If there’s a theme to Steve Poizner’s independent campaign for state insurance commissioner, it might be “back to the future.”
Poizner, a former Silicon Valley entrepreneur who held the office four years and ran it in a more nonpartisan fashion than anyone since insurance commissioners became elected officials in 1988, always said his office should be independent of political parties. Now he’s trying to make that into reality.
In fact, insurance issues rarely concern big social causes like abortion, guns and immigration. Where they sometimes intersect with politics, as in race-related red-lining, climate change or health insurance company mergers, insurance regulators need to be scrupulously fair and even-handed.
But Poizner could not eliminate politics in his earlier go-‘round, forced to pick one party or another if he wanted any electoral credibility. That was before voters created the top-two primary system in a 2010 ballot proposition, a change that led him to re-register with no party preference last year. In June he became the first independent to win a statewide California primary in more than a century.
He topped Democrat Ricardo Lara, a soon-to-be-termed-out state senator from Los Angeles, by just over 31,000 votes, but faces Lara again this fall. Even though one August poll showed Poizner six points ahead of Lara, the ex-commissioner has no easy task in trying to win one more term in his old office. For a second Democrat won more than 813,000 primary votes and Lara is likely to pick up most of them.
Lara has also been highly visible in the Legislature, especially lately. He’s been an activist in the sanctuary movement to protect non-criminal illegal immigrants from deportation. He authored a new law prohibiting insurance companies from cancelling or failing to renew homeowner policies in fire areas and their immediate surroundings for one year after a state of emergency is declared. And more.
But the Poizner campaign represents a landmark. It’s common for the 25 percent-plus of California voters who are registered Republican to gripe about one-party government in Sacramento, and the marginally larger corps of no-party-preference voters often voices the same complaint.
But Democrats have such a large voter registration plurality with more than 44 percent of all registered voters that it would take a remarkable candidate to break their stranglehold on statewide offices.
Poizner might fit that bill. Even though he conducted an unsuccessful primary election run for governor in 2010, he now presents himself not as an ambitious politician, but as a problem solver taking care of everyone, no matter their political inclinations.
“You don’t want to be tied to one political party or the other,” he said in an interview. “When you’re tied to one, all kinds of things come up. I got political pressure when I was commissioner, but I won’t name names. My four years there tells me when you have business before the Department of Insurance, it should be about protecting consumers and making sure they have lots of positive, healthy choices when shopping for insurance.”
Poizner adds that “I could say something similar about lots of other state agencies, too, like the controller and the secretary of state.”
But everyone now running for those offices has a strong party affiliation. One reason, of course, is that it costs a lot of money to run statewide campaigns, even for secondary offices. Few can get that cash without a strong party connection. But Poizner made a fortune estimated at as much as $1 billion by founding and later selling two high-tech companies and has so far kicked a total of $500,000 into his campaign and raised about $1 million more from others.
If Poizner can win, it’s just possible California might get started toward some kind of alternative to the two extremely ideological major political parties. Up to now, there has been no credible alternative.
Says Poizner, “It’s been incredibly liberating to be independent. Both parties are not problem solvers. But I just want to run and serve again, and the open primary system we now have in California might just allow me to do that.”