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When we make an electoral endorsement, we hope to be able to say that the person we are recommending will serve skillfully, ethically, and responsibly. None of the candidates for state insurance commissioner pass that test.
The better pick in the Nov. 8 runoff is incumbent Ricardo Lara. But that’s only because the alternative, San Jose business owner Robert Howell, is clueless about the job and would be a disaster if elected.
This is a hold-your-nose recommendation because we feel obligated to offer voters some guidance as they choose between two terrible candidates.
Californians deserve a better choice to lead the 1,400-employee department responsible for overseeing health, auto and homeowner’s insurance rates — to regulate companies that collect more than $371 billion in premiums annually in California. The insurance commissioner probably impacts the lives of Californians more than any other state official except the governor.
As we said before the primaries, Lara’s tenure was an embarrassment reminiscent of the disgraced tenure of Chuck Quackenbush, the insurance commissioner who resigned in 2000 amid accusations that he tried to extract settlements from insurance companies to fund an advertising campaign that would benefit him politically.
After that scandal, for nearly two decades California insurance commissioners have refused campaign contributions related to the only industry they regulate — a recognition of the need for independent oversight untainted by political money.
Until Lara came along. After promising not to accept money from the industry, he broke that promise in 2018 and, after his election, quickly began raising more than those he regulates for this year’s campaign.
The San Diego Union Tribune estimates that Lara collected at least $270,000 from 56 people and companies with ties to the insurance industry. Meanwhile, senior Insurance Department officials overruled administrative law judges at least five times, each time favoring a company linked to some of the donors, the Union Tribune reported.
On New Year’s Eve after his election, Lara partied in London with an industry lobbyist and two months later lunched in Sacramento with lobbyists and industry executives who had pending business before him, the Sacramento Bee reported. He even billed California taxpayers for the rent on his Sacramento apartment, Politico reported.
As a consumer watchdog group sued Lara for records of communications in his office and with lobbyists representing key campaign donors, his agency last year abruptly adopted a policy of automatically deleting emails after six months. But after media scrutiny, the agency reversed the policy in January.
It is hard to imagine a candidate who could be worse. And then Howell came in, showing little idea why he’s running or what the job of insurance commissioner entails. He was the most ill-prepared candidate for public office we have ever met.
“What would I do as commissioner?” he replied, repeating our first question. He paused and then said “Okay, that’s fair” as he seemed to be searching for an answer.
At one point, he finally said he would stop home insurance companies from charging more for coverage in fire-prone areas. And how would you do it? “Good question,” he replied. “The 1,400 people who work in the office need to know how to fix things. That’s what people in the trenches are for. They have to do their job.”
It was surreal, but not surprising coming from Howell. We’ve interviewed him before as he’s run for other offices. When he ran for the state Senate in 2020, he came to his interview with us just as unprepared. He then told us he supports Donald Trump and is “proud to wear a MAGA hat.”
During this campaign, he says he’s still a “Trump Republican” but now calls himself a “Reagan Republican” because “Trump rubs people the wrong way.” Shh!
Howell is president and chief engineer of Exatron, a San Jose equipment manufacturing company with about 45 full-time employees. He was able to sneak into a runoff with a second-place finish in the primary because four Democrats were on the ballot, splitting their party’s vote, while Howell was one of only two Republicans. He received 18.1 percent of the vote, ahead of Rep. Mark Levine, D-San Rafael, who collected 18.0 percent.
If Levine had been on the runoff, it would have been a very different race — with a credible, ethical candidate on the ballot. Instead, Californians are faced with a terrible choice between Lara and Howell. Try not to gag while voting.