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Graphic of a person's hand placing a ballot in a ballot box decorated with state house and yellow poppies in a field.
(Dan Carino
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LAist)
California Insurance Commissioner
The insurance commissioner’s job is to make sure insurance companies treat consumers fairly. At the top of their agenda: making sure homeowners don’t keep losing their wildfire insurance.

What does California’s insurance commissioner do?

The state insurance commissioner is the top advocate for California consumers when it comes to insurance, whether that’s insurance for your car, home, or business. Their job is to ensure insurance companies are treating consumers fairly. They do that mainly by setting regulations for the industry (in other words, what insurance companies can or can’t do), handling licensing, and investigating consumer complaints.

Everything you need as you prep for the June 7 Primary Election — study our interactive voter guides, ask questions, print your ballot and more.

When it comes to property or casualty insurance, the commissioner gets to approve or reject proposed rate changes, usually increases. But they also have to make sure that insurance companies can stay financially healthy in order to pay out claims — and so they don’t end up limiting services or leaving the state.

The commissioner oversees the 1,400-employee Department of Insurance, which regulates all kinds of insurance — home, auto, fire, earthquake, certain types of health insurance, and even pet insurance. It also regulates the bail bonds industry – bail bonds are seen as insurance that a person will return for their trial.

Think an insurance company is engaging in fraud or price-gouging? Or have reason to think an insurance broker’s license should be revoked? You can file complaints to the Department of Insurance, and they can launch investigations. The insurance commissioner can see what’s going on across the state, punish rule-breakers and hand down new regulations to prevent future abuses.

This position was a governor-appointed role until 1988, when voters passed a ballot initiative to make it an elected position. The move was largely seen as a revolt against high insurance premiums, especially for auto insurance.

You might recognize their work from…

Many of the rules that determine how much you pay for car insurance were shaped by insurance commissioners past. In California, ZIP codes used to be a primary factor in determining drivers’ auto insurance rates — as in, if you lived in an area with a high number of vehicle crashes, you’d likely be paying more for your insurance than if you lived elsewhere, even if you’d never been in a crash yourself.

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That changed in 2005, when then-insurance Commissioner John Garamendi implemented new rules saying insurers had to decrease the weight assigned to ZIP codes in determining those rates, and focus more on factors like driving records and experience.

Insurers also used to be allowed to charge men and women different rates based on their gender. That ended in 2019, when then-insurance commissioner Dave Jones made California the seventh U.S. state to prohibit that practice. (Yes, until just three years ago.)

What’s on the agenda for the next term?

One word: wildfires.

Climate change and California’s now year-round fire season have turned the wildfire insurance industry upside down. As the number of wildfires — and damage to homes and livelihoods — has ballooned in recent years, so has the amount of insurance claims and payouts to homeowners. And as insurance companies lose money, they’ve been raising premiums to make up for the costs or dropping coverage outright, leaving homeowners in high fire-risk areas with tough decisions to make about whether to risk staying or whether they can afford to move. California’s insurance commissioner will have to try and find a way to keep insurance affordable enough for people to buy it, but priced high enough that the companies have enough money to pay out claims.

Who we spoke to for this piece

Robert Stern, past President of the Center for Governmental Studies


The candidates

This section was republished from CalMatters' 2022 Voter Guide.

How State And Federal Primaries Work
  • This is a top-two primary, meaning the two candidates who receive the most votes, regardless of party, will advance to the runoff election in November.

In 2018, Democratic state Sen. Ricardo Lara defeated Steve Poizner, who ran as an independent but was a Republican when he served as the insurance commissioner from 2007 to 2011. Lara became the California’s first openly gay statewide officeholder.

In 2020, the pandemic kept many Californians off the road, reducing accident claims for auto insurers. Lara directed the companies to refund some premiums, saving customers more than $2.4 billion, according to the insurance department. Advocacy group Consumer Watchdog estimates that drivers are still owed more — $5.5 billion according to their analysis — from overcharges during 2020. Lara also temporarily blocked companies from dropping home insurance policies in fire-prone areas, backed an unsuccessful bill to force insurance companies to cover homes in those areas that are protected up to state standards, and proposed rules to require companies to offer discounts to homeowners who protect their homes.

Lara has also generated some scandal. First, it was for accepting campaign donations from people in the insurance industry after pledging not to, including from an executive of a company that had a case pending before the department. Then, it was for renting a second residence in Sacramento, where his work as commissioner often takes him, and sticking taxpayers with the bill.

Democratic Assemblymember Marc Levine, Lara’s most prominent challenger, is aggressively going after Lara. Levine accuses Lara of not doing enough to protect homeowners in wildfire areas from losing their coverage. Levine’s campaign also created a video and sent out mailers attacking Lara for taking donations from the industry. Levine has a lengthy list of campaign promises, which include ordering insurance companies to return money to consumers from pandemic overcharges and barring companies from taking customers’ education and occupation into account when pricing their auto insurance coverage — a loophole that the department has also proposed regulations to close.

Lara’s campaign sent out mailers criticizing Levine’s voting record on labor issues. Lara has garnered endorsements from the California Democratic Party, California Environmental Voters, Gov. Gavin Newsom, U.S. Sen. Alex Padilla, as well as labor groups and other state and national officials. Levine’s endorsements include Amar Shergill, chairperson of the California Democratic Party Progressive Caucus; M. Ronald Cohen, chairperson of the California Democratic Party Veterans Caucus; and the California Nurses Association.

Vinson Eugene Allen, Medical Doctor/Businessman (Democratic)
Campaign website: electdrallen2022.com/
Endorsements: See full list of endorsements
Campaign finance: See all campaign contributions via the California Secretary of State website

Greg Conlon, Businessman/CPA (Republican)
Campaign website: gregconlon.com/
Endorsements: none listed
Campaign finance: See all campaign contributions via the California Secretary of State website

Veronika Fimbres, Nurse (Green)
Campaign website: veronika4ca.com/
Endorsements: See full list of endorsements
Campaign finance: See all campaign contributions via the California Secretary of State website
Read more about Fimbres’ policy priorities and experience at Voter’s Edge

Robert Howell, Cybersecurity Equipment Manufacturer (Republican)
Campaign website: electroberthowell.com/
Endorsements: none listed

Nathalie Hrizi, Teacher/Union Officer (Peace & Freedom)
Campaign website: hrizi4commissioner.com/
Endorsements: The Party for Socialism and Liberation

Jasper "Jay" Jackson (Democratic)
Campaign website: none found
Endorsements: none listed

Ricardo Lara, Insurance Commissioner (Democratic)
Campaign website: ricardolara.com/
Endorsements: See full list of endorsements
Campaign finance: See all campaign contributions via the California Secretary of State website

Marc Levine, Member, California State Assembly (Democratic)
Campaign website: marclevine.org/
Endorsements: none listed on his website, but he has been endorsed by the L.A. Times and San Jose Mercury News
Campaign finance: See all campaign contributions via the California Secretary of State website

Robert J. Molnar, Healthcare Advocate/Businessman (No Party Preference)
Campaign website: robertjmolnar.com/
Endorsements: none listed
Campaign finance: See all campaign contributions via the California Secretary of State website

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