Political Notes: Gay CA insurance czar Lara marshals Democrat, LGBTQ support in reelection race

  • by Matthew S. Bajko, Assistant Editor
  • Monday September 27, 2021
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Gay California Insurance Commissioner Ricardo Lara (D), left, has drawn a Democratic challenger, Assemblyman Marc Levine, for next year's primary. Photos: Lara, Bill Wilson; Levine, Courtesy Levine's Assembly office
Gay California Insurance Commissioner Ricardo Lara (D), left, has drawn a Democratic challenger, Assemblyman Marc Levine, for next year's primary. Photos: Lara, Bill Wilson; Levine, Courtesy Levine's Assembly office

A day after Assemblyman Marc Levine (D-Greenbrae) announced his 2022 candidacy for California insurance commissioner, gay incumbent Ricardo Lara rolled out endorsements from a vast array of fellow Democratic elected officials and LGBTQ leaders. The first LGBTQ person to win election to statewide office in the Golden State, Lara in April had launched his bid for a second four-year term on next year's ballot.

According to the September 21 statement from Lara's campaign, those endorsing him include all but one of his fellow statewide officeholders. They are Governor Gavin Newsom, Lieutenant Governor Eleni Kounalakis, Attorney General Rob Bonta, Treasurer Fiona Ma, Superintendent of Public Instruction Tony Thurmond, and Secretary of State Shirley Weber. Controller Betty Yee is the only one missing from the list.

All eight members of the Legislative LGBTQ Caucus, of which Lara was a member when he served in the Legislature, have endorsed Lara. They are lesbians Senate President Pro Tem Toni Atkins (D-San Diego), Senator Susan Talamantes Eggman (D-Stockton) and Assemblywoman Sabrina Cervantes (D-Corona); gay Senators John Laird (D-Santa Cruz) and Scott Wiener (D-San Francisco); bisexual Assemblyman Alex Lee (D-San Jose); and gay Assemblymen Evan Low (D-Campbell) and Chris Ward (D-San Diego).

Other state legislators backing Lara include Assemblymen Phil Ting (D-San Francisco) and Bill Quirk (D-Hayward), and Senators Nancy Skinner (D-Berkeley) and Maria Elena Durazo (D-Los Angeles).

"Insurance Commissioner Ricardo Lara has stood up for the Latino community through our toughest fights. He has been a champion for health for all from day one. We stand with him as an unparalleled leader for consumer rights, especially for under-represented communities," stated Durazo, who chairs the Latino Legislative Caucus.

During Pride Month in June the LGBTQ Victory Fund had early endorsed Lara, with its president and CEO, Annise Parker, calling him "a true LGBTQ hero." She noted that Lara had "used his authority to demand the insurance industry provide better care for all — including our trans youth, those who are HIV-positive, and our LGBTQ seniors."

Last week Equality California, the statewide LGBTQ advocacy organization, followed suit and early endorsed Lara. As of now, he is one of two out statewide candidates in 2022. Lesbian Sacramento County District Attorney Anne Marie Schubert, an independent, is running against Attorney General Rob Bonta, a former Democratic state Assemblyman from Oakland whose wife, Mia Bonta, was elected last month to serve out the remainder of his term through next December.

EQCA spokesman Samuel Garrett-Pate didn't respond to the Bay Area Reporter's request for comment for this story. But in the statement released last week by Lara's campaign he noted that "as the state's only LGBTQ statewide elected official, Insurance Commissioner Ricardo Lara is a much-needed voice for our community and advocate for health care coverage for all. He has our unequivocal support."

Bumpy first term

Lara, who hails from Los Angeles, has faced a bumpy first term with self-imposed gaffes and continues to be a lightning rod for criticism from various groups. But he also has seemed to grow into his role since being sworn into office in January 2019, when he was hailed as "our own Latino Harvey Milk" by former state lawmaker Art Torres, who came out of the closet in 2009 after leading the California Democratic Party as its longtime chair.

Torres, who lost his own bid to become state insurance commissioner in 1994, was referring to the late gay San Francisco supervisor who was the first out person elected to public office in California in 1977. But within months of Lara's heading the California Department of Insurance, the San Diego Union-Tribune raised questions about his meeting with a major insurance executive with business before his department, a possible violation of state law, and intervening in cases affecting a donor.

It also reported on Lara accepting donations from the insurance industry, something he had ruled out doing when he sought the statewide post in 2018. In response, Lara told the Union-Tribune he would hire a treasurer for his reelection campaign and return the money. California's insurance commissioner oversees the largest insurance market in the country, with $310 billion in annual policies.

Levine alluded to Lara's stumbles and scandals when announcing his bid to unseat him last Monday, September 20. He noted in a tweet that "it's a challenging time in California. An ongoing pandemic, raging wildfires, rising costs of living and health care. At this critical moment, we need real leadership. That's why I'm running for Insurance Commissioner."

In covering Levine's entrance into the race, the San Francisco Chronicle reported that he had recently hired in his Assembly office a former lawyer and adviser to Consumer Watchdog, the advocacy group that had pushed the make the insurance commissioner an elected position. It has been a vocal critic of Lara since he was elected to the statewide office, and had been at odds with him during his time in the Legislature.

Levine told the paper he isn't seeking to become insurance commissioner at Consumer Watchdog's urging or with its backing, and that he wanted "to have a team that understands how the insurance industry works."

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