Mendoza, Garamendi Debate; Field Poll Shows Closer Race

September 30, 2002

California Insurance Commissioner candidates gathered in Santa Monica Sept. 17 for a very spirited debate with about a month and a half left in the race. The tone of conversation especially between the two frontrunners, John Garamendi and Gary Mendoza, proved quite interesting.

The two went back-and-forth on a number of issues, while Green and Libertarian Party candidates David Sheidlower and Dale Ogden, respectively, attempted to let the public know where they stood on the issues.

Garamendi, who according to a recent Field Poll leads his Republican challenger Mendoza by five points, was put on the defensive by Mendoza in relation to his handling of Executive Life.

According to Mendoza campaign consultant Kevin Spillane, “It was a very bad day for John Garamendi. He was unpleasantly surprised when he saw Vince and Sue Watson, who had been victims of the Executive Life debacle that he created, were there at the debate. Mendoza kept the debate focused on Executive Life—issues Garamendi clearly didn’t want to talk about. He (Garamendi) had told reporters beforehand it was one of the most important issues he had worked on and something he spent a great deal of time on. However, he didn’t bring it up in his opening statement of self-proclaimed accomplishments. He’s clearly on the defensive about Executive Life.”

Lee Fink, press liaison for Garamendi, countered that “John was the only candidate to talk about solutions to the problems of health insurance, workers’ compensation and homeowners insurance. He demonstrated once again that he is the only candidate who has the experience and vision to be a great insurance commissioner.”

When asked about the Executive Life topic, Fink responded “We were expecting it. We were talking about the issues and that is what our campaign is about. This campaign is about helping consumers, improving health insurance and protecting insurance rates. If he (Mendoza) doesn’t want to focus on that, that’s going to be our goal know matter what.”

Spillane added that he expects a close race to the finish line in November.

“Garamendi has name I.D., but it is extremely soft. Mendoza is very passionate and some of the other candidates were commenting on his passion. This campaign has proven to be extremely difficult for him (Garamendi) and he wasn’t counting on that. Garamendi is a very smooth career politician. He used every political trick in the book to deflect attention to shift responsibility on issues. We’re going to challenge him to more debates. We’re confident that the political environment will be very positive for Republicans.”

Fink, however, feels that his candidate is on the right track to being elected.

“There are a lot of issues out there and we’re addressing them. We feel good about where we are. Having quality people in the department is a central issue. When Republican Chuck Quackenbush took over the office, he destroyed what John Garamendi had built. Our goal is to get elected and rebuild what consumer groups around the country have called the best consumer protection agency in America. Good personnel is the key to that.”

Asked if there would be more debates, Fink added “We’ve had a debate, we’ve talked about the issues. I don’t know about any hypothetical future debates. There’s no need to address the hypothetical.”

• A preliminary Field Poll conducted in August revealed the race is tightening up.

The poll, which was conducted by an independent public opinion news service called the Field Institute, measured many aspects of the voters’ likeliness to vote for candidates, including favorable and unfavorable awareness.

Mendoza garnered 35 percent of voter preferences for the California Insurance Commissioner race, Garamendi collected 40 percent. Twenty-five percent were undecided.

The breakdown by political affiliation revealed Mendoza’s 35 percent is split with 56 percent of Republican votes, and 18 percent Democratic. Twenty-eight percent comprised the other category, which was based on a small sample base.

Garamendi garnered 62 percent of Democratic votes, and 17 percent Republican. He also collected 32 percent of votes from the other category.

Further results gauging favorable versus unfavorable image revealed overall 17 percent of voters hold a favorable image to Mendoza, while 14 percent voted unfavorable. 69 percent had no opinion. 35 percent of voters have a favorable image of Garamendi, while 16 percent have an unfavorable image. 49 percent have no opinion.

Spillane told Insurance Journal regarding the results “The poll was extremely good news for the Mendoza campaign. When you consider that John Garamendi has run for statewide office in California four times previously, and that this is Mendoza’s first statewide campaign, it’s a sign of real trouble for the Garamendi campaign.”

Fink, in response, told Insurance Journal, “We’re very happy to be ahead. “John has some of the strongest favorable ratings of any statewide candidate. He has the strongest Republican support of any statewide Democratic nominee. So we’re very happy where we are and we’re going to continue to run a campaign about the issues and we’re confident that we’ll succeed because the voters are concerned with the issues and want to see an Insurance Commissioner that has experience and can provide leadership to the Department.”

The poll results can be viewed at http://field.com/fieldpollonline/subscribers/RLS2052.pdf.

Editor’s Note: Cynthia Beisiegel and Dave Thomas contributed to this story. This feature will run monthly up to the Nov. 5 election to keep readers updated on the latest events in the race for California Insurance Commissioner.

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