New state insurance commissioner getting high marks

Three months after assuming command of the embattled state Department of Insurance, Harry Low appears to have won over Jews and Holocaust survivors, a constituency that lamented the political demise of his predecessor, Chuck Quackenbush.

Low, who took office Sept. 18 after he was appointed by Gov. Gray Davis, has garnered acclaim from both survivor advocacy groups and lawyers within his own department for continuing the Department of Insurance's pursuit of Holocaust-era insurers.

"Certainly, the full commitment of the Department of Insurance is readily apparent; this is still a high priority," said Richard Mahan, spokesperson for the California Holocaust Insurance Settlement Alliance, which met with Low on Oct. 30. "There's been no visible drop-off" in attention to Holocaust claims.

Back in 1999, California enacted a law requiring insurance firms to produce lists of their 1920-to-1945 European policyholder lists as a prerequisite to obtaining a California license.

Following suits by insurance companies, a preliminary injunction was issued against the state's Holocaust insurance disclosure law in June; the case is still pending. Mahan, however, pointed out that the Department of Insurance's aggressive appeal of the injunction demonstrates its continued advocacy on behalf of the state's estimated 22,000 survivors and their families.

"The state is continuing in its efforts to fight the injunction, file appeals and carry forth in pursuing this commitment. This is not something that comes for free," he said. "Commissioner Low hasn't altered the resources committed to [this issue] a single bit. It's an investment of significant dollars to fight this litigation."

The Department of Insurance's legal team went before the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals in San Francisco on Jan. 9, arguing against the preliminary injunction. Frank Kaplan, one of the department's lawyers, said that a ruling on the validity of the injunction may occur within "a month or two." The pending case regarding the constitutionality of the insurance disclosure law may not be resolved for another year or more.

Concurring with Holocaust survivor groups, Department of Insurance lawyers also praised Low for his commitment to Shoah-era claims.

"Nothing is changed as far as our efforts on the matter," said Leslie Tick, the department's senior staff counsel. "Everything is continuing, except we're being more cooperative; we're working cooperatively with other states that are involved in this. We're still very aggressive as far as advocating for our claimants, but we're trying to be cooperative."

Other department lawyers go further, saying Low's demeanor is a breath of fresh air, and that both the department and Holocaust claimants are better off under the new commissioner.

"I think the impression of many people is that Commissioner Quackenbush used Holocaust issues for his political gain to promote his political future," said Department of Insurance chief counsel Steven Green.

"Commissioner Low is not a politician and he was not elected to this office. In what the department seeks to accomplish in respect to Holocaust issues, the primary focus is not how to promote Commissioner Low; it's how to help the Holocaust survivors and their families."

Green said Quackenbush's conduct angered members of the International Commission of Holocaust-Era Insurance Claims, especially its chairman, former Secretary of State Lawrence Eagleburger. Green believes tensions have eased under Low's leadership, both inside and outside the department.

"Generally, everybody is happier, working harder and morale is up in the department now that Chuck Quackenbush is gone," Green said. "His trials and tribulations were a distraction to the work this department does."

State Sen. Jackie Speier (D-San Mateo-San Francisco), chair of the Senate Insurance Committee and one of Quackenbush's most active critics, also characterizes the former commissioner's outreach to Holocaust survivors as grandstanding.

"It was a political endeavor on behalf of the commissioner," said Speier. "I don't doubt for a moment that [Quackenbush] recognized Holocaust victims had been duped and their families had not received their insurance policies, but what was driving him was not so much compassion as political advantage."

Speier said that despite Quackenbush's 1999 announcement that a settlement with several Dutch insurers would send $4.2 million to a humanitarian commission he created, an auditor general's report made at her behest last year "underscored none of the $4.2 million had been paid by the actual insurance companies."

Speier has kind words for Low.

"I give him high marks," she said. "I think he has conducted himself in a most admirable manner. His office has been active on behalf of Holocaust survivors and their families. The department is being run as it should be run. There's a new breeze blowing through that department, and that's good news for the public."

Joe Eskenazi

Joe Eskenazi is the managing editor at Mission Local. He is a former editor-at-large at San Francisco magazine, former columnist at SF Weekly and a former J. staff writer.