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Donelon challenger needs to clarify candidacy

A little-noticed ruling by Republican state Insurance Commissioner Jim Donelon reflects the larger drama of struggles between the trial lawyer lobby and reformers.

Earlier this month, Donelon used the powers of his office to issue a cease-and-desist order to State Farm in its attempts to use a hurricane deductible instead of an all-peril one on policyholders suffering damage prior to Jul. 13 relative to Hurricane Barry. The company says its policy language permits the hurricane deductible for damage during a period of a hurricane watch or warning, which Donelon disallowed in saying it should apply only to when the actual storm hits.

The change could affect around 730 claimants, likely in every instance lowering the amount they must pay out-of-pocket. State Farm says if it must follow Donelon’s order that this could boost future rates.

Such a move by Donelon certainly would win him favor among those affected and gives him a good talking point as standing up for ratepayers. As it is, on the campaign trail he reminds voters how insurance rates generally have fallen during his years in office with expanded choices. But publicity such as receives from this order is something he may need in facing a millionaire self-funded potentially stealth Democrat campaign.

Even before the end of last year, insurance executive Tim Temple announced he would challenge Donelon. Between now and then, he loaned his campaign a million bucks and raised a far smaller sum from a mixture of insurance agents, bail bondsmen, and a few prominent Republicans, and filed to run as a Republican.

But Temple is an ally of one of the fading power brokers among state Democrats, former Insurance Commissioner Robert Wooley who left office early after battling ethic concerns and is running Temple’s campaign (ironically, Donelon served as Wooley’s chief assistant when Wooley resigned). And Temple has been a high-profile donor to a number of Democrats in recent years, including giving $15,000 to Democrat Gov. John Bel Edwards.

Which must raise questions about Temple’s ingenuousness. He has criticized Donelon, saying rates remain too high with too few choices. In particular, he faulted Donelon for no providing enough backup to get HB 372 into law last legislative session. That bill would have imposed measures almost certain to lower both automobile insurance rates and payouts to trial lawyers.

That’s why a coalition of trial lawyers in the Senate spanning party labels managed to kill the bill, about which Donelon had little power to do anything about. But this was the wish of Edwards, a trial lawyer himself who trial lawyers have backed with millions of dollars for his campaigns and who Temple has backed.

Temple, who when he lived out of state supported some other Republican officeholders including Donelon, surely knew Edwards’ position on tort reform. That and his connection to Wooley invites concern about whether he doesn’t represent a Trojan Horse candidacy that, if made commissioner, would subvert reform efforts.

Other than his complaints about rates and availability, Temple reveals no real details about his views on his campaign website, and in news articles in which he is featured his main tactic if elected appears to be cheerleader-in-chief to talk down rates.

Temple’s candidacy raises more questions than it answers. At least Donelon has acted as commissioner in a way he can defend his record. If Temple wants to be more than just hot air, he needs make clear who he backs, who backs him, and explain whether he differs with these people on issues relevant to this contest.

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