State race may be har­bin­ger

Foe chal­lenges can­di­date’s run as in­de­pen­dent

San Francisco Chronicle Late Edition - - FRONT PAGE - By John Wil­der­muth

In what could be a glimpse of Cal­i­for­nia’s fu­ture, an in­de­pen­dent can­di­date is on the Novem­ber bal­lot for state in­sur­ance com­mis­sioner.

Steve Poizner, who was elected to the post as a Repub­li­can in 2006 and served four years, is run­ning again — this time with­out any party back­ing. He is fac­ing Demo­cratic state Sen. Ri­cardo Lara of Bell Gar­dens (Los An­ge­les County).

“I feel very lib­er­ated,” the 61-year-old Poizner said in an in­ter­view. “There’s no room in this job for a par­ti­san politi­cian. I can just be a prob­lem solver.”

The tim­ing works, said Sherry Bebitch Jeffe, a se­nior fel­low in pub­lic pol­icy at the Uni­ver­sity of South­ern Cal­i­for­nia. This year, no-party-pref­er­ence vot­ers be­came the state’s sec­ond-largest “party,” mov­ing past the Repub­li­cans in reg­is­tra­tion and pulling away.

In­de­pen­dent vot­ers — and can­di­dates — are the wave of the fu­ture, she said.

Since the 1950s, “Cal­i­for­nia has had a can­di­date-ori­ented po­lit­i­cal sys­tem,” Jeffe said. “The only place that party mat­ters now is in the Leg­is­la­ture. Many peo­ple are dis­cour­aged, frus­trated and even

an­gry at po­lit­i­cal par­ties, and they don’t feel any loy­alty.”

Poizner is in a good po­si­tion to test that the­ory. A Los Gatos res­i­dent who be­came wealthy by found­ing and sell­ing a cou­ple of high-tech com­pa­nies, he has some statewide name recog­ni­tion from his time as in­sur­ance com­mis­sioner and his un­suc­cess­ful run for the GOP nom­i­na­tion for gover­nor in 2010.

The $1 mil­lion of his own money that Poizner has dropped into his cam­paign hasn’t hurt, ei­ther.

But that los­ing cam­paign eight years ago casts a shadow over his run for in­sur­ance com­mis­sioner. In an ef­fort to play to con­ser­va­tive GOP pri­mary vot­ers, Poizner came out strong against il­le­gal im­mi­gra­tion. He blamed un­doc­u­mented res­i­dents for many of the state’s prob­lems, say­ing Cal­i­for­nia was do­ing “too much for too many” and promis­ing to end that. He spent more than $24 mil­lion of his own money to make sure every­one heard the mes­sage.

It was a mis­take, said Poizner, who calls him­self a so­cial pro­gres­sive and a fis­cal con­ser­va­tive.

“I talked my­self into a few po­si­tions I wish I had done dif­fer­ently,” he said. “I’ll never run again so di­vi­sive a cam­paign.”

But Lara and his Demo­cratic back­ers aren’t go­ing to let Poizner wave away his anti-im­mi­grant words.

Just this week, Lara be­gan air­ing an un­usual ad that re­peats one of Poizner’s an­ti­il­le­gal im­mi­gra­tion com­mer­cials from 2010, adding only the ti­tle, “In his own words ...” and a tag show­ing that Lara’s cam­paign paid for it.

Poizner’s claim to be in­de­pen­dent also doesn’t go far with the Demo­cratic leg­is­la­tor.

Poizner “was a reg­is­tered Repub­li­can un­til right be­fore the race,” Lara said in an in­ter­view. “He ran on a record to di­vide us, and now he flips on those is­sues.”

Lara, 43, sees his time as a Demo­cratic leg­is­la­tor as a plus in his bid for in­sur­ance com­mis­sioner. The com­mis­sioner’s of­fice “touches the life of ev­ery Cal­i­for­nian,” he said. “My record speaks for it­self for its com­mit­ment to con­sumer pro­tec­tion. I’ve taken on dif­fi­cult is­sues in the Leg­is­la­ture and brought peo­ple to­gether to find a so­lu­tion.”

