The stage is set for an immense political clash over regulation of health insurance with multibillion-dollar stakes and an impact on virtually every Californian.
Consumer Watchdog battled insurers over regulation of auto and other personal insurance 24 years ago and won, claiming that it has saved consumers tens of billions of dollars since.
Now it wants regulation of health insurance, promising to cut costs by cracking down on bloated insurer overhead and profits. It launched the initiative after rate-regulation legislation, sponsored by Consumer Watchdog and Insurance Commissioner Dave Jones, stalled last year.
The warring factions will be spending untold millions of dollars on the fall campaign over this complex and contentious issue.
There is a subtext to that clash a very nasty personal feud that pits Consumer Watchdog founder Harvey Rosenfield against critics who are, surprisingly, mostly liberal Democrats.
His chief antagonist is Steve Maviglio, a political consultant who was a top aide to former Gov. Gray Davis and former Assembly Speaker Fabian Núñez, both of whom received public tongue-lashings from Rosenfield and his organization.
They rapped Davis over his handling of the energy crisis and Núñez over carrying state health care legislation. Rosenfield accused both of helping corporations at the expense of consumers.
Maviglio accuses Consumer Watchdog of hiding its financing and of receiving more than $6 million in "intervenor fees" from Jones' Department of Insurance, which would increase if the new measure passes.
He also digs at Rosenfield for being paid more than $600,000 a year.
Rosenfield characterizes Maviglio as the agent of a corrupt, anti-consumer political establishment.
"He's being paid, and he's not being honest about it," Rosenfield said. "We are not partisan. The only people we work for are the consumers. I made a billion dollars and didn't keep it for myself."
Consumer Watchdog once accused Maviglio of maintaining a political website on state time while working for Núñez.
Maviglio called his anti-Rosenfield crusade "very personal," adding, "I'm not involved in any campaign."
"I think they (Consumer Watchdog) are a complete fraud and undermine the work that other groups do (and) personally profit from what they're doing," Maviglio said.
Consumer Watchdog irked Democratic leaders when it aired television commercials last year accusing Sen. Ed Hernandez, D-West Covina, of torpedoing health insurance regulation. Sen. Juan Vargas, D-San Diego, has called for legislative hearings on intervenor fees.
Maviglio has set up a website to disseminate anti-Rosenfield material, which will likely be used by the health insurance industry as it battles Consumer Watchdog over its measure.