Republicans Square Off For Chance At Senn Insurance Industry Banking On Gop Victory Against Consumer Advocate

Never before have so many people fought so hard for the right to be called the state insurance commissioner.

The job used to be a safe place to nap, a paper-shuffling backwater where commissioners reigned for decades with little controversy or competition.

This year it’s the state’s hot seat.

The insurance industry desperately wants to oust incumbent Deborah Senn, a blunt industry critic and consumer champion.

Four Republicans spent the past five months debating and attacking each other for the chance to face Senn.

Along the way they’ve called her everything from a socialist to “the worst insurance commissioner in the history of the country.”

The two presumed Republican frontrunners are politically savvy: Anthony Lowe and seasoned insurance regulator Dave Walker.

Lowe, 35, is the party’s candidate of choice. The former King County deputy prosecutor is a dynamic speaker cast as a potential political star.

His glittering endorsement roster includes vice presidential candidate Jack Kemp and almost every prominent Republican in the state.

Lowe asserts his experience as a prosecutor and a U.S. Senate aide, crafting and enforcing laws, is ideal for the commissioner’s job.

He also claims he is the one candidate who can beat Senn and effectively avoid being labeled an insurance industry lackey.

“I’m the only candidate who does not rely on industry money for my livelihood,” he says. “That gives me some independence voters can trust.”

Walker has a different read on Lowe.

“Anthony’s just a young politician looking for someplace to land,” Walker says, accusing his rival of knowing little about insurance.

“He’s a good-looking, smart, energetic guy, but I’m telling you if you’re gonna have a guy run a hospital, it’s best he know something about medicine.”

Lowe’s opinion of Walker: “Walker represents a return to the way the department was. I think we can do better than that.”

Walker, 64, represents the regime before Senn arrived in 1993. He spent 16 years in the commissioner’s office, where he crafted an insurance advisory program for seniors that has evolved into a national model.

Walker is so familiar with the office he boasts that he could “turn it around in 15 minutes” and restore the credibility he says Senn has squandered.

“I was in the office when it used to be run right,” Walker says. “When I was in there we had an average level of 23 years of experience in insurance. Now she won’t hire anybody who knows anything about insurance.”

Walker voiced an echoing Republican charge that Senn’s combative tact has driven health insurers out of the state, and reduced options for consumers.

At least two dozen insurers have left the state, although a handful have arrived and set up shop.

“No insurance company in its right mind will come into the state of Washington now,” he says. “We have to cool down the hostility,” he said. “We’ve got to establish a climate of trust.”

Walker admitted he can’t compete with Lowe’s charisma or endorsements. “I don’t have the razzle dazzle and sizzle that makes a good candidate,” he says, “but I can still beat Senn.”

The other two Republican challengers are Steve Skipper and Brian McCulloch, both of whom share long insurance resumes.

McCulloch, 49, is an articulate insurance teacher and solvency expert who led an unsuccessful classaction lawsuit against Washington Life and Disability for not covering the policies of failed life insurance companies.

Nobody questions McCulloch’s mastery of insurance. “In terms of industry knowledge, McCulloch has no peer in the race,” wrote the editor of Insurance Week.

But just as often people comment on McCulloch’s intense and confrontational style.

Lowe and McCulloch are barely civil with each other after the two men clashed in forums and filed complaints against each other with the state Republican Party.

Walker sums up McColloch this way. “Brian is one of the brightest guys you’ll ever meet to drive you crazy. In Brian’s hands, a phone is a lethal weapon.”

McCulloch says people misunderstand his “passion” for discussing insurance.

After serving as an insurance company executive, challenging insurance companies in court and teaching policy, McCulloch insisted he is the best prepared for the commissioner’s job.

He says Lowe is too ignorant on insurance, and Walker and Skipper too likely to roll back consumer gains and protections in favor of better relations with the industry.

“I am the only candidate who Deborah Senn doesn’t want to see,” McCulloch boasts.

Skipper is the only candidate to pour his own cash into the race, having pumped about $20,000 into his campaign recently.

He bills himself as the free-market candidate who wants to peel back the commissioner’s regulatory authority.

“It goes to my general belief on government that regulators have too much power,” he says.

Skipper, like his rivals, says the most efficient way to keep keep premiums down is to increase competition between insurers.

“The best way to protect the consumer is to have these companies fighting it out for the policy holders,” he says.

Skipper also insists he is not an industry pawn.

“I’m not tied to any insurance company,” he says, adding that insurance companies share the responsibility for spiraling health care premiums.

“They’re not blameless in this thing.”

After attending about 20 public forums with his rivals, Walker summed up the Republican field this way.

“Brian, Skipper and I get along well. Lowe is the outsider. He’s got the big boys behind him tipping the playing field. And now they’re getting real worried their boy won’t win.”

Every candidate but Lowe expects a tight four-way primary finish.

, DataTimes MEMO: See individual profiles by name of candidate.

This sidebar appeared with the story: THE JOB Job: The state insurance commissioner regulates insurance companies in Washington state and provides consumer information to the public. All rate-increase requests must first pass through the commissioner’s office. Pay: The job pays $77,200 a year.

See individual profiles by name of candidate.

This sidebar appeared with the story: THE JOB Job: The state insurance commissioner regulates insurance companies in Washington state and provides consumer information to the public. All rate-increase requests must first pass through the commissioner’s office. Pay: The job pays $77,200 a year.

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