Insurance Pros in Politics: Midwest Politicians Work as Insurance Advocates

By | September 10, 2013

Those who have worked in the insurance industry and now practice politics in the Midwest say they are able to provide valuable insight into policies and insurance laws that affect their state’s important industries including crops and cars.

Having an insurance background has allowed three Midwest politicians – Indiana State Representative Matt Lehman; Michigan State Senator David Robertson, and U.S. House Representative Tom Latham- Iowa– to serve as insurance advocates for the consumers and businesses in their states.

Representative Matt Lehman – 79th District, Indiana

“Insurance is my world,” says Indiana State Representative Matt Lehman, who started his insurance career after selling a car to the owner of Indiana-based Bixler Insurance Agency back in 1991. He was later recruited by the owner to work for his agency and, eventually, Lehman bought out his recruiter.

Today, he still sits at his insurance desk when not in Indianapolis representing House District 79, which includes Adams County, eastern Wells County and southern Allen County. He balances his insurance career and political life with the help of what he describes as is his supportive staff and technology.

Lehman has put his insurance knowledge to use in his political world by serving as chairman of the Indiana House Insurance Committee, which has worked on bills prohibiting credit scoring on the renewal of personal insurance policies; adding specific requirements to certificates of insurance for property, operations, or risks located in Indiana; and commissioning a study to make recommendations about the establishment of a health benefit exchange in Indiana to name a few.

“I want to make sure they are laws [committee members] understand,” says Lehman. “Insurance can be very complicated. I think having people there that understand it is actually in the best interest of the public.”

Lehman says he thinks he has also become a better agent since joining the Indiana State Legislature because he sees the process and why certain laws are enacted and how they really work. This has helped him work better with constituents and clients alike.

“I feel like, especially regionally here, it’s given me a little bit of a platform to be an advocate for people that do have problems or maybe some issues with carriers,” he says.

He says he has also been able to assist colleagues who need help understanding bills having to do with insurance and what they will mean for constituents.

But that doesn’t mean everyone considers him an expert. Lehman says dealing with some people has been interesting, and recounts a recent interaction with one of his carrier representatives who didn’t know he’s in the legislature and chairs the House Insurance Committee: “The person said, ‘Well, I don’t think you understand insurance law.’ I said, ‘Ma’am, I make insurance law.'”

Lehman says because he is still a practicing agent, he is careful to avoid any conflicts of interest and will recuse himself in situations that could be viewed in that manner. “The state’s got some very clear conflict of interest requirements. I take that very seriously. I look at every bill through that. Really, what it comes down to is, will this benefit me personally?”

Lehman began his career in politics starting as a councilman for his county, eventually moving into the role of president of the council. In 2008, once his three daughters had grown up and the state legislature seat for his district was to be vacated, Lehman decided it was the right time to run.

“I was one of those kids who loved politics since the time I was little. I mean I watched election returns and every four years when there was a presidential election it was like the Super Bowl at our house; I’d get maps out – my parents thought I was an odd kid,” he says. “I just have always loved the political process. I love the history of it. As I got older, I said ‘I want to do something. I want to try to make a difference’.”

Now, he is focused on how he can help his constituents in District 79 of the Hoosier State, including giving them a better insurance experience.

“I’ll tell you upfront there are a couple of things that are happening in the industry now that do give me some concerns,” he says. “We see a big emphasis on credit scoring and I don’t necessarily like that. I think you are also seeing a big move to telematics… we are moving to more of an electronic data gathering of information… any time you collect data you have to be very concerned with how that’s going to be used and held and processed.”

Lehman says as both an agent and a politician he knows it is his job to educate the public and lawmakers about these issues and what they mean. One particular topic he has been called upon to assist with has been the Affordable Care Act (ACA).

It has been a challenge to educate people, Lehman says, not just on the terminology and details but on what the ACA’s impact will be on the state ‘s insurance business.

“We’ve had companies that have gone out of business in Indiana due to medical loss ratios, and as much as you want to applaud and say, ‘Hey we are giving everybody coverage,’ I think we’re starting to limit the number of markets available and competition. Eliminating competition is never good,” he says.

Lehman says not a week goes by where he doesn’t get a call from someone discussing the health insurance changes and what they mean. He has reached out to employers and individuals through conference calls and seminars put on by the local Chamber of Commerce.

Lehman says his frustration with the ACA is the effect it is having on the Midwest overall.

