The California insurance commissioners' race might not feature boldface names, but the job is influential and the winner will be tasked with navigating the changes brought by federal health care reform on the state level.
The leading candidates are two state assemblymen who are termed out this year - Democrat Dave Jones of Sacramento and Republican Mike Villines of Clovis.
The candidates have wide ideological differences in how they would approach the problems of double-digit health insurance rate increases and growing workers' compensation insurance costs.
Villines worked as an aide for former Gov. Pete Wilson and ran a public relations firm before he was elected to represent the Central Valley's 29th District in the Assembly, where he served 2 1/2 years as minority leader.
"This job is about two things: Protecting the consumer - people should get what they pay for - but we can also use it help the economy, to create jobs and growth, not just to protect consumers," he said. "The best protection for the consumer is affordable insurance products that allow you to insure your car, your house, your health."
Jones, a lawyer from Sacramento representing the 9th Assembly District for a third term, touts his 99 percent approval rating from the Consumer Federation of California, which endorsed him.
He cites his record of sponsoring consumer-friendly legislation, including a ban on price discrimination against women in the personal insurance market. Villines voted against the bill because he said it would increase costs all around.
Jones talks about regulating the insurance market and sponsored an unsuccessful bill that would have required state approval for health insurance rate increases.
"Californians have been whacked with double-digit rate hikes as long as we can remember," he said. "My opponent seems to think that if he holds his breath and stamps his foot, the insurance companies are going to back off. That's just not going to happen."
When Anthem Blue Cross planned to boost individual insurance premiums by as much as 39 percent last spring, Jones launched an investigation, subpoenaed the company's CEO and grilled her before the Assembly Health Committee.
Villines narrowly won the Republican primary over insurance department attorney Brian FitzGerald, who spent virtually no money in the surprisingly close contest.
Villines came under fire from conservatives for his vote to raise taxes to help close the state budget deficit in 2009. Now he's citing his role as one of the "Big 5" leaders during budget negotiations as a way to paint Jones as an ideologue who is under the influence of trial lawyers.
"I approach this job as someone who's willing to cross party lines to get things done that the people need, but my opponent doesn't have that background," Villines said. "It's critical that this person has to stand up to both sides to implement these health care reforms."
Both Villines and Jones have promised not to take campaign contributions from insurance industry sources.
Villines had $217,000 on hand at the end of the June campaign finance reporting period after bringing in $245,000 in the first half of the year, according to the secretary of state's website.
Jones brought in $1.5 million in the first half of the year and had $80,000 in cash on hand in June.
The Chamber of Commerce spent $2 million on an issue advocacy ad for Villines. Because the television spot does not specifically mention the insurance commissioner's race, the business group doesn't have to list who paid for it.
The two candidates agree on the need to control in workers' compensation costs, but Villines accused Jones of trying to undo 2004 reforms. That legislation, which failed, would have increased disability benefits for injured workers and opened the door to lawsuits that lead to higher costs, Villines said.
"If those prices spike, small businesses close down. If we have major worker comp increases, their workers would be out on the street," he said.
Jones said the reforms were designed in part to keep insurance companies solvent.
Both candidates also promise to speed up the approval process for new kinds of insurance. Other states approve insurance products in about three months, but California regulators can take more than a year.
The current insurance commissioner, Steve Poizner, will give up his post at the end of the year after he lost the Republican Party gubernatorial primary to Meg Whitman. Poizner signed off on regulations last year that allow pay-as-you-drive policies, said Sam Sorich, president of the Association of California Insurance Companies.
Two companies have filed with the Department of Insurance to offer those programs to the public, "but nothing's happened for six months. It's kind of bewildering," he said.
The insurance commissioner also will be tasked with setting up health care exchanges, in which people not covered through their employers can shop for health insurance policies at competitive rates.
Jones promised to enforce the new rule that requires insurers to spend 85 cents of every dollar on health care and said he supported national health care reform.
"My opponent was a reluctant participant," Jones said. "If we don't design the health exchanges well, they'll fail because (insurers) will cherry-pick the market and leave only sick people in the exchange."
Villines said he supports the exchanges as long as they are used to encourage competition, maintain a safety net and create transparency.