Endorsement: Ricardo Lara for insurance commissioner
We wish voters had better choices in the race for California insurance commissioner.
Ethical lapses by the incumbent, Democrat Ricardo Lara, caused us to not endorse him in the primary. We thought Democratic Assemblyman Marc Levine would have done a better job, but he came in third place in the June election and will not appear on the Nov. 8 ballot.
The race is now a contest between Lara and Republican challenger Robert Howell, the president of an electronics manufacturing company he founded more than 40 years ago. Howell sits on the board of a conservative club called the Liberty Forum of Silicon Valley, has never held elective office and knows little about insurance. Faced with these two options, Lara is the better choice.
Lara is a longtime Democratic elected official and his values on issues such as abortion, gay rights and climate change align with those of the majority of Californians. Although that may seem tangential to the job of regulating the state’s $310-billion insurance industry, it intersects enough that it’s important to have someone in the office who is solidly in line with Californians on these important issues.
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After the U.S. Supreme Court overturned the Roe vs. Wade decision that protected abortion as a constitutional right, Lara issued a bulletin reminding insurance companies doing business in California that they are required to cover abortions and that a state law taking effect in January will prohibit them from charging copays for abortions. In 2020, Lara sponsored legislation to stop insurance companies from rejecting people with HIV seeking to purchase life insurance, another law that will take effect in January.
Although Lara could have been bolder in using the insurance commissioner’s authority to fight climate change, he has taken some steps after facing pressure from environmental and consumer advocates. Insurance companies can support fossil fuel production both by insuring specific projects (such as a natural gas well or oil extraction site) and by investing in fossil fuel businesses. Lara created a new database showing how much insurance companies are investing in fossil fuels. It’s a way to make consumers aware of how the dollars they spend on insurance premiums may be invested in assets that harm the planet, which could in turn pressure insurers to invest in cleaner industries.
Howell, by contrast, said in an interview with the editorial board that he didn’t see how climate change was relevant to the insurance commissioner’s duties. And he seemed uncomfortable stating a clear position on abortion. He initially said abortion is not relevant to the insurance commissioner’s office. Then he said that he wouldn’t allow his personal beliefs to interfere with his job duties and that he “would probably be OK with” abortions during the first trimester or to save the life of the pregnant woman. This isn’t the kind of commitment to a personal freedom under attack by the U.S. Supreme Court that Californians expect from state leaders.
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Howell does not display any particular passion or interest in insurance issues. He told The Times he decided to run for insurance commissioner because it’s an office he believes he could win after losing a few local races in the San Jose area. Although he lamented the problem many California homeowners face getting insurance in wildfire-prone regions, he presented no detailed plans to address the issue.
Lara is hardly a policy wonk, but after four years on the job, he displays a solid understanding of the complexities involved in regulating the insurance industry in a state grappling with ferocious wildfires. His new rules for addressing insurance gaps in fire zones do not go as far as consumer advocates would like — they require insurers to give homeowners discounts if they take steps to mitigate fire risk, but do not require that they insure every home. Still, Lara deserves credit for fighting a terrible bill backed by the insurance industry that would have led to more costs being passed on to consumers.
Howell’s second-place finish in the June primary might be the best thing that’s happened to Lara’s political career. His first term as insurance commissioner was so troubled (among other things, he accepted campaign donations from insurance industry representatives after saying he wouldn’t and may have improperly weighed in on a case involving a donor) that eight people jumped in to challenge him for reelection, including three Democrats. That splintered the vote and allowed Lara and Howell to advance with, respectively, 35.9% and 18.1% of the vote. Levine, the most prominent Democrat challenging Lara, narrowly missed second place with 18% of the vote.
Lara is fortunate to face an inexperienced and unqualified Republican in the runoff, instead of a principled, thoughtful Democrat. It means that Lara will almost certainly win a second term in this overwhelmingly blue state. But we hope that the large field of challengers he faced for reelection — including from within his own party — will remind Lara that he needs to do a better job serving the public.
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