Viewpoint by Thomas Elias: New warning bells in race for insurance commissioner

February 05, 2002

Warning bells rang loudly during the 1994 campaign that made Chuck Quackenbush California's first elected Republican insurance commissioner, but few paid them any heed — a huge mistake, as it turned out.

Similar alarms are going off again this year, as three Democrats and a couple Republicans joust for their parties' nominations for the same office.

Quackenbush, of course, is no longer insurance commissioner. He resigned in disgrace almost two years ago, when it became plain he'd been a complete tool of the insurance industry he was supposed to regulate.

The specific offense that sent Quackenbush, a former Republican assemblyman from the Silicon Valley area, into political exile in Hawaii came when he allowed six insurance companies to avoid up to $3.7 billion in fines by contributing just $19 million to foundations he had set up for his pet causes.


But Quackenbush did far more harm than that to California homeowners, caving in to the insurance industry's campaign of blackmail following the 1994 Northridge earthquake. First Quackenbush allowed insurance companies essentially to pull out of the California property insurance market rather than write new quake insurance policies or renew old ones, as state law then required of anyone issuing homeowner or commercial property policies.

He didn't have to accede to that blackmail. He could have barred from the lucrative auto insurance market any company that eliminated its property policies. But Quackenbush preferred to give the industry what it wanted, which was an end to their liability for earthquake damage.

With some of his old pals in the Legislature, and cooperation from then-Gov. Pete Wilson, he pushed through a bill creating today's entirely inadequate Earthquake Authority, which now issues quake policies. These have higher deductibles and lower coverage than pre-1994 policies. That will cost homeowners many billions of dollars whenever the next major quake hits.

As an assemblyman, Quackenbush had always been friendly to the industry. But he became its complete toady in 1994, when he accepted more than $4 million in campaign donations from insurance firms and their agents. By the time of his reelection four years later, he had doubled that contribution level.

In a state where running for governor will likely cost more than $50 million this year, those sums may not sound like much. But they are decidedly big money for any down-the-ticket race. The big donations gave anyone paying attention some clue to Quackenbush's future behavior.

Now comes another candidate accepting big bucks from the insurance companies. He is Democratic Assemblyman Tom Calderon of Montebello, who says he will be a consumer advocate if elected commissioner, even though he's already taken $800,000 in campaign contributions from the insurance industry he wants to regulate.

"I'm not afraid to tell the industry when they are all wet," he insisted to a reporter.

That's almost word-for-word the same thing Quackenbush said eight years ago. It certainly was not the truth then.

"It's now pretty clear that Calderon is the industry's boy this year," says Harvey Rosenfield, author of the 1988 ballot initiative that rolled back insurance rates and converted the insurance commissioner from an appointee of the governor to an elected official. The commissioner has wide powers to set insurance rates and enforce myriad regulations.

Quackenbush was able to sneak into office in 1994 in part because of a nationwide Republican sweep that year. He was the only Republican seeking the insurance commissioner's office in that year's primary election.

But there are plenty of other choices now for Californians leery of candidates who deny an obvious conflict of interest situation when it stares them in the face.

On the Democratic side besides Calderdon, there are John Garamendi and Tom Umberg. Umberg, a former Orange County assemblyman and reserve military officer now on active duty, may have to give up on his run. But Garamendi won't. The first elected commissioner, he served from 1991 to 1995 amid frequent complaints from the left that he wasn't sufficiently pro-consumer.

He gave up the job to run unsuccessfully for governor, then spent six years as deputy secretary of the Interior. Now he wants back into the office, saying anyone who takes insurance company donations should not be elected.

"It's a conflict that cannot be overcome," he says.

On the Republican side, the leading candidate may be former Los Angeles Deputy Mayor Gary Mendoza, who regulated HMOs when Wilson was governor.

There's still time for Calderon to return the money he's taken from the insurance companies. If he doesn't and eventually gets elected, no one should be surprised if his idea of regulation eventually looks a lot like Quackenbush redux.

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