Two intriguing statewide races to watch this year

We can pretty much assume that Gavin Newsom will be re-elected this year for a second term as Governor of California.

Given that near certainty, the most important statewide race in 2022 will be Attorney General Rob Bonta’s bid for a full term amid growing public anxiety about crime. Newsom appointed Bonta last year after Xavier Becerra resigned to become health and human services secretary in President Joe Biden’s cabinet.

Bonta is strongly identified with the criminal justice reform movement which critics say is finally partly responsible for the rise in property and violent crime by reducing sentences for offenders and putting more of them back on the streets rather than behind bars.

A top critic, Sacramento District Attorney Anne Marie Schubert, isn’t Bonta’s only potential challenger, but would likely be the one with the best chance of unseating him. It’s a test of whether California voters view crime as a game-changing issue.

Either way, a Bonta-Schubert duel would be a simple competition between two ideological enemies.

A more complex and therefore more interesting political matchup is emerging for the lower office of the state insurance commissioner, with Democratic incumbent Ricardo Lara facing Democratic Congressman Marc Levine.

Lara, a former Los Angeles lawmaker, and Levine, who represents Marin County, may not be ideological twins, but both are more or less conventional liberals who generally pay homage to the established list of things to do. do’s and don’ts of the Democratic Party.

Their contest becomes a case study of what happens when one party is totally dominant. It fragments into internal factions – essentially quasi-parties – defined by personality, ethnicity, gender or tiny ideological differences that compete for influence.

You see it in the perpetual infighting between Democrats in party strongholds such as San Francisco and among Republicans in the few places where the GOP prevails, such as Kern County. Nature abhors a vacuum, and in the absence of bipartisan competition, it becomes internalized.

As a result, Lara and Levine form coalitions of Democratic Party factions. Lara, who is Latino and gay, counts on the support of organizations that represent these two groups, for example. Levine, meanwhile, has won major support from the California Nurses Association.

Are there any real issues separating the two? Levine, whose district has been ravaged by a wildfire, essentially accuses Lara of being too comfortable with the insurance industry he regulates.

Since starting Lara’s term three years ago, he’s taken fire from Consumer Watchdog, which sponsored the 1988 ballot measure that, among other things, converted the insurance commissioner from a governor’s appointee in an elected position.

Lara, however, presented himself as a tough and effective regulator while dealing with an insurance crisis triggered by the wave of wildfires.

Insurers have shelled out billions of dollars to compensate victims of recent wildfires and some have threatened to refuse to cover property in fire-prone areas and/or to drop out of California altogether. Lara stepped in with a series of orders for insurers to continue covering areas affected by the fire, citing a power of legislation he sponsored as a state senator.

The orders, he says, “help give people the leeway they desperately need during their recovery.” He also ordered the Fair Plan, the state’s insurer of last resort, to offer more comprehensive coverage and proposed other insurance reforms.

It’s unclear whether insurers will help Lara complete Levine’s challenge. If they intervene with big campaign checks, it could give Levine a weapon to persuade voters that Lara is their protector, rather than their regulator.

Dan Walters is a CalMatters columnist.

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