“I don’t think the Midwest was the problem, and now we’re suffering through the solution. [Health insurance] rates in Indiana were strong; the competition was strong. We were a good state. On the P&C side, we’re still a great state to do business in; but the health market has taken a hit due to the Affordable Care Act,” he says. “Really, I’ll just be upfront – it has been a disruptive force in the Indiana health insurance market. Not a help.”

Lehman says he wishes more agents would get involved with the political process, either locally or through insurance associations, so they can be advocates for the industry and try to affect change. This is especially important, he says, considering the continued increase in industry regulations.

“I’d love to see more people that are in the insurance business in the legislature,” he says. “I think insurance and politics are a good fit. I encourage anyone to get involved with the process and find out how you can make a difference because this is the industry we live in. This is where we go to work every day. It does make me feel good knowing that I’m part of the change for the good, both for the consumer and for the industry in Indiana.”

State Senator Dave Robertson – 26th District, Michigan

The son of Scottish immigrants, Senator Dave Robertson says he has seen the “American Dream” come true. After immigrating to the U.S. in 1956, Robertson’s father worked for General Motors in Michigan for 30 years. At the age of 24, Robertson’s love for the state and country, inspired by his parent’s own story, helped determine his path into politics.

Now in his political capacity, Robertson has worked on insurance issues that affect the recovery of Michigan’s industries. As an insurance agent, Robertson was employed by a property /casualty agency that he says has vigorously worked to help those in the auto industry and other businesses in the economically hard-hit areas of Flint, Mich. reduce their insurance costs and keep their businesses protected.

“Commercial lines have been ferociously competitive the last few years and agents are being required to do more underwriting. There is a great deal more they are called upon to do in understanding products and customers’ needs,” he says.

Robertson’s political career began with local government campaigns before his private sector job as an agent. He ran for his first Michigan House of Representatives seat in 1988 but was unsuccessful. In 1990, Robertson ran again and this time was elected to represent the 51st District of Genesee County.

In 1992, redistricting knocked Robertson out of the House and after another unsuccessful run and later a position on the County Board of Commissioners, Robertson realized he needed additional income to augment his county commission salary. So in 1998, Robertson joined the Al Bourdeau Insurance Agency, an 85-year-old family-owned P/C agency based in Flint with offices in five other cities around the state.

“My early career was purely government and public service. Then in the mid-1990’s, frankly, the political winds blew in another direction and the reapportionment changed my House district after one term, so I needed something in the private sector to anchor me during that time,” says Robertson.

Robertson had been told by third generation agency owner Bob Bourdeau that if he ever needed a job he’d be happy to hire him and so Robertson’s career selling personal lines insurance began. He worked for the agency until 2002, when he ran again for the Michigan House of Representatives and won. At that time he left the agency to serve in the House until 2008, representing the areas of Grand Blanc, Fenton, Mundy, Atlas and Argentine, Linden and Goodrich.

“I want to give credit to Bob Bourdeau for being an enormous supporter of me … not only as a candidate for office, but he supported me personally with an occupation,” says Robertson.

Although Robertson didn’t practice insurance during his time in the Michigan House, his insurance experience led him to serve as vice-chair of the House Insurance Committee.

In 2008, Robertson left the Michigan House and returned to the Al Bourdeau Insurance Agency where he stayed until 2010, when he began his successful run for the Michigan State Senate. Robertson now represents the 26th District of Michigan, which includes areas of Genesee and Oakland Counties. He also serves on the Michigan Senate Insurance Committee.

“The fact that I had served as an agent with the agency prompted my interest in serving on the Insurance Committee and I think that experience has helped me in dealing with the insurance issues that have come before us,” says Robertson.

One of those issues has been the high-profile and controversial topic of using credit scoring in calculating car and home insurance premium discounts in Michigan. Recently, Robertson co-sponsored legislation to adopt the National Conference of Insurance Legislators (NCOIL) model on credit scoring for insurance purposes in Michigan. Previous attempts at credit scoring discounts had been blocked by a Democratic administration.

“Having had the experience in the agency informs my judgment from a policy standpoint, and I understand the human impact of the cost of insurance and the goal of the state to keep insurance affordable so that people can purchase it and be properly covered. It helps me, both as a citizen and as a legislator, to have had that experience,” he says.

Robertson says his experience as an insurance agent has also helped his relationships with both constituents and clients.

