The Race for Insurance Commissioner
Quackenbush and Torres have differing views of
a job designed to ride
herd on a large but arcane industry.
Conventional wisdom dictates that a Republican cannot win a race for
insurance commissioner. The post's title implies a consumer advocate,
someone who will challenge the vast, mega buck insurance industry on behalf
of the consumer. Given generalities regarding the two main political parties
Republicans as conservative and pro business; Democrats as liberal and
pro consumer voters tend to lean toward Democrats, all other things being
The conventional wisdom held in 1990 when Californians chose their first
elected insurance commissioner Democrat John Garamendi. Prior to 1990, the
commissioner was appointed by the governor, a situation that changed when
voters passed Proposition 103 in 1988. Whether it will hold again 1994, when
Democratic Senator Art Torres of Los Angeles faces Republican Assemblyman
Charles Quackenbush of Cupertino, remains to be seen. The race will not be
won on the fringes of left and right, however, but among the vast numbers of
moderate, middle of the road voters.
Torres and Quackenbush come from very different backgrounds. Torres, 48,
a Latino with 20 years experience in the Legislature, was weaned on politics
at the side of the late Cesar Chavez, president and founder of the United
Farm Workers. Torres is relatively well known in Los Angeles, thanks to his
failed 1991 campaign for supervisor against Gloria Molina. In addition, his
unsuccessful attempt last year to pass a pay at the pump auto insurance
program gained him some notoriety outside Southern California as well. He's
bright, articulate and mediagenic. If there's a television crew nearby,
Torres will figure out a way to get on the news. Torres changed his image
somewhat after first being elected to the Assembly back in 1974, shedding his
labor Latino image for a more polished, statesman look. Insiders hint that
the switch caused a rift between Torres and his one time benefactor, Chavez,
but Latino activists point out that Torres' appearance silver hair,
preppie spectacles and dark suits gives him a wider appeal, especially
with the largely Anglo electorate.
In 1992 Torres became chairman of the Senate Insurance Committee.
Consumer groups dislike what they see as his tendency to "wheel and deal"
with the industry and consumer groups an activity that Torres' allies
characterize as "compromise." As such, activists like consumer guru Ralph
Nader preferred his primary opponent, Assemblyman Burt Margolin (D Los
Angeles), but Democratic voters preferred Torres, who won an expensive
primary by 12 points (see CJ, July 1994). Should Torres win in November, he'd
be the first Latino to hold statewide office in this century.
Despite his eight years in the Assembly, many Capitol insiders see
Quackenbush, 40, as a relative newcomer. During his first two terms he wasn't
at the forefront of many legislative issues, although he cast the decisive
committee vote in support of a landmark bill to ban assault weapons. In terms
of political orientation in a GOP caucus often split along conservative
moderate lines, Quackenbush aligned himself with moderates. A former Army
captain and high tech entrepreneur from the Silicon Valley, Quackenbush,
like Torres, is mediagenic. Consultant Joe Shumate, a former deputy chief
of staff for Governor Pete Wilson, is handling the Quackenbush campaign.
Making it past the primary was not easy for Quackenbush. While he beat
his two main primary opponents handily on Election Day, he had to spend a lot
of last minute money to do it. Southern California insurance agent Wes
Bannister had name recognition from his failed 1990 run against Garamendi but
little capital for an active campaign. It was former Wilson staffer Jim
Conran, who used to run the state's Department of Consumer Affairs, who
proved to be the most serious threat to Quackenbush. Besides providing
confusion for some people in Wilson's camp over whom to support, Conran also
gained endorsements from a plethora of newspapers and raised a good sized
chunk of money. While he never climbed past the teens in pre primary election
polls, observers thought Conran's old job at Consumer Affairs would give him
the best chance to offset that conventional wisdom. But if the other
candidates suffered from slim name recognition, Conran was doomed by an
absolute absence. Quackenbush took out a huge last minute loan to flood the
media markets with his name, golden boy image and free market ideas, and beat
both Bannister and Conran by almost 20 points.
