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Latest Auto Insurance Brawl 'Not Personal'

SACRAMENTO BEE

From the courts to the Capitol to the ballot, insurance magnate George Joseph and attorney Harvey Rosenfield, who wrote the 1988 initiative that regulated auto insurance, have been butting heads for a quarter century.

They assure me it's not personal.

There was nothing personal in 2009 when Consumer Watchdog, the Santa Monica advocacy group founded by Rosenfield, bought billboard space on Wilshire Boulevard in Los Angeles declaring, "You Can't Trust Mercury Insurance," the company that Joseph founded 50 years ago.

And there was nothing personal when Consumer Watchdog's attorneys appeared in a Department of Insurance hearing last week seeking to block a Mercury request for a rate increase.

Not that it's personal, but the next chapter began last week when the secretary of state announced that Joseph's latest initiative will appear on the November ballot. He has poured $8.2 million into the measure. If approved, the proposition would help Mercury's bottom line and mess with Rosenfield's life work, Proposition 103, the 1988 auto insurance regulation.

Like everything in the world of insurance, the specific issue is arcane. But here goes. Current law permits insurance companies to give discounts to long-term customers, so-called persistency discounts.

Joseph wants to attract customers by offering discounts to other companies' long-term clients, hence the term, "portable persistency." Joseph views the concept as a way to increase competition and drive down insurance costs.

But there's a flip side implicit in the proposal. Any insurance company that grants discounts to one set of customers would need to charge higher rates to other people, in this instance individuals who for a variety of reasons let their insurance lapse. Consumer Watchdog contends that the change would mean that low-income motorists would have a harder time buying insurance.

"We're superheroes for consumers," Rosenfield said, aware that the line might be a little vainglorious. He stopped short of calling himself Captain America. But he does view himself as "fighting greed and lawbreaking," especially by Mercury.

Consumer Watchdog is responding with a counter-initiative that would regulate health insurance and includes a clause aimed at blocking Joseph's business plan, though it's not clear that the measure will qualify for the ballot.

"There isn't an insurance industry CEO who hasn't considered me their enemy," Rosenfield said. "George Joseph is just one of these guys."

Joseph dismissed the notion that he is pursing the initiative because of greed. Rather, he noted, he had to lay off 450 people in 2008 and 2009, and is looking to expand Mercury's market share.

"I'm 90 years old," the billionaire told me. "I wear the same suits I wore 20 years ago. I give away tens of million of dollars each year. But when I had to lay 450 people off, that did bother me. I want this company to grow."

The nothing-personal relationship between Joseph and Rosenfield dates to 1988, the year that the insurance industry, including Mercury, plaintiffs' lawyers and consumer advocates in the person of Rosenfield went to electoral war over five insurance-related initiatives.

Tens of millions of dollars later, only Rosenfield's Proposition 103 survived. His career has revolved around it ever since. Consumer Watchdog has invoked Proposition 103's provisions to intervene in rate cases and sue to enforce it, and collect fees.

Mercury and Joseph, meanwhile, have become a major Sacramento lobby presence and lavish donor, doling out $32.2 million to California campaigns since 2000.

Like many high-end donors, Mercury is promiscuous, giving to politicians of both parties, occasionally timed to key actions and votes.

In August 2003, for example, Gov. Gray Davis signed legislation giving Mercury its way with portable persistency. A month later, Mercury contributed $200,000 to the failed effort to beat back the Davis recall.

Evidently, Joseph did not mourn Davis' departure for long. Within three months, Mercury had given $160,000 to Davis' replacement, Arnold Schwarzenegger.

The issue of portable persistency might have ended with Davis' signature. But Consumer Watchdog sued and convinced a judge that the legislation violated Proposition 103.

That in turn has led to the latest initiative war. Joseph's new initiative, which is not yet numbered, may have a familiar ring. His company spent $15.9 million to promote an earlier incarnation, Proposition 17, which lost, 52 percent to 48 percent, in June 2010.

There are differences between the two versions. But the main one is the campaign team. The yes-campaign will be the first statewide effort managed by the campaign arm of Aaron Read & Associates.

Among the top lobby shops in town, Aaron Read represents several unions, including law enforcement unions whose endorsements are coveted in any campaign. Terry McHale, the Read partner who will be overseeing the campaign, said the new and improved version could appeal to some of those influential clients.

Whether Consumer Watchdog's counter-initiative qualifies or not, Rosenfield and the other guys at Consumer Watchdog have shown an ability to win campaigns without large sums of money.

They led the successful campaign against Proposition 17 on a relative pittance, $1.3 million. My guess is that Rosenfield will win again.

Voters generally don't like being asked the same question twice. And the electorate is always skeptical when a single donor provides the bulk of the money for an initiative.

Moneyed interests and ideologues long ago learned that they could rent space on California ballots as they attempt to buy laws. In this instance, it seems, old rivals are taking that a step further, invoking direct democracy to settle scores, not that it's personal.

Contact the author at dmorain@sacbee.com.