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Fur flies in insurance commissioner’s race over industry influence

When Jim Raspberry of Laurel withdrew as a Democratic candidate for insurance commissioner, he told the Mississippi Business Journal he would throw his support to the first candidate who announced he wouldn’t take any campaign contributions from the insurance industry regulated by the Department of Insurance.

Raspberry and other opponents of incumbent Commissioner George Dale have been critical of Dale for being too cozy with the industry he regulates. Dale has been criticized for hiring an attorney who works as a lobbyist for the insurance industry to represent Dale in his battle to run in the Democratic primary. The Democratic Party initially refused to qualify Dale because of his support for George Bush in the last presidential election.

Raspberry had raised only $3,500 in campaign contributions prior to withdrawing from the race. Dale said that shows the difficulty in campaigning for the office without accepting money from insurance interests.

“You can’t run a statewide race on $3,500,” Dale said. “There are 12 elected insurance commissioners in the U.S. The rest are appointed by the governor or some agency controlled by the governor. Every elected commissioner fights that issue (of being too close to industry) because the only people who are willing to give money for this campaign are those who are most familiar with the office. Usually those people have some involvement with insurance or any of the other types of businesses that we regulate. If the Legislature thought it was wrong, they would change the law.”

But Dale said if they change the law, they would also need to change the law to ban attorney contributions to the attorney general, banking industry contributions to the treasurer, etc. He said politicians from the governor and lieutenant governor down to senators and representatives all accept campaign contributions from people interested in specific pieces of legislation.

“The issue is much bigger than just the commissioner of insurance,” Dale said.

Dale, the longest-serving elected insurance commissioner in the country, said it is of no benefit to him financially to serve another four years.

“But I felt like because of the size of this storm and my experience in the job, I could make a contribution to helping the State of Mississippi recover from this great loss,” Dale said.

Dale defended his decision to hire an attorney, Greg Copeland, who is a longtime insurance industry lobbyist, to represent Dale personally saying that Copeland is a friend and also a very good lawyer.

“When you go to court, you want the best lawyer available,” Dale said. “It had nothing to do with insurance, but the issue of getting put on the ballot. I see absolutely no conflict.”

Opposition lines up

Dale is opposed by Democrat Gary Anderson, and two Republicans, Sen. Mike Chaney of Vicksburg and Ronnie English of Vancleave. Two other Republican candidates, Brian Lucas of Hattiesburg and Daniel Smith of Ocean Springs, have dropped out of the race.

Chaney said he has not yet taken any campaign contributions from the insurance industry. He doesn’t plan to take any contributions from insurance companies, but said he may end up taking money from individual insurance agents.

“You can’t run a campaign without money,” Chaney said. “I’m not taking any money from the industry itself, the companies. But I would consider it from the agents. I have had several offer and asked them to hold off. George took $165,000 in campaign contributions after Katrina and $150,000 of that was from industry. Ethically, I think George is trying to do the right thing. I’m not bashing George. But it is unusual that you can take campaign contributions and still regulate the people who give you money.”

Chaney is in the unusual position of advocating that the elected position he is running for be changed to an appointive position. He said making this an appointed position for six-year terms, with strict guidelines about the qualifications of the commissioner, would help “take the politics out of it” and enable people in Mississippi to get a fair shake on their insurance.

Ronnie English of Vancleave said he is running because a change is needed in the office.

“I think the commissioner we have now is pretty well controlled by the insurance industry,” English said, an Army veteran who works in ship management with Northrop Grumman. “People need a choice of someone else. Insurance companies seem to want to collect premiums. But when it comes time to pay out, they don’t want to pay. Myself, my policy was cancelled by Farm Bureau after Hurricane Katrina. Something has to be done. The insurance companies don’t want to write something that is a risk. They want to pull out.”

In the Democratic primary, Dale will face Gary Anderson, a former chief fiscal officer for the State of Mississippi who ran for state treasurer four years ago. In the past three and a half years, Anderson has represented the North Mississippi Medical Center in a battle with Blue Cross Blue Shield of Mississippi.

“The hospitals around the state have had some very rocky relationships with Blue Cross & Blue Shield,” said Anderson, who has served on several state boards regarding insurance. “It became an even greater issue with North Mississippi Medical Center. During that process, it showed me how much the insurance industry controls the office of insurance. We just felt like the people of Mississippi were not getting a fair deal. With the hurricane and aftermath, what happened is further evidence that we need a fresh start in the insurance commissioner’s office. Right now the scales are out of balance, tilted towards insurance companies. My campaign is about the ratepayers of Mississippi and putting people first.”

Anderson has worked as an independent consultant with The Anderson Company, LLC, providing governmental relations services, financial analysis and economic development assistance to public and private sector entities. He has worked for five previous state administrations.

Anderson said development along the Coast has been slowed because of unresolved insurance claims. Drawing on his experience in finance, economic and community development, he said he will work to facilitate the needed changes with all who have a stake in the redevelopment of the Mississippi Gulf Coast.

“The state insurance commissioner is charged with fostering a vibrant and stable insurance marketplace,” Anderson said. “Hurricane Katrina and a lack of action by the current insurance commissioner have created a violently unbalanced marketplace. As insurance commissioner, I will put in place effective tools to fight rising insurance costs and work to reduce fraud to create a more stable environment.”

Chaney, who has been a legislator for 15 years, said he is the only candidate in the race that has the successful business experience providing employee insurance and understanding business insurance requirements.

“I started a one-person company and eventually employed over 200,” Chaney said. “I was one of the first energy and retail companies to provide employee health coverage. When workers’ compensation rates doubled in the early ‘90s, I was one of three companies with a little over 100 employees to form the Mississippi Manufacturers (Association) workers’ comp pool in 1994. Today, the pool has over 250 companies and covers over 40,000 employees — and rates are lower than in 1994.”

Chaney supports a federal backup financial safety net for the state Wind Pool program similar to the National Flood Insurance Program. And he advocates putting more pressure on the insurance companies to speed up resolving Katrina claims. He also supports forming a southern Gulf state coalition to prevent the insurance industry from cherry picking coverage and threatening to pull out of individual states if the industry does not get what it wants.

“The most important issue is to provide available and affordable insurance for all Mississippians,” Chaney said. “That is easy to say and hard to do.”

Contact MBJ contributing writer Becky Gillette at bgillette@bellsouth.net.

About Becky Gillette

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