Ricardo Lara’s first year as California Insurance Commissioner — the elected office tasked with regulating the state’s $310 billion insurance industry — has been an ethical disaster.
In March 2019, Lara, a Democrat, held a working lunch with insurance company executives who had pending cases before his department, with the goal, according to records, of establishing a relationship that would benefit his re-election campaign. In April, he accepted over $50,000 in campaign donations insurance industry representatives and their spouses, including people with business ties at the previous month’s working lunch. In June, Lara decisions overturned his department had already done so in a way that benefited the company.
None of this is illegal. But that sounds awful for someone whose job it is to protect consumers from overcharging insurance companies.
Insurance commissioners have tremendous power over the industry by approving or rejecting rate increases and investigating insurance fraud. To avoid the perception that money can buy favorable treatment, most former California insurance commissioners avoided campaign donations from the industry. Lara also pledged not to take insurance money when he showed up in 2018.
After news broke that he had taken the donations, Lara apologized and returned the money. He has since cut ties with the political fundraiser who was soliciting donations from the insurance industry and says he has implemented new practices to vet donors.
But Lara also had other ethical failings over a dozen years in public service, creating a troubling pattern.
In 2019, Lara charged taxpayers for maintaining a apartment in Sacramento while keeping his primary residence in Los Angeles, which other state officials do not. He left the apartment after it made headlines.
In 2013, as a state senator, Lara planned a political fundraiser at a Las Vegas casino that pressured the legislature to approve a gambling pact for a California Indian tribe. The casino donated hotel rooms, food and tickets to a mixed martial arts fight for Lara’s fundraising event – which was due to take place the same week senators could vote on the pact game. Lara canceled the fundraiser after it made headlines.
Lara was right to change course when reporters exposed her questionable decisions. But Californians deserve elected officials who will act ethically whether their name makes headlines or not. For this and other reasons, we believe Assemblyman Marc Levine will make a better insurance commissioner.
Although they are both Democrats, Lara and Levine have very different political styles. Lara is a California Democratic Party insider who has risen through the ranks with strong ties to labor unions and other powerful interest groups. Levine has an independent streak, as seen in his decision to challenge an incumbent Democrat in this race — and in 2012 when he beat another incumbent Democrat to win an Assembly seat.
During his decade in the Legislative Assembly, Levine earned a reputation as a somewhat dodgy but conscientious legislator who introduced gun tax bills to fund violence prevention programs, make environmental assessments available online and require government agencies to retain emails and other public records for at least two years. He operates outside the socially escalating atmosphere of the Capitol and is known more for focusing on voters than partying with lobbyists in Sacramento.
Levine represents an area north of San Francisco that has been hit hard by wildfires. His interest in insurance matters began in 2017 after the devastating Tubbs fire destroyed nearly 3,000 homes in Sonoma County. He started hearing from voters panicked because their insurance companies were refusing to renew their home insurance policies, a problem that became a crisis of fire-prone parts of the state as conflagrations exacerbated by climate change become more common and more destructive. As a result, he drafted bills intended to prevent homeowners from becoming underinsured by requiring insurance companies to send updates on their property values and giving businesses and homeowners more leeway. to rebuild in another place after a fire.
As insurance commissioner, Lara developed new rules that require insurers to update policies if homeowners take steps to mitigate their fire risk, such as installing fire-rated roofs or removing combustible vegetation from their properties. But under the proposed rules, an insurance company could choose not to cover a house, or an entire housing estate, even if it had been hardened to reduce the risk of fire.
Levine says he goes the extra mile to help consumers by write legislation compel insurance companies to issue policies to homeowners who carry out such mitigation work.
Levine also says he would go further than Lara in using the authority of the insurance commissioner to fight climate change. Insurance companies can support fossil fuel production in two ways: by insuring specific projects, such as a natural gas well or an oil extraction site, and by investing in fossil fuel companies. After being pressured by environmental and consumer advocatesLara recently posted a new database showing how much insurance companies are invest in fossil fuels. Levine says he would push for insurance companies to report even more information, such as the carbon emissions of the fossil fuel projects they underwrite and whether their requests for rate increases are tied to losses. on investments in fossil fuels.
The race also includes Robert Molnar, a top aide to former insurance commissioner Steve Poizner, who is running with no party preference; Democrat Vinson Eugene Allen, a doctor who owns a chain of urgent care clinics; and several lesser-known candidates who have never held elected office.
Levine stands out from the crowd as the candidate who will best care for consumers and the planet.
This story originally appeared in the Los Angeles Times.