The Problem Isn’t that Lara Broke His Promise.

Joe Mathews
Connecting California Columnist and Editor, Zócalo Public Square, Fellow at the Center for Social Cohesion at Arizona State University and co-author of California Crackup: How Reform Broke the Golden State and How We Can Fix It (UC Press, 2010)

The latest so-called scandal in Sacramento involves Insurance Commissioner Ricardo Lara. He promised while running for the office to not accept political donations from insurance interests. Once in office, he broke that promise, as the San Diego Union-Tribune showed.

That was some good reporting, but Lara’s broken promise isn’t the real scandal. Nor is his acceptance of insurance industry contributions that much of a scandal—elected officials accept money from the people and businesses their decisions affect all the time. Nor is the real scandal Lara’s excuse that it was all a mistake. If you believe that, I’ve got a bridge in the city of Commerce, his hometown, to sell you.

 No, the real scandal is that Lara is an elected official at all. 

Specifically, there is no good reason why California should elect its insurance commissioners. It certainly does not make them independent, or closer to the people. Considerable history speaks to that reality. If you don’t know what I’m talking about, google the name “Chuck Quackenbush.”

Indeed, the fact that insurance commissioners are elected makes them less independent. It makes them more reliant on the insurance industry they regulate. For the simple reason that no one cares much about the insurance commissioner except the insurance industry.

I would argue that the very point of the job of elected insurance commissioner is to raise political money. It’s a low-profile gig that allows ambitious young politicians like Lara to build up a fundraising apparatus for future, higher-profile races. That’s how the three previous insurance commissioners—Dave Jones, Steve Poizner, and John Garamendi—tried to use the post.

In this context, condemning Lara personally is a waste of time. If you want to end this kind of scandal, you need to support a constitutional change—to make the insurance commissioner an appointed position.

And it’s not the only statewide elected office that would be cleaner and less compromised if it were appointed. The state school superintendent, the controller, the treasurer and the attorney general should be appointed too. Electing the Secretary of State, an elections official, makes some sense.

The Lara scandal is really a scandal of the California system. Hate the game, not the player.

 

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