. California has some of the nation's toughest insurance regulations. The current commissioner, John Garamendi, is running for lieutenant governor.

The next commissioner will face many challenges, including implementing long-awaited changes to auto insurance pricing.

There is also expected to be pressure from consumer advocates to regulate underwriting guidelines and to fine-tune reforms in the workers' compensation market.

But the commissioner will also be under pressure from insurance companies who are unhappy with their adversarial relationship with Garamendi and are fighting the proposed changes to pricing and underwriting guidelines.