Torres and Quackenbush don't differ much on the issues. Both agree that
fraud needs to be attacked vigorously, consumers need to be protected, and
the current department isn't being run up to speed by Garamendi. When
discussing their differences, Torres claims that voters wanted a consumer
advocate when they approved Proposition 103 in 1988. Quackenbush, on the
other hand, claims that California's regulatory climate has made it more
difficult for most industries to conduct business in the state, including the
insurance industry. Competition is the key to lower insurance prices, claims
During a television debate aired locally in Sacramento last month, each
time one candidate would explain his position, the other would agree or argue
over minor details. For instance, both think earthquake insurance should be
part of a federal disaster insurance policy that includes quakes, floods,
hurricanes and other natural disasters. Both also have distanced themselves
from the current federal health care proposal being pushed by the Clinton
administration. Quackenbush already opposes it, while Torres said he will
withhold judgment until his committee can hold a series of hearings later
this month. Political consultant Richard Claussen who opposes the
single payer initiative on the November ballot (see Ballot Booklet) thinks
neither can support Clinton and politically survive. "I think it would be
pretty devastating," said Claussen. The only apparent difference is that
Torres approves of an independent, consumer oriented commissioner, while
Quackenbush doesn't believe an independent office is necessary. The two
differ radically, however, on how to raise money to run for this post. Torres
vowed not to take money from the insurance industry when he became chairman
of Senate Insurance. Quackenbush, on the other hand, has accepted
contributions from the industry he seeks to regulate, including a $25,000
donation from the California Life Underwriters political action committee.
But Quackenbush defends his position by pointing out that Torres accepts
large donations from lawyers who also are involved in insurance issues.
Indeed, Torres' latest campaign filing reports are filled with addresses of
Policy details aside, the real challenge in this race is gaining the
public's attention. Recent polling indicates that voters just aren't paying
attention. An early August Field Poll revealed that more than half of those
asked hadn't made up their minds. A similar poll just before the June primary
showed the same kind of indifference. "I don't think there's been much
excitement over anyone's campaign," said a disappointed Steven Miller, a
pro consumer attorney who has worked on Proposition 103 related cases in the
past. If the primary serves as an example, Torres and Quackenbush will have
to rely on gimmicks and paid media.
And that, of course, takes money. Lots of it. "It comes down to that's
what it's all about," said GOP political consultant Ray McNally, who admitted
that Democrats have a slight edge over Republicans for this post. If
Quackenbush is going to win, he'll have to flood the market with paid media
and spend lots and lots of cash to get himself on television. "The shrinking
number of voters won't see anything after the [O.J.] Simpson trial [begins],"
Torres, on the other hand, walks into the race with a head start. His
ballot designation Democrat and his Latino heritage help him, especially
if some sort of backlash develops against Proposition 187 the so called
"Save Our State" initiative aimed at prohibiting social services to
illegal immigrants. If Latinos are energized to fight the mostly anti Latino
"SOS" measure, their emergence could help Torres significantly. On the other
hand, McNally believes that anti immigrant feelings associated with the "SOS"
drive shouldn't hurt Torres. "I don't think people go out of their way to
vote against a Latino," said McNally.
Torres has one large advantage over Quackenbush: He can grab media
attention from his chairmanship of Senate Insurance. Torres has
attempted to gain attention from it during hearings on homeowners' and
earthquake insurance both hearings were televised on cable but the
events didn't exactly make for banner headlines. Now, however, an event
may occur that could produce a golden opportunity for Torres a state
Supreme Court decision on 20th Century Insurance the key case for the
implementation of promised auto insurance rebates under Proposition 103.
As Department of Insurance spokesman William Schultz pointed out, the
20th Century decision must be made by early September. Torres could grab
some attention, no matter what the outcome. If the court sides with the
Department of Insurance, Torres can promise rebates. If it sides with
insurance companies, he can promise to work to change the laws. Either
way, Torres already has one foot on the podium while Quackenbush will be
metaphorically the guy in the back of the room, frantically waving his
hand for media attention.
Yet for all his advantages, Torres carries with him some negative
baggage, too. In the late 1980s he was arrested twice in 14 months for drunk
driving. At the time of his first arrest in 1988 he was carrying a bill to
take away the licenses of minors convicted of alcohol and drug related
offenses. An admitted alcoholic, Torres went through treatment and has been
dry for the past five years, says his campaign staff. But the incidents could
provide powerful political fodder. Margolin tried to use the convictions in
the primary, but the attack fell flat since it was out of character for the
typically stalwart Margolin. Whether Quackenbush can use the incidents to his
advantage remains to be seen.
The biggest disadvantage for Torres may be the electorate itself or
what's left of it. In June only about 35 percent of registered voters
bothered to go to the polls. As few as one quarter of the state's eligible
voters may have actually cast ballots. Those who do vote tend to be older,
white and conservative; in other words, a traditional GOP constituency.
Latino activists will try to counter this trend, at least among their voters,
with a strong "get out the vote" campaign, in part to help Torres but
also to defeat "SOS." Still, political insiders think voters view the insurance
commissioner post as a consumer advocate, and that Democrats have the
advantage in the race. "It will be difficult for a Republican to 'out
consumer' a Democrat," said attorney Miller. Many insiders placed their
bets on Torres even before the primary, based on his political shrewdness and
mediagenic nature. Even GOP consultant McNally said the chances are slim that
Quackenbush can emerge the winner, unless he gains a large fund raising lead.
So far, his lead isn't large enough.
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