Into the Void

by Jeremy Alford

The insurance commissioner's race spotlights hefty issues, muddy politics and very few solutions.

Insurance Commissioner Jim Donelon's campaign Web site has an entire paragraph on the biography page dedicated to his first job pumping gas at a Shell Station in New Orleans. The site also has a picture of his first house and an MP3 attack ad against opponent James David Cain.

The one thing missing from the insurance commissioner's site ' and a recent interview ' is anything actually labeled a "plan." It's highly unlikely he'll produce one before the Sept. 30 election, and a subsequent runoff is just as improbable.

State Sen. James David Cain, the other front-running contender, has a five-point plan for ethics reform, but the nasty tone of the race and the heft of the issues overshadow the proposal. On his Web site's home page, Cain writes that "politics as usual" won't get the job done, and accuses Donelon of "profiting from power" in a series of muddy news releases.

It's only an inkling of the verbal fisticuffs between the two men. Most recently, Donelon accused Cain of accepting illegal contributions from companies working for the state. Cain's campaign manager said that if the money is tainted, it will be returned, but at least one of the companies named by Donelon in his attack has no ties whatsoever with the state.

Donelon also slammed Cain for supposedly making $8,000 from a Colorado pyramid scam that bilked Louisiana investors for more than $90,000. Cain contends he lost money on the deal, and he was introduced to it by a former district attorney from Vernon Parish.

On other occasions, Cain has used public records from when Donelon served in the state House during the '90s. He has criticized Donelon for awarding his own daughter a scholarship to Tulane University, which is a perk for lawmakers, and for landing a contract with the Louisiana Insurance Guaranty Association while sitting on the House Insurance Committee.

While the dirt-digging has been plentiful, there haven't been many polls on the race released to the public. One poll published in late August had both men within a few points of each other, with the incumbent leading only slightly. Money and support, however, do help to break up the field a bit.

According to the most recent campaign finance report available, Cain spent more than $200,000 on a media buy earlier this month, but still had in excess of $781,000 in the bank as of last week. He has been endorsed by former LSU men's basketball coach Dale Brown and by Republican Deanne Henke, the Lafayette financial advisor who recently dropped out of the race for insurance commissioner.

Donelon has slightly less money on hand than Cain, to the tune of $561,000, but he also made a $500,000 media buy in late August, which should saturate the statewide marketplace before election day. Donelon has picked up the endorsement of the Alliance for Good Government, highly coveted in some circles, and there are also indications that Donelon has close ties to GOP bigwigs ' and he has the $2,000 check from former Louisiana Congressman Billy Tauzin to prove it.

But money and mudslinging will only get you so far, especially with a post-Katrina and Rita electorate.

In separate interviews last week, The Independent Weekly asked both candidates what they would specifically do about the scarcity of home insurance in coastal Louisiana, the perceived ineffectiveness of the Insurance Rating Commission and the fledgling Citizens Property Insurance Corp. In most cases, the follow-up answers were linked to the weather, Congress, the Legislature or other external factors unrelated to the leadership ability of the candidate. Barry Erwin, president of Council for a Better Louisiana, a nonprofit group that monitors state government, says the platforms sound flimsy this year because the challenges are so daunting.

"I don't know of any real plans, per se, in the insurance commissioner's race," Erwin says. "I think their hands are going to be tied in some ways. While I think leadership is at the core, a lot of these issues are intangible."

For instance, when it comes to the Insurance Rating Commission, the government agency that has veto power over rate increases of more than 10 percent, Donelon and Cain, both Republicans, look elsewhere for change. The IRC has fallen under heavy criticism in recent years for its political appointees and special authority ' it's the only board of its kind in the nation.

"That is a decision for the Legislature to make," Donelon says, adding there is no reason to change the IRC. Cain, on the other hand, says he will work to abolish the IRC, even though he voted against such an initiative as a state senator. But don't expect him to act on it swiftly; he's "hoping it will be an issue during the next governor's election."

"The insurance commissioner likes it because he can hide behind it," says Cain, a resident of Dry Creek. "Let the buck stop with me."

Erwin says neither candidate is directly addressing the issue: "It seems the insurance commissioner can, and should, develop a detailed plan for how his office can deal with the IRC directly."

As for convincing more insurance companies to return to Louisiana and start writing policies again, Donelon says the most important thing for the state is to make it safely through the next few hurricane seasons. "That will begin softening the market," Donelon says. Aside from that, he says he'll travel the nation telling insurance companies to "come to our marketplace because it is a viable place to do business with a fair and balanced regulatory scheme."

Cain points to his ethics plan, which would create new positions in the department, like inspector general and complaint resolution officer. The plan also calls for a consumer advisory board and toll-free fraud hotline. "This department has the worst reputation of any other department in Louisiana," Cain says. "We need to change that. People will see we're changing, and insurance will become more available."

Both men tout the benefits of a regional or statewide "catastrophe fund" to help the situation, but that is largely in the hands of Congress. A similar fund was established in Florida following Hurricane Andrew to sustain insurance claim-coverage capacity in the aftermath of a disaster. It serves as a reinsurance program that reimburses insurers for a portion of catastrophic hurricane losses.

The catastrophe fund was also noted by Metairie resident Donelon as a potential solution to the dilemma with the Louisiana Citizens Property Insurance Corp., the state's insurer of last resort. It incurred a debt of more than $1 billion following last year's hurricane season, and a resulting assessment is forcing consumers around the state to pick up the tab. Its solvency is in question, and consumers are complaining about slow payoffs.

Cain suggests Citizens become more like a real corporation, with a board of directors made up of professional insurers, CPAs and other industry representatives.

When it comes down to election day, Erwin says solving problems in a post-Katrina marketplace is going to take a lot more than just one man.

"I don't think they can solve all of these problems," Erwin says. "That's just the nature of things. Even though it would be nice, it's not like the insurance commissioner can wave a wand and make everything better."