Remember Quackenbush
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The Los Angeles Times
Feb 28, 2002

Remember Quackenbush


The modern litmus test for candidates for state insurance commissioner is simple and basic: Do they take campaign contributions from insurance companies or not? That is a major issue in next Tuesday's Democratic primary for the job. Two leading candidates do not and one does.

Declining to take insurance money are John Garamendi, who was the state's first elected insurance commissioner, 1991-95, and Tom Umberg, a former state Assembly member and federal prosecutor. The candidate accepting industry contributions is Assemblyman Tom Calderon (D-Montebello), getting more than $1.5 million from that source out of a total $2.5 million he raised, the Foundation for Taxpayer and Consumer Rights reports.

Neither of the two Republican candidates, Wes Bannister and Gary Mendoza, has received insurance company money. Mendoza says he won't take any during the primary campaign but will consider it if he is nominated for the general election. Bannister says he would accept such contributions but that nobody has offered any.

The Times is not endorsing in this partisan primary contest, but readers should know that Calderon's heavy reliance on insurance industry contributions raises serious questions of ethics and potential conflicts of interest. If Calderon is elected commissioner, any decision he makes involving a firm that contributed to his campaign will be under a cloud.

Calderon insists that the money wouldn't influence him: "Either you have the ability to put a firewall between politics and policy or you don't." It's not that simple. The only way to avoid the potential for conflict is to not take insurance company contributions at all.
The need for a clear voluntary standard is still fresh in memory.

Insurance Commissioner Chuck Quackenbush was driven from office less than two years ago for allegedly manipulating claims arising from the 1994 Northridge earthquake to benefit both himself and the insurance companies. He had taken $6 million in contributions from the industry.

Yes, it can be hard to raise funds from other sources in this little-noticed race. But California needs a strong, independent and fair-minded commissioner regulating the state's $86-billion insurance industry. A candidate who relies on insurers' contributions for his election does not meet that standard.

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