With four unsuccessful runs for state insurance commissioner under his belt, Mike Causey firmly believed 2016 was the year the Republican Party needed to nominate a different sort of candidate.
“I was convinced we needed a woman candidate, that a woman could pull two or three points more than a man in a statewide race,” Causey said in a recent interview.
But, to his chagrin, the woman he had hoped to persuade to run decided not to take the plunge. So he ended up once again running for the commissioner’s job himself – just as he had in 1992, 1996, 2000 and 2012.
But, unlike those races, this time he came up a winner with 50.4 percent of the vote, beating the incumbent, Democrat Wayne Goodwin, by not quite 36,000 votes.
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“My goal was to get a Republican elected insurance commissioner,” said Causey, 66, who was sworn in on Jan. 1. “It’s taken 25 years to achieve that goal.” (In fact, up to now the office has been held by a Democrat ever since the first commissioner took office in 1899.)
Causey’s tenacity and the knowledge he gained from a quarter-century of working in the insurance industry will serve the people of North Carolina well, said Michelle Osborne, an adjunct business professor at Campbell University and a former insurance executive who is an adviser to Causey’s transition team.
“He’s smart and he has fresh ideas for fixing old problems, and he really likes listening to others and hearing suggestions,” she said. “That is the key to Mike, that he listens to people and wants to think things through.”
Roger Blackwell, a city councilman in the Randolph County town of Archdale and a long-time friend of Causey’s, was one of the people who urged him to run yet again for commissioner.
“I think that anyone who meets Mike is going to like him because he is just of that nature,” Blackwell said. “He don’t meet a stranger.”
Causey’s campaign was based on the premise that the state’s one-of-a-kind regulatory system for auto and homeowners insurance, which calls for the commissioner to rule on a single rate request filed on behalf of all insurers by the N.C. Rate Bureau, is outdated and needs to be overhauled. Critics contend the one-size-fits-all regulatory system prevents auto insurers from offering discounts that are available in other states and deters some companies from offering policies in North Carolina.
“The message was change,” said Causey, who is stepping down from his current job as coordinator of the state’s adopt-a-highway program. “The message was, people need more choices, better service and lower rates. And we just kept hammering on that.”
But Causey said he plans to push for evolutionary changes – “nothing drastic” is how he puts it – rather than revolutionary ones. One option he sees as a possibility is allowing insurers to opt out of the current system and file their own rate requests.
“I’ve heard people say, we just need to get rid of this Rate Bureau,” Causey said. “(But) you have to be very careful. You don’t want to create chaos in the market. You want to create changes gradually.”
In recent years efforts to revamp the regulatory system, which would require action by state legislators, were opposed not only by Goodwin but also by some insurance companies. Causey said he plans to work with legislators and insurers to devise changes that will garner widespread support.
“Any time you do anything legislatively, you’ve got to bring both sides of the aisle together and find enough common ground to get it passed,” he said.
Causey also promised to upgrade customer service at the agency.
He said each of the agency’s customer service reps should be providing service with a smile, “not somebody who acts like it’s a pain to answer a question.”
Causey also would like to insurers to step up their service.
“Some insurance companies take way too long to settle claims,” he said. “There are all of these things we will be looking at to see where we can ... improve efficiencies.”
Causey grew up in rural Guilford County, the son of a truck driver and the oldest of five siblings.
“I live on the farm where I grew up, the same house that my great-granddaddy, my granddaddy and my daddy lived in,” he said. “So I tell people I have deep roots in North Carolina.”
But his Republican Party roots aren’t nearly so deep.
“My family were staunch Democrats,” he recalled. “My granddaddy hated Republicans. That’s how I grew up. We didn’t know any Republicans.”
But Causey has always considered himself a conservative, and in the mid-1970s he joined the Young Republicans.
Causey learned at an early age that he had a knack for sales and interacting with people. When he was in middle school and high school, he went door to door selling seeds for the American Seed Co.
“You did what you could to make a few extra dollars because we were poor,” said Causey, who also drove a school bus after he turned 16 – which was allowed in those days.
Causey, who has a bachelor’s degree in business administration from High Point University, has had a diverse career. He worked as an insurance agent, was an insurance company executive at companies both large and small, and owned his own insurance agency. He also has been a registered lobbyist and owned, at various times, a farm equipment dealership, an antique shop, a financial services firm and a Downtown Farm Market store in Greensboro.
In 1990, when he owned an insurance agency in Greensboro, Causey, who admired the late Sen. Jesse Helms, agreed to let the state Republican party install 30 telephone lines in his office to drum up support for Helms’ re-election.
“I devoted two years of my time just volunteering on Sen. Helms’ campaign,” Causey said. “I got students from the college (and) retirees to all come in and make phone calls.”
After the election, some Republican friends approached him about running for office.
His initial response: “I said, ‘For what? Dogcatcher?’ ”