Lara, Poizner and Others Vying to be California Insurance Commissioner

The race is on for the California insurance commissioner posts as we are nearly three months from the primary, but you wouldn’t know it by speaking to people in the insurance industry.

Most insurance groups and associations like to keep quiet when it comes to electing the person who will regulate their industry, according to people who work closely with both the industry and the government.

“The industry pretty much stays out of it and works with whomever they can the best they can,” said John Norwood, of Norwood and Associates, a long-time California insurance industry lobbyist.

Several insurance groups and associations representing the industry were contacted for this article and asked to talk about the race, but they all declined to comment.

The primary election is on June 5, and the general election is Nov. 6 to determine who will replace outgoing Insurance Commissioner Dave Jones, a Democrat who is running for the California Attorney General seat.

The insurance commissioner field looked crowded as of last year when candidates were first eligible to file a statement of intention to run. Initially nine people filed, however a number of those candidates have since dropped out.

Arguably the two biggest names in the race are Ricardo Lara, a Democratic state Senator from Bell Gardens, and Steve Poizner, a technology entrepreneur and former Republican California insurance commissioner.

Ricardo Lara
Steve Poizner

Poizner, who served as insurance commissioner from 2007 to 2011, is running as an independent.

This is a race in which the two leading candidates may be best served playing to their strengths.

Lara is on the powerful Senate Appropriations Committee and he’s on the Senate Standing Committee on Insurance. He is a well-known Democrat running in a solid Blue state.

Poizner not only has past experience as an insurance commissioner, he is experienced at running large companies and could likely fund his own campaign if he so wished. He ran for governor in 2010 and garnered more than 26 percent of the vote in the primary.

“Ricardo’s a Democrat, so he’s going to be hard to beat,” Norwood said. “But Poizner has money.”

The Lara for Insurance Commissioner 2018 committee has reportedly so far raised nearly $750,000.

The Poizner for Insurance Commissioner 2018 committee has yet to report contributions, and Poizner’s campaign website doesn’t currently list endorsements, likely because he only recently launched his bid for office.

Lara has been endorsed by groups that traditionally back Democrats, such as the California Teachers Association, National Union of Healthcare Workers, and UNITE HERE, AFL-CIO, as well as U.S. Senator Kamala Harris and a whole host of powerful state Democrats.

Others who filed to run for insurance commissioner include: Susan Bonilla, a former Democratic Assemblywoman; Nathalie Hrizi, a school teacher librarian running under the Peace and Freedom Party; Peter Kuo, a former insurance agent and entrepreneur who is running as a Republican; Asif Mahmood, a medical doctor who is running as a Democrat; Henry T. Perea, a former Assemblyman from Fresno who is running as a Democrat; Santa Monica oncologist Paul Song; and Vigil Douglas, a sign language instructor.

Douglas had his name officially withdrawn from the ballot. Song has also terminated his bid. Bonilla last year announced she was withdrawing from the race and endorsing Lara.

Candidates have until Friday to file with county elections officials to get on the actual ballot. The certified list of candidates running for state office, with their ballot designations, will be issued on March 29, according to the Secretary of State’s office.

The big twist so far in this election is Poizner’s announcement that not only was he running for an office he’s already held, but that he is running as an independent.

Poizner first told the L.A. Times in February about his bid an independent.

“There’s no room for partisan politics at the Department of Insurance,” Poizner said during an interview, announcing the launch of a campaign to become the first independent candidate ever to win statewide office.

Many experts spoken to agree it would have been be tough for Poizner to win statewide office in California as a Republican at this time.

“It was smart for Poizner to get out of the Republican party,” said one insurance industry insider who has been closely watching insurance commissioner races for decades.

The person, who asked not to be named, said Poizner probably figured being a Republican in a largely Democratic state when current prevailing feelings in California for Trump and the Republican party seem to be far from positive would make for an uphill battle.

“I think it’s Lara’s race to lose,” the person said.

It seems clear that Lara will run on consumer protection as one of his biggest campaign platforms, while Poizner will likely talk to the public about his strengths of experience previously running the California Department of Insurance as well as his success in the private sector – and he’s likely to attack Lara for a perceived lack management experience.

Whoever wins will be a powerful person, overseeing $289 billion in insurer premiums collected each year. The CDI is considered the seventh largest department in the state with a budget of $272 million and just under 1,300 employees, according to the Department of Finance.

