Close Race Expected in Commissioner Face off in La.

The race for Louisiana insurance commissioner, an office that has received a lot of past attention for all the wrong reasons, features a non-elected incumbent and a term-limited legislator trying to fill an unexpired term that popped up in the aftermath of last year’s hurricanes.

In a rarity for Louisiana, no Democrat will be on Saturday’s statewide ballot for the post. The short-term election is required because Robert Wooley, who quit the job on Feb. 15 to go into the private sector, still had more than a year left on his term. The winner will face re-election to a full term next year.

Both incumbent James Donelon, who as Wooley’s chief appointed deputy assumed the job, and challenger James David Cain, a state senator from Dry Creek, are Republicans – affiliations a veteran political observer says could negate the usual effect of Democratic voters from the New Orleans area, including those displaced following Hurricane Katrina.

“A Democrat running statewide or in that immediate area (New Orleans) is missing at least 100,000 African-American voters,” said demographer and pollster Elliott Stonecipher. “If you’re a Democrat, that matters.”

The commissioner’s race has been nasty, with Cain and Donelon trading sharp attacks in debates and in campaign ads and predicting the race would grow more hostile in the final days as they defend themselves against each other.

For example, Donelon has accused Cain of improperly taking campaign money from an Alexandria bail bondsman and getting involved in a pyramid scheme that took money from dozens of residents.

Cain says Donelon has mismanaged the Louisiana Citizens Property Insurance Corp., the quasi-state insurance firm for those who can’t afford insurance elsewhere. He also noted that Donelon, while a House member, awarded a Tulane University scholarship – a former perk for lawmakers – to his own daughter.

Also in the race is Libertarian S.B.A. Zaitoon, a Baton Rouge real estate agent, running a low-budget campaign centered around making the insurance commissioner’s job an appointed post – an idea surfaced periodically after past scandals involving Louisiana insurance regulation.

Wooley was elected in 2003. His three predecessors all went to federal prison. Wooley, who was then chief deputy commissioner, took over in 2000 after Jim Brown was convicted of lying to an FBI agent. The previous two commissioners – Doug Green and Sherman Bernard – both were imprisoned on corruption charges.

This year’s race comes in the shadows of hurricanes Katrina and Rita, which triggered widespread complaints from consumers about insurance claims and ensuing rate increases.

With the post-storm insurance shakeout far from done, Donelon says “this is not a time for on-the-job training” in reference to his chief opponent. Cain said the state “has a small window of opportunity to turn it around and it’s on Sept. 30” – the primary day.

Donelon points to pressure he put on the insurance industry that resulted in assurances from almost all of the 385 companies writing homeowners insurance in the state that they would give more time to homeowners to settle hurricane-related claims. The Legislature also passed a law mandating another year for homeowners to sue insurance companies over hurricane-related claims disputes.

During his five years of involvement with the agency, starting as executive counsel, the state also has attracted more property and health insurers to Louisiana – a sign the industry has confidence in the department, Donelon said.

“I want to continue building on the successes of that past five years,” Donelon said.

Donelon supports the current system of setting insurance rates. The commissioner has the power to decide on requests of less than 10 percent, while the Insurance Rating Commission, a state body largely appointed by the governor, judges requests of more than 10 percent. Before a recent change in the law, all requests went to the commission.

Cain wants to turn the commissioner’s office into a one-person judge of insurance rate hike requests.
“That buck ought to stop with me,” Cain said.

Cain also wants to create two new positions in the insurance department: an inspector general to root out waste, mismanagement and fraud, and a consumer advocate.

“We can’t rebuild our state if we don’t have accountability in the insurance department,” Cain said.

Donelon, 61, represented Jefferson Parish in the state House of Representatives from 1982 to 2001. He has been in the insurance department since then, serving as the agency’s chief lawyer before becoming chief deputy commissioner.

Cain, 67, has been in the Legislature since his election to the House in 1971. He moved to the Senate in 1991 and is barred by term limits from seeking another term in the upper chamber. Most recently, he has been chairman of the Senate Insurance Committee.

Stonecipher said that other than the ability to perhaps raise more campaign funds, Donelon is at no great advantage as the incumbent. On the other hand, Cain, a former Democrat with deep northern Louisiana populist roots, brings a veteran’s knowledge of Louisiana politics to the table, Stonecipher said.

“What he has forgotten about Louisiana politics is more than most people know,” Stonecipher said. “That is an advantage.”

Cain and Donelon both said they expect to spend about $1 million on the race. Cain said he is confident of victory, citing demographics and public response to his campaign.

“It looks like we really have a good chance of pulling this off,” he said. “Everything is there for us to win this election.”

Donelon said polls indicate a close race. “I’m also expecting to be victorious,” he said.

During a recent speech at the Press Club of Baton Rouge, Zaitoon said the race between Donelon and Cain is a good reason why the insurance commissioner’s job should become an appointed post.

Should none of the candidates receive a majority Saturday, a runoff between the top two finishers will be held on Nov. 7.