Lara was born in East Los An­ge­les, the son of two un­doc­u­mented res­i­dents. A grad­u­ate of San Diego State Uni­ver­sity, he worked for years in the Leg­is­la­ture as an aide to Los An­ge­les Democrats, in­clud­ing for­mer Assem­bly Speaker Fabian Nuñez and state Sen. Kevin de León.

He was elected to the Assem­bly in 2010 and to the state Sen­ate in 2012. On his cam­paign web­site, Lara notes that, if elected, he would be the state’s first openly gay statewide of­fi­cial.

The in­sur­ance is­sue Lara is most closely as­so­ci­ated with has lit­tle to do with the in­sur­ance com­mis­sioner’s of­fice.

Lara was a driv­ing force be­hind SB562, a 2017 bill that would have cre­ated a sin­gle­payer health care sys­tem for Cal­i­for­nia. While the mea­sure passed the Sen­ate, it never came up for a vote in the Assem­bly.

Health in­sur­ance in Cal­i­for­nia, how­ever, is al­most en­tirely reg­u­lated by the state De­part­ment of In­sur­ance, not the in­sur­ance com­mis­sioner. That hasn’t stopped Poizner from weigh­ing in.

“I’m to­tally against (Lara’s) sin­gle-payer plan,” he said. “It was blocked in the Assem­bly by his col­leagues be­cause there was no way to pay for it.”

On the is­sues the in­sur­ance com­mis­sioner does deal with, there’s sur­pris­ingly lit­tle dis­agree­ment. Both rec­og­nize the nar­row line the com­mis­sioner must walk, stand­ing up for con­sumers against in­sur­ance com­pa­nies, but also rec­og­niz­ing that in­sur­ers have to be al­lowed to make enough money to con­tinue to write poli­cies in Cal­i­for­nia.

“The last thing we want is what hap­pened af­ter the (1994) Northridge earth­quake, when com­pa­nies stopped writ­ing earth­quake in­sur­ance,” Lara said. “We can’t let that hap­pen.”

Lara and Poizner talk about the need to deal with the grow­ing threat of wild­fires, both by mak­ing sure that com­pa­nies pay off on claims and by ed­u­cat­ing res­i­dents on the need to make sure they keep their home in­sur­ance up to date af­ter they make im­prove­ments.

They also stress the need for tough en­force­ment mea­sures against all types of in­sur­ance fraud, which raises costs for ev­ery pol­i­cy­holder in the state.

Poizner be­lieves the state needs to be­come in­volved in the new mar­ket of cy­berin­sur­ance, pro­vid­ing ways for com­pa­nies to pro­tect them­selves fi­nan­cially against hack­ing, data breaches and other on­line crimes.

“If in­sur­ance com­pa­nies are pro­vid­ing in­sur­ance, they also will be­come much more in­volved in find­ing ways to pro­vide in­creased cy­ber­se­cu­rity,” he said.

Lara wants the state to be a pi­o­neer in cli­mate in­sur­ance, pro­tect­ing its res­i­dents from the dan­gers of sea level rise and other cli­mate chan­g­ere­lated prob­lems.

“We need to es­tab­lish Cal­i­for­nia as a leader,” he said. “We need to help com­pa­nies cal­cu­late risk and de­ter­mine what’s vul­ner­a­ble. They can cre­ate prod­ucts to pro­tect our in­fra­struc­ture.”

The few polls that have been done in the race sug­gest that Poizner has a slight lead, with many vot­ers still un­de­cided. Poizner edged Lara in the June pri­mary, 41 to 40.5 per­cent.

Michael Ma­cor / The Chron­i­cle 2011

Demo­cratic state Sen. Ri­cardo Lara, left, says his record speaks for it­self for its com­mit­ment to con­sumer pro­tec­tion. He faces Steve Poizner, a for­mer Repub­li­can run­ning as an in­de­pen­dent.

Rich Pe­dron­celli / As­so­ci­ated Press 2017

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