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WHO IS ROXANI GILLESPIE? : And Why Is She Saying All Those Terrible Things About Ralph Nader, the Insurance Revolt and Prop. 103?

June 04, 1989|BELLA STUMBO | Bella Stumbo is a Times staff writer.

IN HER AIRY OFFICE, high above San Francisco, California Insurance Commissioner Roxani Gillespie, petite and perky in her round, bouncy, black Dutch-boy bob with bangs, is hopping about the floor, flapping her arms and swishing her skirts as she demonstrates, amid gales of merry laughter, the virtues of her dress. The commissioner is tired of all the flak she's been getting--from her daughter, her press secretary, even perfect strangers--about the dresses that have become her trademark: prim, pristine little-girl numbers, Laura Ashleys by label, with gathered skirts, puffy sleeves, teensy patterns. This one is blue. With what looks like rosebuds.

Little Miss Muffet comes to mind. An English nanny. The parson's wife. Roxani Gillespie, 48, looks more like any of these than the queen of California's $55-billion insurance industry and the state's most politically controversial woman since former Chief Justice Rose Bird.

"I like these dresses!" Gillespie protests, giggling, exasperated, as her press secretary, a pretty, stylish blonde in a smart black suit, named Carey Fletcher, covers her eyes and groans at the indignity of the unfolding sight.

"Suits are not comfortable. These dresses are comfortable," Gillespie cries, slapping at her unfettered waist, her hidden hips. "Look!" Jerk goes the skirt. Walking space. "See!" Yank, a handful of bodice. Roomy. Gillespie likes these dresses so much, in fact, she next announces, that she buys them by the half-dozen, each style in all available colors. "Let's see." She pauses, frowning, ticking them off briskly on her fingers. "I have this one in red, blue, green, black and, uh . . . yes! Dark blue! Why not? I don't like to shop. Besides, men wear the same clothes all the time."

Fletcher moans. "God, you oughta see her black one," she mutters. "It's got little pink flowers on it."

Gillespie thinks that's hilarious, too. She flounces into her chair, triumphant--having demonstrated, all within a space of five minutes, a good many of the qualities that have reduced her critics to howls of impotent fury for months now: Unpretentious, down to earth, spontaneous, funny, she's a born charmer. Also stubborn, opinionated, a streak explosive and possessed of enough apparent self-confidence for 15 people. You don't like the way she runs her kingdom? Ralph Nader calls her a lackey of the insurance industry? No refund check from your insurance company yet? You think she wants to trash Proposition 103? You might as well criticize her dress.

EVER SINCE November, when California voters, in their most dramatic uprising since the property-tax rebellion of 1978, passed Proposition 103, consumer activists and assorted politicians have been protesting that Roxani Gillespie--Greek immigrant, attorney, wife and mother, one-time claims adjuster and former insurance company executive--is unfit to preside over such a pioneering piece of populist history.

What Proposition 103 represents is something out of any good conservative's worst nightmare: a public lunge into the affairs of one of capitalism's most enduring monoliths. Among other reforms mandated by 103, insurance companies--unless they can persuade Gillespie otherwise--must roll back their rates to their Nov. 8, 1987, levels, then reduce them by an additional 20%. Banks have been granted permission to enter the insurance market. The office of the insurance commissioner, traditionally one of the governor's appointive plums, has been turned over to the electoral process, starting in 1990, and transformed from an essentially passive administrative post into an aggressive consumer watchdog position, with full authority to set all future rates for California's 788 insurance companies.

All of which, critics say, is utterly beyond Gillespie's demonstrated capacities or inclinations.

So far, Gillespie, appointed commissioner by Gov. George Deukmejian in 1986, has been accused of grandstanding, evading, deceiving and dragging her feet on 103; of making decisions stacked in favor of insurance companies or, more often, of making no decisions at all. She has been called everything from criminally negligent to a docile puppet of Deukmejian. She has been likened to various small animals--"an attack pit bull" (Harry Snyder, West Coast director of Consumers Union); a "bulldog" (Will Glennon, legal analyst for the California Trial Lawyers Assn.), and "a timid mouse" (Robert Fellmeth, director of the Center for Public Interest Law).

"That woman isn't fit to be dogcatcher," screams Proposition 103 author Harvey Rosenfield. His mentor, Ralph Nader, national icon of consumer rights, also has pitched in, demanding Gillespie's resignation. "She has no interest in consumers; she's just biding her time, waiting for some big fat offer from the insurance industry," Nader warns from his Washington headquarters.

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