In 1972, Richard Nixon was president, Elvis Presley remained king – and Jim Donelon narrowly lost a race to be district attorney in Jefferson Parish.
Despite several more defeats, he went on to preside over the Jefferson Parish Council and serve four full terms in the State House. He is in his fourth term as Louisiana Insurance Commissioner.
Now, for perhaps the first time in his five-decade political career in Louisiana, Donelon is alone in the spotlight.
State lawmakers are meeting this week in special session at his request. Donelon is urging them to approve new laws to stabilize the home insurance market in southern Louisiana, which is in turmoil after four hurricanes hit Louisiana in 2020 and 2021.
“I truly believe that if we don’t do this, thousands of homeowners below I-10 and I-12 are going to lose their homes,” Donelon, a Republican from Metairie, told state lawmakers on Tuesday.
But the crisis also means Donelon is under fire like never before.
“Louisiana residents are being kicked out of their homes because Commissioner Jim Donelon failed in his primary responsibility – and he knows it,” House Democrats tweeted Wednesday.
Luring insurers with money
Donelon’s plan calls for subsidies to insurance companies that could total $45 million to incentivize them to take out policies in the state, in hopes that private companies will cover some of those now insured by Louisiana Citizens Property Insurance Corp., the state insurer of last resort. Companies should contribute a certain amount of money to qualify for the state subsidy. Donelon says it’s the best hope to get owners out of Citizens, which is more expensive than private coverage, saying a similar plan worked after Katrina, although the evidence is mixed.
Under a special rule, Donelon took center stage on the House floor on Wednesday, answering questions from lawmakers for more than two hours. After an hour-long debate that followed, the House approved the plan supported by Donelon, 90-8. The measure is now before the Senate Finance Committee for a hearing on Thursday. Final adoption by the full Senate could come Friday.
As someone who can help determine prices for most types of insurance policies, Donelon makes decisions that affect every Louisiana resident. But Donelon noted that when he runs for office every four years, early campaign polling typically shows half of the state’s voters can’t identify him.
As he enjoyed a highball over dinner on Tuesday night near his home in Metairie, Donelon, 78, said he plans to run again this year.
“Most voters on election day ask their neighbor or friend in the insurance industry how to vote,” Donelon said. “They say I’m doing a good job.”
Tim Temple, a fellow Republican who spent nearly $2 million of his own money four years ago and almost defeated Donelonchallenges him again for a job that pays $115,000 a year.
At various times, Donelon had ambitions to be a prosecutor, governor, congressman, senator, and local judge, eventually becoming the most senior insurance commissioner in the state.
It was a natural choice for him, given that he had become an insurance expert during his 19 years at the State House.
“What an incredible honor to be elected by the public to make decisions on their behalf that affect them every day in their homes and businesses,” Donelon said. “I can make these decisions based on my experience, knowledge and judgment. I found my niche. »
‘I am boring’
Tall, patrician, and easy-going, Donelon sounds like he could come from anywhere, without the patois or southern Louisiana eccentricity displayed by so many other state politicians.
“I’m boring,” he said, recalling how a parody at the annual Gridiron Show in Baton Rouge several years ago spoofed an ad for Dos Equis beer by describing Donelon as “the most most uninteresting in the world”.
Looking out into the audience, the commissioner laughed and was eager to call his wife to share the joke with her.
Donelon’s career stretches back so far that he can tell story after story about the Louisiana political titans he ran against or who supported him in one campaign or another — and who died or retired. since a long time.
A native of the city and a graduate of the University of New Orleans and Loyola Law School, Donelon became fascinated with politics thanks to his uncle Tom, who served as president of the Jefferson parish for a dozen years. in the 1960s and 1970s.
Jim Donelon began his political career as a Democrat by running for district attorney, but narrowly losing to John Mamoulides, who held the position for 24 years.
Donelon, after chairing Edwin Edwards’ campaign in Jefferson Parish, later became the new governor’s executive adviser, a post he held until 1975. Edwards, at this time, was a favorite of the crowd of good government.
Donelon was elected president of the Jefferson Parish Council in 1975, but relinquished the post four years later when he ran for lieutenant governor and lost to Bobby Freeman.
In 1980, Governor David Treen, who had just succeeded Edwards, supported Donelon’s candidacy to replace him in Congress. Treen, the state’s first Republican governor, convinced Donelon to move to the GOP. But Donelon narrowly lost to Billy Tauzin, who then spent 25 years in Congress.
In 1982, Donelon won a special House election and went on to be reelected — even after The Times-Picayune reported in 1995 that, in a little-known perk for state lawmakers, he had given one of his daughters three years of scholarships. study at Tulane. He was among many lawmakers who gave scholarships to the parents and children of politicians.
“It was a misjudgment,” he said over dinner.
“The Hottest Griddle in the State”
Donelon left the House in 2001 to become deputy chief insurance commissioner.
He took over as leader of the group in 2006 when Robert Wooley resigned to become a lobbyist.
Donelon oversaw the return to normalcy of Louisiana homeowners insurance policies after Hurricanes Katrina and Rita in 2005 and has since brought stability to a department that saw Wooley’s three immediate predecessors go to jail.
“It’s a very tough job, but he’s easy to work with,” said state Sen. Kirk Talbot, R-River Ridge, who chairs the Senate Insurance Committee.
“He is open-minded and listens to your ideas. That’s all I can ask for,” said Rep. Mike Huval, R-Breaux Bridge, who chairs the House Insurance Committee.
Critics say, however, that Donelon has been too comfortable with the industry he regulates, noting that he receives most of his campaign contributions from insurance executives, agents and lobbyists.
They note that Donelon predicted auto insurance rates would fall by up to 20% if lawmakers approved changes that would make it harder for injured motorists to sue insurance companies. Rates have actually increased, he acknowledged.
Donelon said the legislation had been changed and did not impose sufficiently broad restrictions on prosecutions. He also said he frequently speaks out against the wishes of the insurance industry.
For quite some time, Louisiana has had the highest car insurance rates in the country. The state also has some of the highest home insurance rates and a slumping market.
This will all be fodder against Donelon as he runs for re-election.
“His seat is the hottest hotplate in the state with all these hurricanes battering Louisiana,” former Jefferson Parish President Aaron Broussard said. “How do you stay a popular insurance commissioner when the insurance companies are making the job untenable because of their actions? You are truly dependent on Mother Nature, and Mother Nature, as we know, can be a bitch.