Archive for Sunday, February 6, 1994

INCUMBENCY NO BONUS, BELEAGUERED TODD FINDS

February 6, 1994

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Republicans are fishing for another candidate for state insurance commissioner.

They say they've got nothing against Insurance Commissioner Ron Todd.

But a widespread view among Republican Party activists is that Todd can't win re-election because he is too closely linked -- in the public eye anyway -- with the insurance industry he regulates and with a controversial workers compensation award that went to his predecessor, Fletcher Bell.

And, in politics, perception is everything, they say.

So far, Todd has drawn three potential GOP contenders in his first re-election bid -- including a fellow Lawrence Republican, state Sen. Sandy Praeger. Also eying the race are Rep. Walker Hendrix, an Ottawa attorney, and Dan Martinez, a Wichita insurance consultant.

@briefhed:Field to be crowded

@sc: Todd says he isn't upset that Praeger is coming out of his own back yard to get into the race.

"I wouldn't say it bothered me. It surprised me. She called me to tell me she was strongly considering it. And that's all we talked about it," Todd said during an interview last week in his office, located about a block west of the Statehouse.

"I expect a pretty tough campaign in the primary and in the general," Todd said. "I really don't think it will be a lot tougher than it was four years ago, especially if people understand we were not involved in the work comp award."

Two Topeka Democrats, Rep. Kathleen Sebelius, and Phyllis Lopez, a longtime Topeka school teacher who ran for the office in 1990, are expected to run in Democratic primary.

@briefhed:A GOP stonghold

@sc: The insurance commissioner's post, which has been held by Republicans since 1899, hasn't had so much interest since Bell ran for his first re-election bid in 1974. At that time, Bell faced six opponents in the GOP primary and there were two candidates in the Democratic primary.

Bell, also a Lawrence resident, held the position from 1971 to 1991.

Todd, who had been an insurance department staff member since 1956 and was a longtime assistant commissioner, was designated by Bell as heir apparent.

Bell upset some Republicans by carrying water for Todd and helping him win a three-way GOP primary against former House Speaker Jim Braden and David Roll, Wichita. Bell even appeared in TV commercials for Todd, helping Todd go on to narrowly win the 1990 general election against state Sen. Paul Feliciano, D-Wichita.

But in one of the biggest ironies in Kansas politics, Todd's close connection to Bell -- a major asset in 1990 -- has become his biggest liability in this year's race.

@briefhed:A symbol for reform

@sc: In 1993, Bell came under fire after it came to light he began receiving a $94,469 workers compensation award two months after he left office in January 1991. The award, given by the Department of Human Resources, was for a 1989 back injury Bell suffered while still holding office as insurance commissioner. The injury occurred when he was lifting a briefcase from his car.

Bell's award, while legal, drew widespread public outrage and a call by Democrats for an investigation. And Bell became something of a symbol for those in the Legislature calling for white collar worker's compensation reform.

Todd, who had no direct link to Bell's award, probably didn't help himself much politically by commenting that Bell's award appeared to be appropriate.

@briefhed:Vulnerable target

@sc: Todd recognizes that his long association with Bell has made him appear vulnerable in the eyes of some Republicans.

"I don't look at that as insurmountable," Todd said. "I haven't heard anybody say it wasn't because I was doing a good job. If they think I am vulnerable, it's because of the Fletcher Bell award."

Todd pointed out that the award was made by the Department of Human Resources, which is not within his control.

Todd says if he takes his case to the people, he can win re-election. But some Republicans fear his message will be swallowed up by the continued media coverage of Bell's award, now the subject of an attorney general's investigation, and, following that, the subject of a Legislative Post Audit study.

Meanwhile, Todd has been been criticized for taking contributions from insurance sources and from attorneys hired by his office to represent state funds.

He's also been criticized for "double dipping," or receiving a pension for retiring as assistant commissioner in 1988, as well as his regular salary.

Todd has argued that the campaign contributions are legal, as is getting an early pension. But his critics say they are unethical.

@briefhed:Not enough polish

@sc: Some Republicans say there's another reason they don't want Todd. Although he's seen as having a strong background in insurance regulation, he's seen as a weak candidate.

They say he lacks the personal charisma and communication skills needed to hold on to the seat in a contest against Sebelius, the front-runner in the Democratic primary.

Sebelius, an attorney and former lobbyist for the Kansas Trial Lawyers Assn., would be much more polished in a high-profile race, they say.

That's another reason Hendrix and Praeger say they have been encouraged to get in the race.

But Praeger and Hendrix, who have each appointed campaign treasurers, are each trying to talk the other out of running.

They say they probably won't both get into the primary race because too many candidates would give the edge to Todd. They'll have to decide who runs by the June 10 filing deadline.

"We want to keep the seat. We're afraid that because of the baggage Ron has, that he can't. So one of us will get out," Praeger said. "Republicans are going to want to vote for someone they think can win in November."

@briefhed:Backyard challengers

@sc: Praeger said she has been urged to get into the race for the last six months by a variety of constituents and fellow legislators. She said they have told her that her work in state health-care reform issues makes her a natural for making changes in how the insurance commissioner deals with health insurance.

"They feel it's important to have someone in the office who will focus on health reform, because that's what people are interested in now," she said.

Praeger says she foresees a more dynamic role for the post, initiating actions rather than waiting on Congress and the Legislature to make reforms.

She admits she has a lot to learn about the insurance industry. But the former Lawrence mayor said her strong suits are her communication skills and administrative ability.

"I think the ability to work with the public is a very important function of the department," Praeger said. "The knowledge base, I can learn, but some of the skills I will bring to the office are skills I have acquired over a long period of time."

Hendrix, whose district includes southern Douglas County, says he's been looking at the position for several months, since the Bell award came to light.

"When you tell people you're interested in running for insurance commissioner, people invariably ask what condition your back is in," Hendrix said.

Hendrix said he was encouraged to get into the race because of his involvement in workers compensation reform and his interest in health-care issues since becoming a legislator.

An attorney who also worked for the Kansas Corporation Commission, Hendrix said he has experience in setting rates for utilities and can use that background in dealing with insurance rates.

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