Our editorial board interviews candidates for public office with the goal of helping voters gain the greatest possible understanding of the offices, the issues and the options before them.
On rare occasions, it is important to communicate that the system has failed to produce an acceptable candidate for an office. We regret to say that this November, we cannot recommend a candidate for the office of insurance commissioner.
Insurance commissioner has been an elected office since voters passed Proposition 103, “The Insurance Rate Reduction and Reform Act of 1988.” Placed on the ballot as an initiative backed by consumer groups, Prop. 103 enacted various reforms, including making the office of insurance commissioner an elective position. The insurance industry spent lavishly to defeat Proposition 103, but voters narrowly approved it, 51% to 48%.
Of course, that was not the end of the insurance industry’s efforts to shape the regulations that control the California insurance market. Companies were free to lobby and also to make campaign contributions, an obvious avenue for influence over an elected official.
When in 2018 Ricardo Lara became the eighth elected insurance commissioner since 1988, he pledged that he would not accept campaign contributions from the industry he would be regulating. However, in 2019, individuals connected with workers’ compensation insurer Applied Underwriters and another company donated more than $53,000 to Lara’s re-election campaign fund. The president of Applied Underwriters asked Lara to intervene in department proceedings involving the company, and on four occasions, Lara overrode Administrative Law Judge orders.
The story became public and Lara apologized, pledging “transparency.” But then when Consumer Watchdog, a nonprofit advocacy group, filed requests for communications and meeting records under the California Public Records Act, Lara’s “transparency” turned cloudy and Consumer Watchdog had to file a lawsuit to get the records. It went to trial in early September.
In January, Consumer Watchdog announced in a press release that evidence developed in the lawsuit showed that, “despite attempting to conceal it, Insurance Commissioner Ricardo Lara and top lieutenant Bryant Henley communicated with two former lawmakers representing a workers’ compensation insurer at the heart of a pay-to-play scandal.”
Consumer Watchdog has also raised concerns about a new regulation that Lara recently submitted to the Office of Administrative Law for final approval. It requires companies to provide fire insurance premium discounts for property owners who take measures to mitigate the risk of wildfire losses on their property, but the regulation troublingly allows insurers to simply refuse to write the policy at all.
Perhaps there are good reasons for that decision, but when a public official’s conduct raises questions of pay-to-play, and then the official fails to provide promised transparency, it’s impossible to have confidence that decisions are made solely in the public interest.
Lara’s opponent in this race is Robert Howell, the owner of a technology equipment manufacturing firm in the San Jose area who said he made the decision to run for insurance commissioner because he was “looking around for a place to throw my hat in the ring,” and it looked like a good opportunity. He said he knows little about insurance and would rely on others to tell him what needs to be done, and then he would expect the department’s employees to do it.
Given these choices, we regret that we cannot endorse a candidate for insurance commissioner.
Sourcing & Methodology
To help you make decisions about the numerous candidates, measures, propositions and other races on your ballot, our editorial board (made up of opinion writers and editors), makes recommendations every election. The process is completely separate from newsroom reporting and journalists. With the exception of our executive editor, the members of our editorial board are not news reporters or editors.
Sal Rodriguez, the opinion editor for the Southern California News Group’s 11 newspapers, heads the editorial board and guides our stances on public policy and political matters.
Every week, our team analyzes legislation, monitors political developments, interviews elected officials or policy advocates and writes editorials on the issues of the day. Unsigned editorials reflect the consensus of our editorial board, with the aim of offering arguments that are empirically sound and intellectually consistent.
We apply this same process when considering to endorse candidates.
As a practical matter, we are selective in which races we endorse in. We endorse on all statewide ballot measures, competitive congressional races, select races for the state legislature and select countywide and city elections.
We identify credible candidates through surveys and interviews, deliberate based on our editorial precedent and in light of contemporary realities, and issue endorsements accordingly.