State insurance commissioner hopefuls have rural roots

abaird@newsobserver.comOctober 15, 2012 

  • N.C. Commissioner of Insurance Wayne Goodwin (incumbent) Democrat Website: Home: Raleigh Family: Wife, Melanie Wade Goodwin, and two children Education: B.A., political science, honors; and J.D., UNC-Chapel Hill Career: Commissioner, 2009 to present; assistant commissioner, 2005-2009; member of state House of Representatives, 1997-2004. Mike Causey Republican Website: Home: Greensboro Education: B.S., business administration, and MBA studies, High Point University Career/community involvement: Small-business owner and farmer; retired insurance executive, former lobbyist. Ran unsuccessfully for insurance commissioner in 1992, 1996 and 2000, losing each time to the late Jim Long.

On a hot September afternoon, Mike Causey was on stage in Greenville to prep the crowd for Paul Ryan, the GOP vice presidential hopeful.

Causey, the Republican nominee for state Insurance Commissioner, explained the importance of the office he was running for and some of its less-than-obvious roles. As Causey pitched his take on homeowner’s insurance rates, he received little more than nods and smiles from the crowd. Then he invoked a line that’s been popular for Republicans all along the campaign trail: “People ask me my position on Obamacare; I’m opposed to Obamacare,” he said. Thunderous applause.

The Department of Insurance actually has a role in the Affordable Care Act – it will be responsible for setting up the health care exchanges the law requires – a fact that may have been lost on many in the crowd. Nor is it likely that many were aware the department already oversees the state’s high risk insurance pool for those with pre-existing conditions who can’t get health care coverage otherwise.

“There might be no department that does more things that people don’t even know about,” said Wayne Goodwin, the incumbent Insurance Commissioner, whom Causey is trying to replace.

What do they actually do?

Aside from predictable roles – licensing insurance providers, regulating the writing of many types of insurance, investigating claims of fraud – the department has a few responsibilities that are less obvious. The commissioner acts as the state fire marshal and oversees the bail bonds industry.

Cracking down on fraud has been part of Goodwin’s sales pitch to voters – he calls himself the “capeless crusader” in the personal blog he keeps, “Wayne’s World: Politics in and around North Carolina.” He mentions often that the department has responded to more than 14,000 complaints that have resulted in more than 600 arrests under his supervision. Of those arrests, 333 led to convictions and many more are working their way through the courts.

“I’ve been aggressive in leading the department’s efforts to stop fraud and protect consumers,” Goodwin, 45, said in an interview. “My record reflects that.”

Causey, 62, has made the small number of companies writing certain types of insurance the main talking point of his campaign.

He blames that on “excessive regulation by the department.” He also criticizes the department for not standardizing its paperwork to conform with other states, which would make it easier for insurance companies to write policies here.

“If an insurance company is thinking about expanding to another state, you have to ask, why would they choose North Carolina?” Causey said. “It’s more complicated, more difficult to operate here. I would change that.”

Goodwin believes the paperwork is a non-issue for companies large and small, and he argues the scant number of insurers in certain areas is an unfortunate reality of the market – there’s less money to be made writing insurance in areas sure to be hit with heavy winds and torrential rain, and few companies can subsidize the risk, he said.

Relatively few options exist for homeowner’s insurance along the coast – of the 743 companies licensed to write homeowner’s insurance in 2011, only 38 provided full coverage in beach and coastal areas.

To the larger question of whether enough companies operate statewide, Goodwin points out that there are more insurers in the state now than when he took office. Thirty-nine new auto insurers have come to North Carolina, bringing the total to 677, and 41 new home insurers have opened, for a total of 743. There are also more companies writing insurance for workers compensation and term life policies.

“They’re coming here because it’s good for business,” Goodwin said.

Similar roots, different paths

Goodwin comes from Hamlet, a town of several thousand situated along the South Carolina border. He left home to attend the UNC-Chapel Hill, where he earned degrees in political science and law. He practiced law and then in 1996 was elected to the state House, representing Richmond, Scotland, Montgomery and Stanly counties for four terms. Causey was born and raised in rural Guilford County near Greensboro. He went on to serve in the Army as a military policeman. He returned home and pursued a career that included stints at many levels of the insurance business and lobbying for industry interests at the General Assembly. He has run unsuccessfully for insurance commissioner three times before, losing each time to the late Jim Long.

The two often trade swipes about their biographies.

“We need someone who’s actually done the job,” Causey said. “If you can do something in the insurance industry, I’ve done it. He’s a career government employee.”

Goodwin counters with, “I’ve never been a paid lobbyist. I’ve always worked for the people who elected me, not special interests.” And he bats away claims of being a career government type by pointing to his private legal practice.

In fundraising, Causey has been the underdog, raising just under $50,000 as of the second quarter compared to Goodwin’s $500,000.

Goodwin has just launched his first television ad. He describes himself as a public servant with rural roots whose background in law and government makes him uniquely qualified to understand the ins and outs of the department.

Causey casts himself as a free-market small business owner – he now sells his farm produce at an organic market he owns in Greensboro. He has focused on telling his story through radio ads, grass-roots handshaking and GOP events.

Baird: 919-829-4696

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