Off to the Races: Toss-up in the Insurance Commissioners Contest

by Steven Maviglio, California Majority Report

There’s little doubt that this race is the sleeper on the June primary ballot. The two candidates — both Assemblymembers who probably would have spent long careers in the Legislature if it weren’t for term limits — have similar progressive voting records. They both share a history of activism on insurance issues. And they share the same failing: little name recognition. 

Jones’ career in the Assembly has been overshadowed in Sacramento by his State Senator, Darrell Steinberg. Meanwhile, De La Torre has done solid service in the Assembly — gaining headlines for a much-publicized rift with former Speaker Fabian Nunez (they’ve since patched things up) and pushing health care reform. But De La Torre hasn’t become a household name either, even in political circles, despite a short-lived run for Speaker himself a few years back.

The two have been looking over each other’s shoulders for nearly two years as they jockeyed for the seat. Their best laid plans were nearly upset when San Francisco’s Michaela Alioto-Pier unexpectedly jumped into the race last year. But she later withdrew from the contest, leaving the two legislators to compete for the seat without competition from a big name opponent.

This is one of the few races where a self-financing candidate isn’t in the mix. Neither candidate is well known outside of their own districts and neither has enough money to make a major TV buy. It’s not clear if there will be a major independent expenditure in the Democratic primary that could tilt the race either way. In fact, it may be a question of whether Democratic voters prefer the plain Jane sounding name of Dave Jones or the Latino surname of De La Torre when they stare at their ballot.

The winner will face Republican Assemblyman Mike Villines of Fresno (Republican incumbent Steve Poizner has given up the seat for his gubernatorial run). Republicans smell an upset here with Villines, who is likely to get major backing from the insurance industry against an under financed Democratic opponent. But Villines is far out of the mainstream on the pivotal issues that usual decide the insurance commissioner race, mainly consumer protection and health care.

The latter has made this post more important than ever, as the new national health program shifts many responsibilities to the states. No matter which Democrat wins, they will have to work hard to wrest the post back from the Republicans — particularly if the Republicans are showered with funding from Meg Whitman for down-ticket races.

The Line:

1.         Dave Jones — It’s difficult to find a more driven candidate for any office than Sacramento Assemblymember Jones. From the moment he tossed his hat into the ring, he’s been pounding the pavement up and down the state lining up endorsements and expanding his small capital city base. The result has been a flood of backers, ranging from the CTA to Dolores Huerta. Topping it off was his narrow capture of the California Democratic Party’s endorsement at the Los Angeles convention — despite it being in his opponent’s backyard. Jones played the Anthem Blue Cross rate hike like a fiddle, calling a special hearing (and inviting his campaign camera crew).

Jones also is touting his 100 percent rating from the Consumer Federation of California and has introduced a flurry of headline-grabbing bills during the last two Assembly sessions — a clever use of incumbency to build name ID. The tight-fisted Jones reports $380K cash on hand in his insurance commissioner account — plus $830,886 in his Assembly account ready to be transferred — for the final stretch of the campaign. His consultant, Parke Skelton, locked up many of the slate cards that will be flooding mailboxes during the next few weeks.

2.         Hector De La Torre — Nice guy Hector De La Torre is counting on a strong turnout from his home base in the Los Angeles area to win the primary. He has won a fair share of endorsements himself — the California Nurses Association, California Medical Association, and the California Professional Firefighters among them. Last week he also picked up the endorsement of Speaker Emeritus Karen Bass, which some viewed as a slap to the Jones campaign. De La Torre has returned contributors from insurance companies and has spent most of the time during the campaign bashing the industry — smart moves in a Democratic primary.

In the legislature, he sponsored a number of health care bills that won him praise from health care advocates and women’s groups. His personal stories in debates and forums win him converts, but since race itself isn’t on the radar screen of the media, it’s been difficult for De La Torre to connect his bio and message with voters . He has $846,977 in his insurance commissioner account. His consultant is Progressive Strategy Partners, led by Rose Kapolczynski (who has her hands full with managing Sen. Barbara Boxer’s campaign) and Yvette Martinez.