Wednesday, May 14, 2008

Duane Grimes -- Montana Headlines interview, Part 1 of 3

Introductory comments:

Montana Headlines would like to thank Duane Grimes, the Republican candidate for State Auditor for being willing to visit with us about his candidacy.

This interview reflects a series of e-mail exchanges, and will be posted in several parts.

Comments and questions are welcome -- again, those who are familiar with Montana Headlines know that there is a strong emphasis on civil, issue-oriented debate, and we are happy to say that even those who disagree with us politically enter into that spirit when posting comments here.

Mr. Grimes has been good enough to agree to respond to some questions and comments -- the decision of which comments or questions to post will be at the sole discretion of Montana Headlines. The decision of whether to respond to an individual question or comment will be up to Mr. Grimes. We are grateful for his taking the time to do this interview. At a certain point, comments and questions will be shut off, since it isn't reasonable for busy candidates to commit to an open-ended exchange.


MH: First of all, welcome to Montana Headlines, and thank you very much for agreeing to do this interview.

Let's start with a basic question: What is a State Auditor, and why does Montana need one?

Duane Grimes: The State Auditor regulates the insurance and securities industries in the state of Montana. Every state has a similar position, though in many states it is called the Insurance Commissioner and is actually an appointed rather than an elected position. The responsibilities of the Auditor have everything to do with the affordability and accessibility of the things you depend on to protect your family, business and future. In election years, the race for Auditor often gets overshadowed by races ‘higher-up’ on the ballot such as U.S. Congress or Governor, which is unfortunate given that decisions made by the Auditor’s office affect the daily lives of nearly every Montanan.

My 9-year-old daughter earlier this year had to go to school and tell her teacher and classmates what the State Auditor did, so I had to boil it down. I told her that the Auditor "makes sure insurance companies keep their promises." She wrinkled up her nose because she didn't know what an ‘insurance company’ was. So I boiled it down even further, saying, "the Auditor helps people with some of the problems they have when they get in accidents or go to the hospital."

And that's what it is. Insurance is the promise of financial protection and allows us all to assume the inherent risks in life, anticipated or not, with some sort of safety net. The Auditor is your first line of protection to ‘insure’ that safety net is as promised. Most people I talk to say about the same thing, "When I needed the Auditor, I really needed help!"

Montana – and every state – needs some form of Insurance Commissioner to ensure that honest businesses can provide a variety of quality insurance options to consumers at reasonable prices, and that unscrupulous businesses are stopped and prosecuted.

MH: How many years has it been since Montana has had a Republican State Auditor? Why have Republicans not been as successful in recent years as Democrats in getting elected to this statewide office?

Duane Grimes: Well, it has been 16 years since we had Andrea Bennett, a Republican. She succeeded Sonny Omholt who had the job since before the 1972 Constitution. (As a matter of fact, some folks involved back then have told me it was Omholt's reputation and friendliness that caused the position of Auditor to be retained in the massive state government reorganization of the early 1970's.) Since term limits, for the last 16 years we have had Mark O’Keefe and John Morrison.

The candidate that initially ran against O’Keefe was an insurance agent and long time legislator from Stevensville, Fred Thomas, who was accused by O’Keefe of being the "fox in the henhouse," because of his insurance affiliation, and that is probably the reason Thomas lost. For his first term, Morrison ran against a Republican who didn't campaign at all, and then I lost to him in his reelection bid 4 years later in 2004. I later found out that no incumbent in a ‘mid-tier’ race like this has ever lost a re-election! Now the seat is open again in this 2008 race and I think I have a very good chance to win the race.

MH: So our Republican Sec. State Brad Johnson should be feeling pretty good right now, if no incumbent in a mid-tier has lost, historically?

Duane Grimes
: Historically, sure, but I’m certainly not going to jinx Brad’s campaign by making any predictions! It also used to be true that you had to win Yellowstone County to win a statewide race: both Brad and Jon Tester broke that truism. The political landscape in Montana continues to change, and candidates can take nothing for granted.

MH: You are not an insurance agent, so you can't fairly be accused of partiality towards the insurance industry, but your reference to O'Keefe accusing Fred Thomas of being a "fox in the henhouse" just because of what he had done for a living is rather amusing.

This is not to make light of any unfair criticisms that Thomas had to endure. Rather, what is interesting is that Democratic candidates for Attorney General are often closely tied to the Montana Trial Lawyers Association -- and that Democratic candidates for State Superintendent routinely are very closely tied to the Montana Education Association. And yet, we don't tend to hear "fox in the henhouse" comments about those particular races. We are told that their opinion should have particular weight since lawyers understand the law and educators understand education. And yet if someone with experience in the insurance industry is interested in being what amounts to an insurance commissioner, it is automatically assumed that a nefarious scheme is afoot.

Don't worry -- you don't have to respond to that -- it's just some MH editorializing.

Getting back to your own situation, you clearly see the Auditor's role as being an advocate for Montana consumers of insurance and investment products -- and that is as it should be. But to play devil's advocate for a moment, aren't consumers best served by having a climate where insurance companies see Montana as a good place for them to do business? Most insurance companies seem to want clear ground rules that aren't going to turn into shifting sands, which includes a stable regulatory climate. If Montana is seen as a stable place for insurance companies to do business, won't there will be more of them competing to offer better products at lower prices?

Having a stable, open, and businesslike environment to encourage good insurance companies would seem to be important. You don't need to have a stance toward insurance and investment companies that is adversarial from the outset in order to do your job as Auditor to help Montana consumers, do you?

Duane Grimes: I believe that the best help an Auditor can bring consumers is by ensuring that there is a stable marketplace; the two go hand-in-hand. If honest businesses are able to operate in Montana and be successful, more businesses will open or move here and thus increase competition, ultimately making consumers the big winners.

Interestingly, my opponent has already begun to accuse me, in her words, of being “all too happy to carry the industry’s water,” in an attempt to portray me as ‘anti-consumer.’ I believe that an effective insurance commissioner should have open lines of communication with the small-business community rather than be reflexively combative from the start simply as political posturing. Arbitrarily treating small business – which is what most local insurance agents are – as the enemy is the wrong way to go about being a successful regulator and successful advocate for consumers.


Tomorrow -- Roy Brown guest editorial

Friday -- Part 2 of Duane Grimes interview

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