Gary Mendoza: Consumer-Rights Warrior?

A daily reporter endorses GOP candidate for insurance commissioner

Chuck Quackenbush—the last Republican elected as California's powerful insurance commissioner—resigned midterm in 2000 before he faced impeachment and then fled in disgrace but comfort to Hawaii. Among Quackenbush's deeds was allowing insurance companies to dodge $4 billion in fines for cheating victims of the 1994 Northridge earthquake after the companies secretly paid $12 million to Quackenbush-controlled groups; freezing a state investigation into Mercury Insurance Group days after the company contributed $50,000 to Quackenbush's campaign; penalizing State Farm just one-tenth of 1 percent of the potential fine after detectives found the company had cheated in 50 percent of audited cases; and donating $263,000 from an earthquake victim's fund to a sports camp attended by his two sons.

Don't laugh, but Quackenbush—whose campaigns were generously funded by the big insurance companies—confidently maintained an image as a consumer-rights warrior against insurance companies. He was so good at the deception that Republican powerbrokers said openly that Quackenbush—the choirboy good-looks, the intelligent-sounding talk, the claim of political moderation and "compassionate conservatism"—was the future of the state GOP. Those hopes crashed, of course, when the public discovered they'd been conned.

The corruption evidence that horrified everyone else didn't impress Daniel Weintraub. At the height of the Quackenbush controversy, in April 2000, The Orange County Register's Sacramento reporter laughably repackaged the commissioner as a would-be Ralph Nader. Weintraub quoted insurance-company executives and Quackenbush himself to show that the Republican commissioner had been the consumer's pit bull against the industry. "We wanted to make sure they [the insurance companies] knew how serious we really were," a tough-sounding Quackenbush said in the article.

Did Quackenbush's free-fall from grace shatter Weintraub's illusions? To answer that, you might take a look at how the reporter is covering the current race for the very same office.

Today, the Republicans are running Gary Mendoza for insurance commissioner against Democrat John Garamendi. Garamendi held the job before Quackenbush and is possibly the most pro-consumer official in modern state history. Mendoza, by contrast, has Quackenbush's good looks, intelligent-sounding talk and claims of political moderation. At candidate forums, Mendoza emphatically says he's the man to keep the $87 billion insurance industry honest. He regularly promises voters that he has refused to solicit or accept insurance-industry campaign contributions. The sounds coming out of the Mendoza camp have been so soothing that a few consumer advocates have vouched for his credibility. "In this race, the consumers of California can't lose," veteran consumer activist Harry Snyder told Copley News Service last month.

Sadly, Snyder is fooling himself. I didn't have to go far to break through Mendoza's façade:

•First, I checked the Republican Party event calendars and found a Sept. 30 invitation to "Lunch With Gary Mendoza," an Orange County fund-raising event sponsored by the insurance industry. A "savvy" Mendoza will make life easier for insurance businesses, the flier states.

•Second, I made two phone calls and discovered what the Register's reporting didn't bother to tell me: that Mendoza was recently a paid consultant who testified before the Maryland legislature on behalf of insurance giant Blue Cross, an entity he'll supposedly regulate if he wins election.

•Third, I checked Mendoza's campaign-disclosure reports. Despite the promise that he'd be free of industry money, Mendoza's own reports show insurance companies and HMOs—as well as their executives and related businesses—have given Mendoza contributions in chunks of $50,000, $10,000 and $5,000.

•And lastly, I've never forgotten that it was Mendoza and his buddy, Newport Beach Congressman Christopher Cox—arguably the most anti-consumer member of Congress—who worked for a Newport Beach businessman convicted of swindling more than $130 million mostly from elderly Orange County citizens in the 1980s.

But perhaps the greatest alarm bell rang on Oct. 3, when Weintraub—now working for the Sacramento Bee—weighed in on the insurance commissioner race. Understandably, he didn't mention his Register-era Quackenbush embarrassment. But he confidently proclaimed Mendoza "a credible candidate who should serve as a model for resuscitating the moribund California GOP." Though Weintraub acknowledged Garamendi's history of "getting in the face of the insurance industry," he finished his column by endorsing Mendoza, arguing that the Republican candidate "might be every bit as effective [for consumers], if not more so."

ALL POLITICS IS, ER, FOREIGN?

For a month, the Weekly has been reporting on Representative Dana Rohrabacher's odd secret, pre-Sept. 11 terrorist attack meeting with Taliban officials in Qatar. In another article, we questioned why the mainstream press savaged Georgia Democrat Cynthia McKinney for accepting money from Arab interest groups and representing their concerns in Congress, but ignored Rohrabacher—who is up against Democrat Gerrie Schipske—for parallel political actions. Not surprisingly, both stories were overlooked by the Register, which used to employ the congressman as an editorial writer.

But on Oct. 4, Orange County's largest daily newspaper editorialized that McKinney—who is from a congressional district about 3,000 miles away—has "bizarre" views when it comes to Arabs and slammed an upcoming dinner at which some Muslim-American groups will honor her as "Congresswoman of the Year." In the same editorial, the Register didn't even mention Rohrabacher, who in the last election cycle won a similar honor—as well as airline tickets and high-end lodging—from the same Arab lobbyists. Apparently, a local congressman's secret negotiations with Osama bin Laden's protégé isn't newsworthy for Reg readers who must be more interested in Georgia politics.

OBJECTIVITY
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