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October 04, 2006

CALIFORNIA HAS ONLY HAD TWO elected insurance commissioners. First there was Democrat John Garamendi, who was seen as a champion of consumers, and then Republican Chuck Quackenbush, who resigned in disgrace amid allegations he allowed insurance companies to underpay their 1994 Northridge earthquake claims. Prosecutors never filed charges, but after two appointees filled out the term, voters returned Garamendi to the job in 2003.

Now Garamendi is leaving again, and the fight is renewed between consumer advocates -- who say the industry is out to cheat customers -- and insurance companies, which say regulators don't understand the market. Garamendi is backing Democratic Lt. Gov. Cruz Bustamante over Republican tycoon Steve Poizner. The twist is that the best choice for consumers, hands down, is Poizner.

The Silicon Valley entrepreneur has solid market credentials, having built a billion-dollar company from a global positioning device that locates cellphone users for emergency operators. He has made reducing insurance fraud a priority, which would protect the industry but also would allow companies to offer lower prices to consumers. He acknowledges that "insurance companies want to own this position" -- and he vows not to let them. He has said he'll defend Garamendi's auto insurance rate regulations, which put a person's driving record ahead of where the driver lives. He vows to defend Proposition 103.

He's credible, and his history shows he's a man of integrity. He thinks before he acts, a trait exemplified by his careful study of a liberal Democratic Bay Area Assembly district that he almost won, and his equally studious approach to and backing for Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger's redistricting reform, a measure that, while unsuccessful, was worthy. The insurance commissioner's job, he notes, "requires analytical horsepower." Poizner has it.

Bustamante, as a legislator, often backed bills that insurance companies sought to help them avoid complying with Proposition 103. For example, he advocated the repeal of the initiative's good-driver discount. When he ran for governor in the campaign to recall Gray Davis, he misused donations from Indian tribes and was heavily fined. As a candidate for insurance commissioner, he accepted insurer contributions, then returned them when it became a campaign issue. It was not a proud day for Democrats when it became clear that he would be their nominee. His election would be a step backward for consumers.

Poizner is no Garamendi; with his market orientation, Poizner is open to permitting lower-premium health policies and other types of coverage with very high deductibles, along with other moves that may not prove popular with consumers. But he is dedicated to making sure insurers are competitive and, where the market falls short, he will be an effective consumer watchdog.

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