Diverse Candidates Running for California Insurance Commissioner

One way or another, California’s next insurance commissioner will be the first of his kind.

The June 5 primary features Democrats Dr. Asif Mahmood and Sen. Ricardo Lara against former commissioner Steve Poizner.

Mahmood would be the first Muslim to win a statewide race and the first doctor to hold the post. Lara would be the first openly gay Latino elected to a statewide office, while Poizner would be the first independent.

Early primary voting starts Monday and the top two finishers will advance to November’s general election.

The position is one that gets little attention, but has a broad impact on Californians. The insurance commissioner runs an office with 1,400 employees and a budget of $250 million. The Department of Insurance enforces insurance laws, licenses and regulates companies, and investigates fraud.

“Without being too cynical, voters aren’t going to hear much about this office,” said Parke Skelton, a Democratic political consultant who worked on the campaigns for the current officeholder, Dave Jones, who is running for attorney general. “I’m not sure a lot of people know what the insurance commissioner does.”

Poizner, 61, a wealthy Silicon Valley entrepreneur, actually held the job previously. He served one term as a Republican and then spent $25 million of his fortune in an unsuccessful run for governor in 2010. He hopes voters remember his four years as commissioner and are willing to vote for an independent for an office that he said should be free of politics.

His priorities for the office are to: ensure homeowners are adequately insured against devastating wildfires and other natural disasters, crack down on health insurance fraud and help companies develop better insurance policies against cybercrime.

“If I can get a robust cyber insurance market rolling in California, then it will not only help protect businesses in terms of a huge financial liability, but insurance companies will also help enforce better cyber hygiene in order to clean up the security of their computer networks,” he said. “That’s a really big deal.”

Mahmood, 57, who grew up in rural Pakistan, is a political neophyte who initially was running for lieutenant governor and then decided insurance commissioner was a better fit with his medical experience.

Although the commissioner has much less sway over health insurance, which is largely regulated by other departments, Mahmood is making healthcare his top priority. He wants to preserve the Affordable Care Act, supports government-run healthcare for everyone, better mental health care and better disaster preparation.

“Helping others is our highest calling,” Mahmood said. “In this position, with my knowledge, with my experience, with my training and with my dealing with insurance companies … it will put me in a much better position to serve the people of California.”

Lara, 43, who has unsuccessfully pushed for state-run health insurance for Californians, is positioning himself as a counterweight to President Donald Trump and his campaign website said he will put consumers ahead of “corporations, the billionaire class, the pharmaceutical or the insurance companies.”

Lara did not speak with The Associated Press because a spokesman said he was busy at the Legislature. His campaign requested questions in writing, but then didn’t reply.

Lara won the Democratic Party endorsement and has support from many unions and prominent party lawmakers.

Poizner, who along with former Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger holds the distinction of being the last Republicans elected statewide, could be hampered because he is listed on the ballot as “No party preference.”

Bill Whalen, a research fellow at the Hoover Institution who advised Poizner in an unsuccessful run for Assembly in 2004, said Poizner didn’t have much choice given the current California political climate dominated by Democrats and punctuated by Trump’s unpopularity.

“It’s not a very pleasant commentary on the Republican Party in California but I think it’s a necessity in this particular environment in that he needs to distance himself from the Republican brand,” Whalen said. “It’s fascinating from the pure lab science standpoint of, ‘Can someone run as a not-affiliated candidate in California and not only survive the primary but go on to win the general election?”’

Although Poizner has the means to pour his own money in the campaign, he said he plans to raise money.

All the candidates have said they won’t take donations from the insurance industry.

But Lara, who received insurance donations in past campaign accounts that have been rolled into his bid for commissioner, also received at least $6,000 in his current race from the political action committee of the nation’s largest physician-owned medical malpractice insurer. His campaign said he returned that money.

By the third week in April, Mahmood was leading in campaign donations. He had raised over $1 million during the year and had about $900,000 remaining. Poizner had pulled in just under $500,000 and had about $400,000 left. Lara, who got $625,000 since Jan. 1, had just over $175,000.