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Activist Retires From Consumer Group but Not Fray

March 05, 2003|Kenneth Reich | Times Staff Writer

SAN FRANCISCO — Harry Snyder may be retired, but he's not mellowed.

Snyder, 65, recently stepped down after 26 years as West Coast director and senior advocate for the Consumers Union, where he became known as one of California's most outspoken consumer lobbyists.

Now, he's opened an office in the Presidio here to pursue a variety of advocacy projects. He is assisting a Superior Court judge in distributing class-action settlement funds in a public-health case, helping nonprofit groups lobby more effectively and leading seminars -- including an upcoming one at Stanford University -- that instruct the next generation of consumer advocates how to prevail. And despite his retirement, Snyder's critique of state government, and the people who run it, is as pointed as ever. He is especially hard on Democratic leaders, whom he said have all too often sold out to business interests.

Two years ago, as California's electricity deregulation plan sank into crisis, Snyder, long a registered independent, declared of the Democrats who had joined the Republicans in unanimously approving deregulation in the Legislature:

"The old Democrats believed in welfare for the poor. The new Democrats believe in welfare for business."

While naming a few politicians in both major parties whom he views as "honest men and women," he said that most legislators have sold out to campaign contributors.

"Most Republicans are pro-business," he said. "We know that. But the business Democrats are a threat to democracy. There is no loyal opposition any more."

As for Democratic Gov. Gray Davis, Snyder said, he preferred Republican conservative George Deukmejian, two governors ago.

"We did better with Deukmejian in some ways," Snyder said. "He had a sense of accountability. He wasn't a good governor, but he had a gag reflex. He had a sense of ethics."

Davis, he said, has more often abandoned consumers to cater to business interests. Steve Maviglio, Davis' press secretary, rejected that criticism.

The governor is an avowed centrist, he said. "That means you can be pro-business and pro-consumer."

Maviglio added: "I could send [Snyder] 15 pages of pro-consumer bills the governor signed, ranging from preventing identity theft, forming the Office of Privacy Protection to protect personal privacy, to establishing the Department of Managed Health Care, the nation's strongest package of HMO reforms.

"And there are comparatively little things, like prohibiting supermarkets from selling or sharing personal information on their club cards, and allowing citizens to put their names on do-not-call lists, so as to avoid telemarketing calls," he said.

Snyder also has been critical of the insurance industry, which he said often uses its traditional exemption from federal regulation to deploy big campaign contributions for special advantage on the state level.

Insurance industry representatives, in turn, criticized Snyder for too often siding with lawyers, although they acknowledged that he did back the industry's push for no-fault insurance.

Snyder grew up in Los Angeles, graduated from USC and, in 1963, from UCLA Law School, and initially practiced law in Los Angeles as an insurance industry defense lawyer.

However, he and his wife, Vivian, determined to strike out on their own, became Peace Corps administrators, beginning in 1970 in India and later in Samoa and Nepal. After driving for three months from Katmandu, Nepal, overland to Paris in a Volkswagen van, Snyder joined the Consumers Union in 1976.

The Consumers Union is one of the nation's most influential nonpartisan consumer groups. As its West Coast director, Snyder fought for affordable auto insurance, was a prominent foe of electricity deregulation when it was first proposed, and led the fight to create California foundations for health care and more than 120 such foundations elsewhere in the country.

Despite his critiques of business, "I'm from a business family myself," Snyder said. "My father was a seller of plumbing supplies. I don't think business is wrong. I want to make things work, but I don't think democracy and free enterprise are joined at the hip. Business and free markets are not mentioned in the Constitution.... Where business isn't working, we have to step in and fix it."

An illustration is health care, he said. President Clinton's plan for health care foundered, more and more people are uninsured and now, Snyder said, is the time to make a new push for universal care, a public insurance system.

"We need a strategy on health care, because it's ripe," he said. "We gave the marketplace a chance and it hasn't worked."

But Snyder believes that reform is more apt to come on the federal than on the state level, where, he said, term limits for officeholders have impeded progress on many issues.

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