What Gulf Coast Congressman Gene Taylor wanted the Easter Bunny to bring him.
South Mississippi Living 4/07

Sunday, July 29, 2007

Dale's campaign burdened by Katrina, Democrats flap

RIDGELAND, Miss. -- Hurricane Katrina has nearly knocked the wind out of George Dale's re-election campaign for Mississippi insurance commissioner, a job he's held for 32 years.

Dale is the longest-serving state insurance commissioner in the nation. He's been crisscrossing the state for weeks, trying to win support in what's proven to be his toughest race.

His challenges include a strong opponent in the Aug. 7 Democratic Primary and a bitter dispute with Democrats over his loyalty to the party.

But his biggest albatross may be an advertising campaign financed by attorneys who represent policyholders in lawsuits against the insurance industry over rejected Hurricane Katrina claims.

Had my first election been as different as this one, I never would have run again," Dale said.

Recently, Dale gave a three-minute stump speech at St. Catherine's Village, a retirement community in Ridgeland. It was a candidates' forum and Dale's challenger, Gary Anderson, a former state fiscal officer, didn't attend

"The guy I'm running against is a class act. Gary has run a decent campaign, but I'm actually running to some degree against outside forces," Dale said after his speech. "I'm talking Dickie Scruggs and those lawyers. They run cartoons and they've run ads and everything to try to discredit me statewide."

Scruggs, a high-profile attorney who helped negotiate a multibillion dollar settlement with tobacco companies in the mid-1990s, represents hundreds of homeowners in lawsuits against insurers.

As insurance commissioner, it was Dale's job to referee the fallout from Hurricane Katrina. On Aug. 29, 2005, the killer hurricane's storm surge devastated the Gulf Coast, destroying thousands of homes and businesses.

After property owners scurried to recoup their losses from insurance policies, many of them learned that their coverage didn't include the flooding caused by Katrina.

In addition, many of the state's insurance providers raised their policy premiums. At least one, State Farm Fire and Casualty Co., the state's largest homeowner insurer, suspended writing new homeowner and commercial policies statewide.

Criticism was leveled at Dale, accused by some of favoring the insurance companies in payoff disputes with storm victims and by others of failing to force insurers to hold down their rates."

Anytime someone does not get their claim paid, they're unhappy and accuse you of being on the side of the insurance company. It's nothing new. That goes on when there's not an election," Dale said.

But then Dale found himself at odds with the Scruggs law firm.

Scruggs has been critical of a mediation program sponsored by Dale's office that allows homeowners to negotiate settlements with their insurers without resorting to litigation.

Scruggs has said the program "has no teeth in it."

And, months after Scruggs' legal team withdrew support for a January deal that called for State Farm to pay at least $50 million to some 35,000 policyholders, the insurer reached a separate but similar agreement with Dale.

The Scruggs Katrina Group has run a series of television and newspaper ads critical of the insurance industry and unflattering to Dale. Zach Scruggs, the son of Dickie Scruggs and a member of the firm, described the ads as educational.

Still, one newspaper ad depicted Dale as a pig being covered in pink lipstick by State Farm executives. The caption read: "Lipstick On A Pig."

"George Dale is obviously a big part of the problem on the Gulf Coast, and in Mississippi in general, because he's the one that fills in the amount that every Mississippian has to pay for insurance," Zach Scruggs said. "The fact that it is an election year doesn't change the fact that we have an insurance crisis in Mississippi."

Dale, 66, said many voters don't understand the limitations of his powers and the complexities of his job.

His duties include regulating the insurance industry, licensing manufacturers and dealers of mobile homes, serving as state fire marshal and chairman of the State Fire Academy. He's been on the job since January 1976.

He said most of his time is now devoted to settling the remaining Katrina claims and ensuring that insurance companies continue to provide coverage in the state at the lowest possible rates. He said two providers _ Shelter Insurance Co. and Allstate Insurance Co. _ have reduced their rates in certain areas of north Mississippi.

"You can't overlook the fact that this is the largest natural disasters in the history of the U.S.," Dale said, adding that 99 percent of the claims have been settled.

However, Zach Scruggs said the term "settled" could mean closed, but not necessarily paid. Scruggs said many of his firm's clients were lumped into the settled category. So far, he said the firm has won more than $200 million for 1,200 clients.

Dale, a former high school principal who served as an assistant to then-Gov. Bill Waller, retains the respect of his peers for his fairness, said National Association of Insurance Commissioners president Ragan Ingram. The Alabama insurance commissioner explained that the role of insurance commissioner always becomes more difficult after a natural disaster.

"There must be some reason that the people of Mississippi have elected him to office eight different times," Ingram said.

Earlier this year, Dale was embroiled in another controversy over his re-election bid. The state Democratic Executive Committee sought to remove him from the party ballot.

Committee members argued that Dale shouldn't run under the party label because he publicly supported President Bush for re-election in 2004. In May, a Calhoun County circuit judge reversed the decision and put Dale back on the Aug. 7 primary ballot.

"It was going to be a tough election for him regardless ... but that added to the question of 'What's up with George Dale?'" said Marty Wiseman, director of the John C. Stennis Institute for Government at Mississippi State University.

Dale's Democratic challenger also paints him as being too cozy with the insurance industry. Anderson, who oversaw Mississippi's $10 billion budget as state fiscal officer between 2000 and 2003, points to campaign contributions Dale has received from industry insiders.

"It's a pocketbook race. How can you look out for the consumers when you're in the back pocket of the insurance company?" asked Anderson, who has said he will not accept any contributions from the industry.

Dale has more than twice the amount of campaign cash as Anderson, and he defended contributions from local insurance agents, saying they want to elect someone who will fairly regulate them.

If Dale is successful in the primary, he still faces a Republican in November. The Republicans running for insurance commissioner are state Sen. Mike Chaney, of Vicksburg, and Ronnie D. English, of Vancleave.

Before leaving the retirement community, Dale asks two women for their votes.

"I've seen your picture on television," one woman said.

"I hope so," Dale said. "I paid enough to get on there."

Copyright 2007 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.
Published by KATC-TV Mobile, Alabama

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