It can be assumed that Gavin Newsom will be re-elected this year for a second term as Governor of California.
Given this near-certainty, the biggest statewide race in 2022 will be Attorney General Rob Bonta’s bid for a full term amid growing public concern about crime. Newsom appointed Bonta last year after Xavier Becerra stepped down to become Secretary of Health and Human Services in President Joe Biden’s cabinet.
Bonta is strongly associated with the criminal justice reform movement, which critics say is finally partly responsible for the surge in property and violent crime by reducing the punishment for lawbreakers and sending more of them back to the streets instead of jail.
Leading critic, Sacramento District Attorney Ann Marie Schubert, isn’t Bonta’s only potential challenger, but he’s probably the one with the best chance of ousting him. It’s a test of whether California voters see crime as a deciding factor.
However it played out, the Bont-Schubert duel would have been a direct contest between two ideological adversaries.
A more complex and therefore more interesting political matchup for the lesser position of National Insurance Commissioner ensues when incumbent Democrat Ricardo Lara faces Democratic Assemblyman Mark Levine.
Lara, a former Los Angeles legislator, and Marin County’s Levine may not be ideological twins, but both are more or less traditional liberals who tend to pay homage to the Democratic Party’s list of do’s and don’ts.
Their rivalry becomes an example of what happens when one party completely dominates. It breaks down into internal factions—essentially quasi-parties—defined by personality, ethnicity, gender, or minor ideological differences that vie for influence.
This can be seen in the constant struggle between Democrats in party strongholds like San Francisco and between Republicans in the few GOP-dominated places like Kern County. Nature does not tolerate emptiness and, in the absence of bilateral competition, becomes internal.
Accordingly, Lara and Levin assemble coalitions of factions of the Democratic Party. Lara, who is Hispanic and gay, counts on the support of organizations representing these two groups, for example. Meanwhile, Levin enlisted the support of the California Nurses Association.
Are there any real issues separating them? Levin, whose area is engulfed in wildfire, actually accuses Lara of being too friendly with the insurance industry he regulates.
Since Lara took office three years ago, he has come under fire from Consumer Watchdog, which sponsored the 1988 vote that, among other things, turned the insurance commissioner from a gubernatorial appointee to an elected position.
Lara, however, proved to be a strict and efficient regulator when dealing with an insurance crisis caused by a wave of wildfires.
Insurers have paid out billions of dollars in compensation to victims of recent wildfires, and some have threatened to refuse to insure property in fire-prone areas and/or leave California altogether. Lara intervened by issuing a series of orders to insurance companies to continue insuring in areas affected by the fire, citing the authority of a law he sponsored as a state senator.
The orders, he said, “help give people the respite they desperately need while they recover.” He also ordered Fair Plan, the government’s insurance company of last resort, to offer more comprehensive coverage and proposed other insurance reforms.
It’s unclear if the insurers will help Lara fend off Levin’s challenge. If they jumped in with big campaign checks, it could give Levin a weapon to convince voters that Lara is their protector, not their regulator.
Dan Walters is a columnist for CalMatters.