The battle for the state insurance commissioner’s job pits a warrior against a peacekeeper.
Incumbent Deborah Senn infuriates insurance executives, legislators and subordinates with her combative style. She vows to continue fighting for consumers.
Challenger Anthony Lowe charms prominent state Republicans with his affable, diplomatic manner. He vows to call a health insurance summit to improve relations.
Handshakes at the end of debates look forced and awkward.
For starters, they call each other liars.
“He has no credibility,” Senn says. “He just does not tell the truth.”
Lowe, 35, laughs at the comment. “That’s what I say about her.”
Senn, 47, portrays Lowe as an insurance-industry stooge who would gut consumer protections to repay insurance mavens for backing his campaign.
“I am a consumer advocate. That’s what I’ve been for four years,” Senn says. “That’s what the consumer of the state will get if they re-elect me - someone who will stand up on their behalf.”
Lowe says Senn actually is a consumer nightmare.
“She’s trying to throw this up as a smokescreen to haze over the fact that her own record is absolutely horrible. The few good things she’s done are far overshadowed by her oversteps and missteps and tyrannical behavior.”
If Lowe is elected, he says consumers will get cheaper insurance bills and more options because he’ll lure companies to the state and increase competition.
The alternative, he says, is a lawsuit-saddled commissioner who drives companies out of state with belligerent attacks on every thing from rate requests to executive salaries.
Senn sounds exasperated discussing Lowe’s claims. “Mr. Lowe has run an excessively negative campaign.”
Look at my record, the Democrat says.
According to her office: Health insurance premiums were rising by about 13 percent a year when she arrived in Olympia. During the last two years they increased by just 4 percent annually.
Senn uncovers four times as much insurance fraud as her predecessor - returning about $11 million to consumers since taking office.
“I think she has the interest of the policy holders at heart,” says Senn fan Clay Bleck, the Spokane owner of the Honda City car lot. “I think previous insurance commissioners were in the pocket of the industry.”
Senn has few allies in the state’s insurance business, but Dr. Henry Berman, CEO of Group Health Northwest in Spokane, concedes a begrudging respect.
“I admire her activism to try to have better insurance available to more people,” Berman said, then added, but “I would like to see as much of a commitment to make sure we’re in a position where we can be successful as business entities.”
Before her arrival, Senn says the office rarely even questioned rateincrease requests from insurance companies.
Now she “squeezes the fat” out of every request, she claims.
As evidence of the shift in management style, Senn points to a response from Blue Cross of Washington and Alaska in October 1993.
After she challenged the need for a rate hike, the company sent what Senn calls a “never-mind” letter to her office.
“After reviewing more updated claims experience and making other adjustments to the rate calculation, we find no need for a rate increase at this time,” wrote Gordon Laing, corporate actuary.
Senn says the office would become a toothless watchdog under Lowe, as it was before her watch.
“That’s nonsense,” says former Spokane Mayor David Rodgers, who worked for Senn’s predecessor, Dick Marquardt.
“We went after the bad guys and we got them. We sent 11 or 12 people to jail,” he says. “Senn is mostly in the public-relations business. She just gets on the tube and bashes the industry. It’s easy to get elected that way.”
Rodgers likes Lowe’s legal background and his tact. “His attitude and approach is so different” from Senn’s.
About the only time the gregarious Lowe gets testy is when he discusses Senn.
He hammers at the fact that she’s the target of a massive whistleblower complaint now under investigation by State Auditor Brian Sonntag.
The complaint - which Senn calls a vindictive rehash of bogus allegations - accuses her of bullying employees, hiring unqualified friends and even directing the shredding of documents.
Lowe questions the veracity of any information coming from Senn’s office. “Almost every time she gives me a fact and I go back and check it, it’s not true.”
Senn fires back that Lowe never asks her office for any information because he’s too busy getting spoonfed distortions by Blue Cross and other insurers.
An example of the clash: Lowe says there are only six companies selling health insurance to individual policy holders in the state. Senn says there are more than 20.
The truth? There are more than 20, but in some areas of the state it’s hard to find more than a few companies that sell the policies to the self-employed and others buying their own coverage.
Lowe, a King County deputy prosecutor, worked for U.S. Sen. Slade Gorton, R-Wash, and emerged as a young political star when he ran a strong, but unsuccessful race for Congress two years ago.
Gorton says he was immediately impressed by Lowe. “He was the sort of person I hoped would run for office,” the senator says. “He has an engaging personality. He’s intelligent and competent. And he likes people.”
If he beats Senn, Lowe will be the first African-American ever elected to a statewide post.
Lowe has raised about $170,000 for his campaign, the majority of which came from people who make a living in the insurance industry.
Senn says that means Lowe will owe the industry favors. Lowe says that’s not the case, arguing that his primary backers are insurance agents and brokers whom he calls “the consumers’ first line of defense.”
Senn, an Illinois-born attorney, is a mountain climbing buff who likes to tour the country on the back of her husband’s Harley-Davidson.
She has raised $375,000, more than twice Lowe’s kitty. Her biggest checks come from the chiropractors and other alternative practitioners she backs in battles with insurance companies.
Senn’s controversial reign as commissioner has yielded unflattering front-page coverage in the Wall Street Journal and rave reviews from Ralph Nader who calls her the nation’s best insurance commissioner.
, DataTimes MEMO: See individual profiles by name of candidate.
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