Industry Money an Issue in Kansas Race for Insurance Commissioner

September 12, 2006

Almost 25 percent of Insurance Commissioner Sandy Praeger’s campaign funds have come from the industry she regulates, and Democratic challenger Bonnie Sharp hopes voters think it’s a big deal.

Seeking a second term, Praeger has repeatedly portrayed herself as creating a regulatory balance, protecting consumers but fostering a climate that encourages companies to do business in Kansas.

Sharp, a Kansas House member from Kansas City, describes herself as a consumer advocate in her long-shot bid to oust Praeger, a Republican, former legislator and former Lawrence mayor.

The Democrat said her message, incorporating her refusal to take industry contributions, is easy for voters to grasp.

“They are supposed to have had someone in this office be a protector for them,” Sharp said. “Why give even the perception of doing anything other than what’s right?”

Praeger acknowledged that accepting industry contributions does pressure a commissioner to demonstrate independence and responsiveness to consumers. She and her supporters argue she’s done that.

“It’s not about who’s contributing, but about the type of person who’s taking the gift,” Praeger said.

Only two months ago, amid an aggressive primary challenge from Rep. Eric Carter, of Overland Park, many of Praeger’s fellow Republicans considered her vulnerable.

But many of them also thought the race had less to do with insurance issues than with the ongoing feuding between the GOP’s moderate wing, represented by Praeger, and its conservative one, represented by Carter.

Praeger received 58 percent of the vote on Aug. 1, and she entered her campaign against Sharp in a good position. Also on the Nov. 7 ballot is Libertarian Patrick Wilbur of Lawrence.

“I think everyone knows who I am,” Praeger said. “I had a very conservative opponent in the primary, but I did not change my campaign strategy. I am who I am.”

Part of Praeger’s revived political fortunes came from simply winning the GOP primary. Kansas has more than 757,000 registered Republicans, compared with about 436,000 Democrats. About 442,000 voters are unaffiliated, but political scientists tend to see them as leaning Republican.

Praeger also has shown she can raise money, collecting nearly $304,000 from the beginning of 2005 through late July 2006. After starting her campaign this year, Sharp, who faced no primary opposition, raised about $35,000.

Finally, Democrats have had mixed results by making GOP candidates’ willingness to take industry contributions an issue.

For Kathleen Sebelius in 1994, the issue seemed to resonate with voters as she unseated Republican incumbent Ron Todd.

He had other baggage, though. Todd collected both a pension and a full salary, having “retired” as an assistant commissioner, only to go back to work a day later. He also was the protégé of former Commissioner Fletcher Bell, who received a $94,469 workers’ compensation award in 1991 for a back injury sustained while lifting a briefcase.

In 2002, when Sebelius ran successfully for governor, Democrat Jim Garner made industry contributions an issue in his race against Praeger and lost.

Finance records filed by Praeger’s campaign listed more than $75,000 in contributions from the insurance industry through late July.

“Even though Sandy has taken money from the insurance interests, I don’t think anybody sees her as beholden to them at all,” said Burdett Loomis, a University of Kansas political scientist who once served on Sebelius’ staff. “Where’s the leverage?”

For her part, Praeger noted that her office has investigated about 800 fraud cases since forming a special anti-fraud unit in May 2004.

She’s also working on other projects, most notably a proposal to spread the risk for small groups of health insurance policyholders so that their rates remain stable. She didn’t go into detail because the proposal is still being drafted, but said it would involve a privately funded high-risk pool.

Ruth Teichman, the Senate Financial Institutions and Insurance Committee chairwoman, said Praeger has taken the lead in persuading Kansas legislators to join an interstate compact designed to make it easier for insurance companies to operate in multiple states. Praeger also is heavily involved in setting up the compact’s operations, Teichman said.

“I have a lot of respect for Bonnie Sharp,” said Teichman, R-Stafford. “She’s done a great job serving on the House Insurance Committee, but Sandy has the experience.”

But Sharp said the issues aren’t complicated to Kansas voters. She said they want someone in their corner, especially when tragedy has struck and they file insurance claims.

“Sometimes we try to make things so complicated,” she said. “You don’t count on your car crashing. You don’t want a storm to damage your house. You aren’t looking for a diagnosis of a critical illness for you or your family.”

Topics Kansas

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