Incumbent California Insurance Commissioner Ricardo Lara comfortably outdistanced his eight challengers in Tuesday’s primary, but the battle for the second spot to oppose him in November is still tight.
With 100% of the precincts reporting and only mail-in ballots left to be counted, Lara, a Democrat, had 37.0% of the vote, but three challengers are bunched together for the second position to decide who will challenge him in the general election in November.
Republican Robert Howell is currently in second place with 17.8% of the vote, while Democrat Marc Levine (16.8%) and Republican Greg Conlon (16.5%) are close behind.
Howell, a cybersecurity equipment manufacturer, leads Levine, a member of the California State Assembly, by a little more than 30,000 votes with mail-in ballots still to count.
That result would be a bit of a surprise to most pundits who expected Levine to be the challenger to Lara in November.
Other challengers were trailing far behind:
- Vinison Allen, 4.1%
- Nathalie Hirzi, 2.3%
- Veronika Fimbres, 2.0%
- Jasper Jackson, 2.0%
- Robert Molnar, 1.4%
The pandemic brought about unique challenges for the insurance commissioner. With many Californians not driving as much, there were fewer accident claims and Lara directed auto insurance companies to refund some of those premiums. According to CalMatters.org, customers were refunded more than $2.4 billion, but the advocacy group Consumer Watchdog estimates that California drivers are still owed $5.5 billion more. In October, Lara asked some of the state’s largest auto insurers to provide detailed data on how they are going to pay back insurers or face legal action.
Conlon is a businessman and Howell is a cybersecurity equipment manufacturer.
Levine, a member of the California State Assembly, had been aggressive in questioning Lara’s stewardship, particularly that he is not doing enough for homeowners in wildfire areas, another crucial part of the Insurance Commissioner’s role in this state
Levine, whose campaign promises included barring companies from taking customers’ education and occupation into account when pricing auto insurance coverages, had media endorsements from the editorial boards of the Los Angeles Times, San Francisco Chronicle, San Diego Union-Tribune, San Jose Mercury News and the Sacramento Bee.
Lara, meanwhile, had endorsements from the California Nurses Association, the California Democratic Party, California Environmental Voters, and Gov. Gavin Newsom.
On Tuesday night, Levine issued a statement saying he was “encouraged” to be in second place, though “many votes remain to be counted.”
He said his campaign was “cautiously optimistic about our chances of making it through to the general election. And that would be a huge thing. We came out of nowhere in this race and took on an entrenched incumbent. And on a night when other statewide incumbents are getting close to or more than 60 percent of the vote, in our race more than 60 percent of voters are casting ballots against the incumbent and sending a message that it’s time for an Insurance Commissioner who will bring real solutions to our insurance crisis and hold the insurance industry accountable.”
Two other Democrats running were doctor and businessman Vinson Eugene Allen, and paralegal Jasper Jay Jackson.
The remaining three candidates were nurse Veronika Fimbres of the Green Party, teacher and union officer Nathalie Hriizi of the Peace & Freedom Party and health care advocate and businessman Robert J. Molnar, an independent.
The job requires the officeholder to thread the needle between working in the best interests of consumers and insurance companies at the same time. The job pays about $174,843 a year.
The commissioner oversees the California Department of Insurance, which regulates the state’s insurance industry, and the winning candidate will have a difficult balancing act, made even more difficult by the pandemic. The winner would have to potentially approve insurance rate hikes on one hand, but also be in a position to ensure that consumers are being treated fairly by insurance companies on the other.