In case no one has noticed, this is an election year. It is that point in time when termed-out California legislators try to avoid returning to the public sector by seeking election to statewide office. For the role of insurance commissioner, the likely suspects at this point are Hector De La Torre, a Los Angeles-based Democratic Assembly member; his caucus mate Dave Jones, from Sacramento; and former Republican Assembly leader Mike Villines from the Central Valley. The Primary Election is June 8, and the General Election is November 2. No real issues confront candidates for insurance commissioner, and never really have since 1988, when voters implemented Harvey Rosenfield’s vision and transformed this quintessentially bureaucratic position into an elected state office.
For a politician, especially post-term limits, it really doesn’t get any better than running for insurance commissioner. Except when a crisis or two arises – such as the rash of insolvencies in the workers’ comp insurance marketplace earlier this decade, or more esoteric issues involving life insurers and Lloyds of London in the 1990s, all the commissioner has to do is continuously lambaste the companies he or she regulates – being mindful not to tread too heavily on agents and brokers – and to announce daily that someone has been arrested for insurance fraud. That leaves lots and lots of time to do what the commissioner really wants to do – run for something else.
The 2010 iteration of this farce is being played out well under the radar screen. Campaigns with little funding and no real issues are waged almost anonymously as attention focuses on a now fully engaged race for governor. The Democratic primary will focus on who can best capitalize on relationships built while candidates were members of the Legislature and how best to generate some modicum of interest among voters. Since Villines is running unopposed in the Republican primary, his task is to raise enough money to convince people outside Fresno that he really exists. This is not the sort of thing that gets to the front page of even local sections of major papers or media outlets across this populous, media-saturated state.
To be sure, the insurance industry always provides fodder necessary to allow commissioners to think they can leap to another office. Except John Garamendi, whose presence in California politics was well established before his election as commissioner, so far, this has never been the case. In fact, the elected commissioner position has been a failed experiment based on the premise that government must always make insurance affordable for individuals and businesses even when finding that solutions to rising costs are beyond the grasp of the Legislature from whence most commissioner candidates spring. Insurance prices are generally a symptom, not a disease – even in the volatile world of health care or workers’ comp. As long as it is far more expedient to consider the evil insurance industry as a cancer, every candidate for commissioner will gladly play oncologist – the rewards, potentially, are far greater than playing bureaucrat.
Meanwhile, the Department of Insurance weathers its quadrennial rebirth. In January of next year, a new commissioner will be at the helm, and the blast faxes on who got arrested for fraud will get a new name.