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Sonoma-Marin county Assemblyman Marc Levine to challenge Ricardo Lara for insurance commissioner seat

Contending that he has the “confidence and authority” to do the job, Assemblyman Marc Levine announced Monday that he is launching a campaign to unseat first-term California Insurance Commissioner Ricardo Lara.

The San Rafael Democrat’s decision to vacate the Assembly seat representing Marin and southern Sonoma counties, which he has held for 10 years, will leave an obvious gap.

Voters are ready for a change as the state grapples with an “insurance crisis,” Levine said, adding that he believes the campaign finance questions that have dogged Lara since he took office will turn voters away from the incumbent.

“Californians are desperate to hear from someone who can speak with confidence and authority that they’re going to be working solely on their behalf,” Levine said Monday.

He will face a tough opponent in Lara, the first openly gay official elected to statewide office, who was won the position in 2018 after his own career in the California Assembly.

Reacting to Levine’s announcement Monday, Lara unfurled a lengthy list of endorsements, which includes Levine’s fellow Democratic North Bay lawmakers state Sens. Bill Dodd, of Napa, and Mike McGuire, of Healdsburg.

Spokespeople for Dodd and McGuire said the senators were aware of Levine’s announcement and chose to endorse his opponent despite their common ties to the North Bay.

“I worked with Insurance Commissioner Lara when he was a (state) senator and during his time as a commissioner he was very responsive and proactive and I’m happy to endorse him for reelection,” Dodd said in a statement Monday.

Levine, 47, was 38 when he was first elected to the state Assembly in 2012, upsetting former Assemblyman Michael Allen.

Though outspent overall, Levine was backed in that race by agricultural interests who opposed Allen after he sponsored a bill to secure overtime pay for farmworkers.

Levine has amassed a sizable war chest in recent years. He reported more than $1.8 million in campaign cash on hand in his most recent filing.

Lara has a little more than $329,000, according to his most recent filings.

In 2019, the commissioner ceased fundraising and returned $83,000 in campaign donations after the San Diego Union Tribune reported he had broken a pledge to not accept funds from people with business in front of the commission. That newspaper later reported the commissioner accepted as much as $270,000 from people with ties to the insurance industry.

Lara apologized for accepting the donations, and Robin Swanson, a spokesperson for his campaign, on Monday called those stories “old news” that has “been addressed and handled.”

The California Department of Insurance intervened in four cases involving a company tied to Lara’s donors, according to the Union-Tribune, raising concerns from campaign finance watchdogs.

Levine indicated he would point to those incidents as proof that Lara should no longer occupy the post.

“The work simply isn’t being done because the insurance commissioner has conflicted himself out of doing the job we elected him to do,” Levine said Monday.

The two Democrats are unlikely to differ staunchly on policy issues, Sonoma State University political science professor David McCuan said.

“It might be appearances over style,“ McCuan said.

For example, Levine said he hopes to protect wildfire victims and fire-prone communities against sharp rate increases or coverage denial from insurance companies. He then cited work he did to reform insurance statutes in the state Assembly following massive 2017 wildfires that swept through the North Bay, destroying thousands of homes.

Meanwhile, along with Monday’s endorsement announcement from his campaign, Lara’s office issued a temporary moratorium to protect around 325,000 Northern California property insurance policyholders who live near recent wildfires from losing their insurance.

The ability to issue such a moratorium came from legislation Lara sponsored as a state senator that became law in 2018.

Both candidates on Monday — Lara through a spokesperson and Levine himself — pledged not to take money from those regulated by the commission.

The insurance commission is a “high-profile office,” McCuan said, that historically has been deferential to the industry it is supposed to regulate.

“Even if it’s somewhat narrow in its portfolio, it touches every voter’s life,“ he said.

The top two vote earners from any political party in the June 2022 primary election will square off in the November general election, meaning Lara and Levine could face each other twice.

You can reach Staff Writer Andrew Graham at 707-526-8667 or andrew.graham@pressdemocrat.com. On Twitter @AndrewGraham88.

Andrew Graham

Business enterprise and investigations, The Press Democrat 

I dig into businesses, utility companies and nonprofits to learn how their actions, or inactions, impact the lives of North Bay residents. I’m looking to dive deep into public utilities, labor struggles and real estate deals. I try to approach my work with the journalism axioms of giving voice to the voiceless, comforting the afflicted and afflicting the comfortable in mind.

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