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California and the West | CAPITOL JOURNAL

Pity Quackenbush? Sorry, He Did It to Himself

June 29, 2000|GEORGE SKELTON

KINGS BEACH, Calif. — Nobody enjoys working on vacation, but this is a column I particularly find no pleasure in writing. Sitting on a deck, looking out over glass-smooth Lake Tahoe under a blue sky, one can almost feel sorry for Chuck Quackenbush.

Quackenbush and his misery, his humiliation, his rejection.

Almost, but not quite.

It's true, his once-promising political career has been destroyed. But he stomped all over it himself.

Sure, he's a handsome, somewhat charming sort. And being a political moderate, he's the kind of Republican even Democrats tend to tolerate, often support. But he tripped over his own arrogance and/or stupidity. It's debatable which flaw was the most fatal.

As Republican state Sen. Cathie Wright of Simi Valley told me six weeks ago in criticizing the insurance commissioner: "Sometimes arrogance runs a complete parallel of stupidity."

And, of course, there was an unseemly feeding frenzy by the blood-sniffing sharks. By the news media and by political opportunists. But that's the nature of our democratic system and how we rid ourselves of rotten officials. In some systems, they just shoot the guy or--worse--knuckle under to his self-serving abuse of power.

*

Ten years from now, when somebody asks, "What was that Quackenbush thing all about? Why was he forced to resign?," the answer may be unnecessarily convoluted. So many details, so many missteps. But there's a simple reply:

Quackenbush forgot to represent the people who elected him. Instead, he took advantage of earthquake victims and tried to enrich himself politically.

Some contend Quackenbush coddled misbehaving insurance companies with taps on the wrist--$12.8 million in tax-deductible "voluntary donations" to nonprofit foundations he ostensibly created to help consumers and quake victims. Others claim the commissioner extorted insurers by threatening them with billions in fines he never could have collected. Either way, it was an abuse of power and dumb. The money was targeted for his own political benefit.

He angered the quake victims, sullied the insurers and embarrassed fellow Republicans. Without public, industry or political support, Quackenbush could not survive. Impeachment or resignation. Get booted or jump.

This also must be said:

* The job should not even exist as an elected office. This is a regulator--like a real estate or a bank regulator--who should be appointed by the governor. It's an impossible post for a politician. The only special interests anxious to contribute to an insurance commissioner's campaign are the insurers. And this makes the elected official beholden.

* Quackenbush was a victim--albeit a willing victim--of consultant malpractice. Political and PR consultants should have advised him against such foolishness. Deep down, they must have known he could get caught in acts that were publicly unexplainable. But they greedily divvied up $1.4 million in foundation money.

* Quackenbush might have escaped with some dignity--even kept the office--if he'd early on admitted his mistakes. Done a loud mea culpa, accepted full responsibility and turned his efforts toward helping quake victims. Americans love to forgive if they believe the sinner is truly repentant. Instead, he clumsily tried to defend the indefensible, covered up and whined about a "partisan witch hunt" and "the liberal media." He dug his grave.

*

What's so especially discomforting about this sordid tale is that it feeds the public's cynical misperception that they all do it. All politicians are crooks.

They're not. The vast majority are honest people with varying degrees of normal ambition, who realize that good government is what makes good politics. Their ideas may be suspect--depending on your politics--but not their integrity.

One example is the lone remaining Republican statewide elected official, Secretary of State Bill Jones. Two others are the Democratic heads of the Legislature's insurance committees that investigated Quackenbush--Assemblyman Jack Scott of Altadena and Sen. Jackie Speier of Daly City.

The reason one cannot find sympathy for Quackenbush--beyond his snubbing the quake victims--is that he has further soiled the political system upon which we must all rely.

Now, he'll be the one with the long vacation time. And if anyone's to feel sorry for Quackenbush, it'll have to be himself.

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