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California and the West | Capitol Journal

Quackenbush's Decisions: Bad Policy, Bad Politics

May 11, 2000|GEORGE SKELTON

SACRAMENTO — The most puzzling piece of the Chuck Quackenbush scandal--Quackquake--is simply this: What was the insurance commissioner thinking when he blew off his natural political base in the earthquake-devastated L.A. suburbs?

The San Fernando and Simi valleys. Canyon Country . . . Republican country. And toward downtown, huge pockets of swing voters.

Much of this region voted overwhelmingly for Republican Quackenbush's reelection two years ago. So why was his deputy handing out quake spoils to Sacramento and Oakland minority groups like some Chicago Democratic ward heeler paying walkin' around money?

Actually, that analogy is an insult to ward heelers. They at least dole out favors to loyal supporters. Quackenbush would have as much chance carrying the cities of Sacramento and Oakland in a statewide election as San Francisco Mayor Willie Brown would cozying up to Chatsworth.

Not that elected officials are supposed to play favorites, but for the sake of discussion, let's assume politicians will be political.

"One of the first rules of politics is to always secure your base before you reach out," notes a veteran Republican consultant, who like most GOP operatives doesn't want his name anywhere near this subject. "Quackenbush's real base was the earthquake victims--in Southern California, where all the votes are. He could have been a hero.

"The most successful politicians are the ones who understand why they're there and who put them there. He just blew an opportunity to not only help the people he was supposed to be helping, but to help himself. It's not only malfeasance but stupid politics. I don't get it."

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To put this in perspective, Quackenbush won reelection over a weak Democratic opponent--Assemblywoman Diane Martinez of Monterey Park--by only six points: 49.9% to 43.8%. It was a Democratic blowout year.

The vote by Assembly district tells the story. In the Sacramento city district, Quackenbush got just 39% of the vote. In Oakland, he received a mere 21% in one district; 15% in another.

But jump down to Northridge, epicenter of the 1994 quake. In that district, Quackenbush was a landslide victor with 60%. In the adjoining Santa Clarita district, he got 65%. Toward downtown, he lost in districts covering Pacoima (35%); also, Van Nuys (42%). But he was a winner in Burbank-Glendale (52%).

He's no longer a winner, however, in the eyes of many quake victims who once voted for him. They see the commissioner as pandering to the insurance industry for political contributions; ignoring their complaints of insurer low-balling, stalling, unfair denials.

The victims really see red when they read that Quackenbush dropped his threat to fine insurance companies billions in exchange for $12.8 million in tax-deductible donations to two foundations whose ostensible purpose was to help consumers and earthquake victims.

They become inflamed after learning that none of the money has gone to victims, but $3 million was spent for a Quackenbush TV ad. Plus, $1.4 million was paid to GOP political and PR consultants, and roughly $1 million went to minority groups that had no connection with earthquake relief.

For the record, Quackenbush insists he was ignorant of the spending--even if his then-deputy was doling out the money.

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"It appears he conspired with political cronies to prevent homeowners from receiving their rightful compensation," says Robina Suwol, a single mom who voted for Quackenbush in 1994.

Suwol's Van Nuys home suffered severe damage and she can't live in it. "I wrote numerous letters to his office asking for assistance [with insurers] and was told they couldn't help me and to stop writing because they wouldn't respond," she says. "I feel very let down."

David Compton of Valley Village not only voted for Quackenbush in 1994, he's a life insurance agent--a natural constituent. But when the agent wrote the commissioner for help with his quake-damage claim, he got brushed off. Finally, he called and demanded to talk to Quackenbush "as a taxpayer."

"I was told," he recalls, "that it didn't make any difference if I was a taxpayer because the department was not paid for with taxpayer dollars. Funding came from insurance companies and was charged to policies.

"No matter how fast you say it, it's still a tax."

Republican Assemblyman Tom McClintock of Northridge says he's "very troubled" that Quackenbush has not provided "adequate answers" and unless he does soon, the commissioner should resign.

But what's the answer to the puzzle? "Sometimes arrogance runs a complete parallel of stupidity," says GOP Sen. Cathy Wright of Simi Valley.

And maybe that will have to do for now.

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