Poizner in a Feb. 12 L.A. Times story said his 2018 campaign will focus on how to help homeowners who have too little insurance in the face of wildfire and flood dangers, as well as addressing the issues of health insurance fraud and the lack of insurance products available in the event of cyber crime.

Insurance Journal reached out to Poizner though his official campaign website several times, and a request for interview was channeled through his campaign treasurer, but none of those queries were answered.

Lara, who agreed to a phone interview with this publication, talked about a variety of issues he plans to address if he should win the office.

Consumer protection, unsurprisingly, was a topic he hit on a number of times. However, the first thing he mentioned during the interview was autonomous vehicles.

“It’s anticipated that self-driving vehicles will be the majority on California roads in the future, and so it’s going to be up to the Department of Insurance to address a whole host of issues, including what type of insurance product, what would be most appropriate product to cover autonomous vehicles, the difference between personal use and commercial vehicles, what statutes and regulations need to change to accommodate autonomous vehicles, and also what will be the impact of the aftermarket products to allow consumers to retrofit these vehicles with autonomous vehicle technology,” he said.

Beside his affinity for self-driving cars, most of what Lara commented on reflected a parallel between him and Jones, who has been the state’s insurance commissioner since 2010.

Touching on one of Jones’ big pet projects over the last year-and-a-half, Lara expressed an interest in helping those in the business of selling marijuana to procure affordable insurance.

“California is expected to become the dominant player in this industry, so the department of insurance is going to have the task to connect insurance stakeholders to the cannabis industry,” he said.

Since recreational marijuana became legal for adults in California on Jan. 1, Jones has been working to get more insurers into the market for marijuana businesses. Jones has also criticized U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions for a marijuana enforcement memo rescinding Obama administration guidance that enabled states to legalize marijuana without federal intervention.

Jones has hosted meetings between those in the marijuana industry and the insurance industry to encourage more admitted insurers to enter California cannabis market, which is now largely served by surplus lines insurers. Carrier Golden Bear late last year became the first filing approved from an admitted commercial insurance company to sell cannabis business insurance, and last month Jones approved the first surety bond program for the cannabis industry in the California.

Lara said he wants to continue Jones’ work, and continue to hold meetings between the two groups to facilitate more conversations and more insurance products.

Another passion he shares with Jones is climate change.

Jones has called on insurance companies to voluntarily divest from thermal coal investments and required insurers with more than $100 million in annual premium to disclose publicly their investments in fossil fuels.

Jones also created the Climate Risk Carbon Initiative, which includes information on the amount of oil, gas, coal and utilities investments held by insurance companies, and whether the insurers have divested from thermal coal, the amount of thermal coal divested and any future commitments to divest.

The initiative drew criticism from top government officials in 12 oil and gas producing states, and involved Jones in a running battle of words between that included threats of lawsuits and a strongly worded letter from Oklahoma Insurance Commissioner John Doak urging him to back off his initiative.

Lara, if he were to become insurance commissioner, wants to take what he sees as the next step in the climate change battle.

“Something I see as critical is how do we develop climate insurance,” he said.

He believes California needs to look to examples of other countries that are working with insurance companies to figure how local government and states can use insurance products to raise money without having to dip into general fund or emergency fund, and insuring natural resources or looking at properties on the coast in flood zones and fire zones.

“In California, unfortunately we now have a 12-month fire season,” he said. “All that needs to be taken into consideration so that we start looking at what innovative things we can do with insurance companies and the industry to create a product which we set aside funds and allow that to grow to be able to quickly respond to any climactic disaster or climate change without rendering us broke with our general fund.”

Healthcare is yet another topic for which he and Jones share an affinity.

Lara addressed efforts by President Trump to undermine Obamacare both through his actions and words by discoursing people from signing up. In response, he is proposing to establish a “rapid response team” to deal with overtures – either spoken or via Twitter – that Trump makes toward dismantling healthcare.

“Ensuring that we have an internal rapid response team to be on standby to quickly digest policy decisions and craft departmental responses when warranted is imperative, because you have no idea what this man’s going to Tweet at 4 a.m. or what is he going to say in the afternoon,” Lara said.

He said the President’s Tweets are aimed at undermining healthcare enrollment.

“We need to be prepared because what he says or he Tweets matters, and that affects peoples’ enrollment, and that affects peoples’ willingness to engage with government and we need to reassure Californians that the Department of Insurance is going to make sure that we have the strictest consumer protection policies in place to be able to protect them, their identity and their health,” Lara said.