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Chamber of Commerce jumps into insurance commissioner's race

October 6, 2010 |  3:45 pm

For the second time in a month, a political action committee at the California Chamber of Commerce is bankrolling television advertisements to help Republican Mike Villines in his race against Democrat Dave Jones for state insurance commissioner.

In campaign finance disclosure documents, the deep-pocketed chamber reported that it was spending $280,234 to fund “media production” for television advertisements that oppose Jones.

The same report showed that the chamber’s JOBSPAC just received six contributions from insurance-company interests totaling $387,000. The two largest were $225,000 from George Joseph, chairman of Mercury General Corp., and $90,000 from Progressive Corp.

Both Jones and Villines have pledged to take no campaign contributions from insurance companies because they could present a future conflict of interest when one of them becomes the insurance industry’s chief regulator.

Under California election law, insurance companies and anyone else legally can contribute to so-called independent expenditures favoring or opposing a candidate. The only restriction is that they not be coordinated with the favored candidate’s campaign.

Jones, however, accuses insurers of “laundering money through the California Chamber of Commerce to avoid disclosing they are behind the ads that the chamber of commerce is running for my opponent.”

He predicted that the chamber's TV campaign would spend as much as $5 million to try to defeat him.

Villines stressed that he had no knowledge or control over what the chamber might do on his behalf. “I’ve worked very hard to keep a very bright line with raising money and making sure it’s not from the insurance industry,” he said.

The chamber said its political action committee has a long history of supporting "Democrat and Republican candidates who have demonstrated commitment to a pro-jobs agenda."

Mercury’s Joseph declined to say whether he or his company were backing an independent-expenditure campaign in the insurance commissioner’s race.

“As long as independent-expenditure campaigns are legal,” Joseph said, "everyone has a right to express themselves.”

-- Marc Lifsher