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Prop. 103 Author, Nader Disciple : Rosenfield: Hero to Some, Troublemaker to Others

December 03, 1988|FREDERICK M. MUIR | Times Staff Writer

As the pudgy-faced young man came down the aisle at a recent state Senate hearing, a beaming Sen. Alan Robbins likened him to the late tax-crusader Howard Jarvis and called him a "folk hero."

Such high praise was lost on the crowd of insurance executives grimly braced for the criticism they knew this 36-year-old consumer activist would heap upon them.

Then, with tie pulled down, collar open and shirt sleeves rolled up, Harvey Rosenfield--author of Proposition 103 and founder of the Voter Revolt--took the witness chair and launched into one of his well-rehearsed tirades on the "outlaw" insurance industry.

"The Wild West of pre-Proposition 103 days is gone for good," he said. "A new sheriff has arrived: Proposition 103."

If the initiative voters approved Nov. 8 as a way to curb soaring insurance rates is the new sheriff, then Harvey Rosenfield is the top deputy.

True, the polls showed that without the backing of his mentor, Ralph Nader, Proposition 103 would probably have lost. But without Harvey Rosenfield, there would have been no initiative and no California campaign organization to push it. He is the one activists in other states are calling for advice on how to launch 103-style ballot initiatives of their own.

After 10 years of laboring in relative obscurity as a consumer activist in California and Washington, D.C., Rosenfield has suddenly become a frequent face on television, a name quoted liberally in newspapers and the object of public acclaim by powerful politicians.

Those who have worked with him and against him agree that Rosenfield is a bulldog of a man who enjoys fighting the odds. He is a career activist who loves his work and says he has no ambitions outside of pursuing the consumer cause.

He has an unassuming appearance and can initially be underestimated by foes, who later find him relentless. Some say he is just a big teen-ager causing trouble.

Rosenfield waged the Proposition 103 campaign with a characteristic, single-minded determination that even his critics acknowledge is limitless.

"He's a tenacious adversary," said Stan Zax, president of the Assn. of California Insurance Companies, who, though horrified at some of Rosenfield's tactics, is respectful of his abilities. That tenacity is still evident as Rosenfield's debt-ridden campaign is fighting to defend Proposition 103 against a legal challenge by the insurance industry.

"He has no political agenda, no hidden motive . . . and that's why he was successful," said Jay Angoff, legal counsel to the watchdog National Insurance Consumer Organization in Washington.

The biggest influence on Rosenfield's career has been his guru, Nader, who says of his understudy: "There's only one Harvey."

Like Nader, Rosenfield is considered an "absolutist."

"He is always totally committed, always totally uncorruptable," said Angoff, who worked with Rosenfield at Nader's Consumer Watch organization in the early 1980s.

It was Rosenfield's unshakable commitment to reforming the insurance business in California that led to November's expensive battle of ballot measures.

The insurance industry, trial lawyers and consumer activists had attempted to negotiate a peace accord that would have prevented an all-out war of initiatives.

In those negotiations, "Harvey said he needed 95% of Prop. 103," recalled George Tye, a spokesman for the Assn. of California Insurance Companies. "We said we couldn't live with that. We said, 'Harvey, you need to show that you are willing to negotiate.' "

"That was the beginning of the end," said J. Gary Gwilliam, president of the California Trial Lawyers Assn. "He (Rosenfield) made his decision unilaterally."

Indeed, Rosenfield said in a recent interview, "You can't make some compromises when you are a consumer advocate."

So with a staff of two and no budget, Rosenfield set out to qualify his own ballot initiative.

The headquarters of his Voter Revolt campaign is tucked away in an unheated warehouse, down an alley and around the corner from an X-rated movie house in downtown Santa Monica.

The concrete-floored offices are stuffed with tattered furniture. One prominent piece is an old car seat, its seat belts still intact.

On one recent morning at the headquarters, Rosenfield was wearing his "lucky" red tie that he bought for $1 and a white shirt that cost $2 at a Salvation Army thrift store.

The struggling, low-budget, grass-roots image of the campaign was used effectively by proponents to separate their initiative from the four others that were eventually sponsored by insurers and lawyers.

Some critics scoffed at the trappings of poverty as a ploy to gain media and public sympathy, but Rosenfield insists that his Populist image and that of his cause are real.

"This is just me; this is it," Rosenfield said the other morning.

"The public is looking for people to believe in. They don't trust people in three-piece suits. I don't trust people in three-piece suits," he said.

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