Mississippi Insurance Commissioner George Dale, facing the dual pressure of consumer complaints and companies’ requests for rate increases since Hurricane Katrina, says he’ll decide by the middle of this summer whether to seek a ninth term in 2007.
“Whoever’s insurance commissioner needs to be somebody that’s prepared to make some decisions that they probably would not like to make,” Dale said Monday at a luncheon sponsored by the Capitol press corps and Mississippi State University’s John C. Stennis Institute of Government.
Mississippi is one of only 12 states where the insurance commissioner is elected rather than appointed. Dale first took office in January 1976 and is the longest-serving state insurance commissioner in the nation. He is a Democrat, but angered many within his own party by publicly supporting President Bush in 2004.
Dale said Monday that the free enterprise system must be allowed to work in the insurance market.
“The public thinks that I can get every insurance claim paid. Doesn’t work that way. Doesn’t work here. Doesn’t work anywhere,” he said. “If I could make every company pay every claim, as an elected commissioner of insurance, whose claim would be turned down?”
Many on the coast are battling insurance companies over questions of whether wind or water damaged their homes during the Aug. 29 hurricane. Standard homeowner’s policies don’t cover flooding.
Since Katrina, six insurers have asked Dale’s office to grant rate increases. The most recent request came late last month from the Mississippi Windstorm Underwriting Association, which is seeking a nearly 400 percent increase in wind pool coverage rates for high-risk homes in the coastal counties. Dale said his office has hired an actuarial firm from Atlanta to analyze the request.
Lynn Lofton, a freelance journalist, said her 50-year-old cottage about two blocks off the beach in Gulfport was heavily damaged by Katrina. She has been living in Jackson the past several months, and hopes to move back home soon.
She told Dale on Monday that she’s already paying $2,500 a year for wind coverage and she worries about a dramatic increase in that rate.
“I can’t afford to stay there, but then how can I sell my home?” Lofton said. “Who would want to assume a house, a mortgage, and most people would have a mortgage, when they’ve got to have that kind of insurance payment?”
Dale doesn’t ask for pity when he talks about his life since Katrina. But he doesn’t hold back when he discusses the barrage of criticism he has faced in the past eight months. He said he’s gotten calls and messages from people calling him “everything from idiot to imbecile,” including a man who told him he was “an insult to the Baptists.”
He said his wife has told him frequently, “You’re going to let this affect your health. Quit. You don’t have to do this.”
He said he doesn’t want to quit.
“Every morning when I was up shaving, I was thinking, I know what today holds. Dealing with mad people all day long, frustrated people that called you all kind of names,” Dale said. “Took every call. Answered every e-mail. Did everything anybody would tell me to try to do to try to make it better. I don’t know what else I could’ve done.”
Whether Dale is in or out of the 2007 race, there almost certainly will be others seeking the job. Among those frequently mentioned as a possible candidate is state Senate Insurance Committee Chairman Dean Kirby, R-Pearl.
Dale said his bookkeeper has told him that because of his longevity in office, he’s losing about $11,000 a year by working rather than retiring.
“If I run, get elected, great,” Dale said. “If I run and don’t win, I’ll get more money staying at home.”
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