“I think both occupations require some people skills and a genuine concern for people and a demonstration of the fact that you care about people as human beings,” says Robertson.

When he was an agent he really enjoyed working with people and educating them about the value of insurance.

“Obviously with the strained budgets that people have in this economy in Flint, and the challenges the area has had in terms of employment and the loss of auto jobs, making people understand that it’s important for them to maintain their insurance and that the insurance markets will actually reward folks with lower rates and better coverage if they simply maintain continuity of insurance over time,” he says. “I found it rewarding to have that opportunity to explain to folks and really protect them from risk. That was a day-to-day occurrence.”

He believes now the insurance industry can play a vital role in Michigan’s economic recovery – whether it is through jobs or cost savings to its citizens.

“I want to restore Michigan’s prosperity and I think we are on the way,” he says. “We want insurance companies to have a competitive market here in Michigan and we want them to view Michigan positively. We want good paying jobs for our citizens and good products to be sold, and affordability. That’s what we are striving for.”

U.S. House Representative Tom Latham- Iowa

Representative Tom Latham’s insurance career ended in 1976 – almost 20 years before his political career began in 1994 – but he says his experience in the industry has helped him with issues in Washington and Iowa like crop insurance, Iowa mutual insurance company taxes, and the Affordable Care Act.

However, Rep. Latham says the he really credits his insurance career with giving him the experience of helping people.

“[Being in the insurance industry] helped me technically in terms of knowing the industry and the cycles it goes through financially and tight or loose underwriting,” he says. “But the biggest thing I learned in insurance that compares to what I do now is the service. The insurance agency is basically selling a service and you get a great satisfaction helping someone who experiences a loss. It is the same with Congress and giving constituents assistance and helping them.”

Rep. Latham started working in the insurance industry as manager of an insurance agency within a community bank in Colorado. After 13 months there, he started a training program through The Hartford and was later transferred back to his home state of Iowa where he continued as a “special agent” for two years.

Latham says he left the insurance business because he had an opportunity to run his family’s seed company, but he really enjoyed working for a small agency and then later a big company with The Hartford, particularly the interactions he had with agents and their customers.

“Writing business policies and things like that was a real benefit to me because you have to be very concerned with their best interest and their customer business,” says Latham. “Sales are sales no matter what the product is. I had a great opportunity to go home and work for my family business so I took it – but I loved the insurance business.”

He says he also made some great friends from his time in the industry that he still keeps in touch with 37 years later.

In the U.S. House representing Iowa, Latham says he focuses largely on agricultural needs and making sure crop insurance is available to Iowa farmers.

“We have several large crop insurers in Iowa and it is a major employment issue here in the state. I have to make sure the policy is right so those companies can be successful and farmers can do their business,” he says.

Latham says it is important for those in the insurance industry to get involved in politics through whatever forum they choose, such as running for office or addressing important issues for their business and community.

“The biggest thing [insurance professionals] can do for the industry is to have a very strong voice and follow-up with their representatives and be involved in the process,” he says. “There are a lot of people out there who don’t necessarily appreciate the insurance industry and can tie the hands of what we are trying do, whether it be managing risk or crops. You have to be involved in the process.”

More articles in the Insurance Pros in Politics series from Insurance Journal:

Insurance Pros in Politics: Georgia’s Kingston Brought His CPCU to Congress, Now Aims for Senate

Insurance Pros in Politics: Shealy is Sole Woman in South Carolina Senate

Insurance Pros in Politics: Being an Agent Prepared Tennessee Sen. Ketron for Politics

Insurance Pros in Politics: Insurance Good Training Ground for Political Leadership

Insurance Pros in Politics: Midwest Politicians Work as Insurance Advocates

Insurance Pros in Politics: Insurance Veterans Elect to Also Work in State Legislatures

Insurance Pros in Politics: Agent Ted Gaines Eyes California Commissioner Seat

Insurance Pros in Politics: Insurance Veterans Elect to Also Work in State Legislatures

Insurance Pros in Politics: Cooley Masters Quake Insurance

Insurance Pros in Politics: Beth Gaines Wants More “Business-Friendly” State

Insurance Pros in Politics: Garamendi Says Economy Needs Insurance

About Amy O'Connor

O'Connor is the Southeast editor for Insurance Journal and associate editor of MyNewMarkets.com. More from Amy O'Connor

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