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Independent agents seriously contemplating a run for public office need to look no further than the Independent Insurance Agents of America Inc. for assistance.

In February, about 30 agents and insurers learned the ins and outs of how to run a successful campaign by participating in the first ever bipartisan Campaign Institute, co-sponsored by the Alexandria, Va.-based agent association and Future One, a cooperative effort between the Big I and agency companies that focuses on research and government affairs.

"Given our experience and activity on the state and federal level, it was appropriate for us to bring the resources to bear to have a top notch school," said Wes Bissett, senior state government affairs representative for IIAA in Alexandria, Va.

During the two-day program, agents, who were nominated to attend by their state associations, listened to various authorities on polling, campaign research, fund raising, public events and campaign advertising. Reps. Bill Paxon, R-N.Y. and Jack Kingston, R-Ga., a former independent agent, also spoke on how to succeed in a campaign effort.

Due to the overwhelming response from the program, the Big I will sponsor another Campaign Institute, but there are no plans yet as to when, Mr. Bissett said. In the meantime, agents can call the association and receive a manual called "A Policy for Success: The Insurance Professional's Guide to Victory." The contents of the thick three-ring binder detail the nuts and bolts of campaign research, strategy, media, public speaking, voter contact, campaign structure and fund raising.

Speaking from experience, Joe Hernandez, a producer with Hamman Miller Beauchamp Deeble Inc. in Long Beach, Calif., said agents contemplating a run for public office "really need to know the mechanics of running a campaign."

Mr. Hernandez, who attended the February meeting, said he wished he could have attended the Campaign Institute before he ran, and lost, a race for city council in 1994. One of the lessons he learned was "I really needed to campaign to everyone, not just the high propensity voters. You don't want to overlook anyone who could be a possible voter."

"I highly recommend the program the IIAA put on or something similar," said Mr. Hernandez. He is contemplating a run for the General Assembly in 2000.

It is decisions like Mr. Hernandez's that are the impetus behind the Campaign Institute. The Big I wants to encourage more agents to extend their community involvement beyond the agency into public service.

"If you want your self-interests looked after, you've got to get involved," said Mr. Bissett. Furthermore, "because states are enacting term limits, there are lots of newly elected officials that do not necessarily have knowledge of insurance," he said. "In that environment, it is important to have folks elected that know what insurance is about."

Dave Bates, president of A.N. Nunes Insurance Agency Inc. in Bristol, R.I., and in his third term as a state senator, agrees. "It's extremely important for agents to get involved," he said. "Agents for a long time have sat back and figured everyone will take care of them as far as legislation is concerned. It's important to have someone in the Legislature in case something erroneous comes up."

For his part, Sen. Bates, who sits on the corporation committee that handles insurance bills, said that after the 1996 Supreme Court Barnett decision, which held that banks could sell insurance in towns of 5,000 or fewer residents, he co-designed a consumer protection bill.

"We felt it was smart for us to take the bull by the horns to get a consumer protection bill passed," he said. Among other provisions, the bill reiterates anti-tie ins, separates the jobs of a loan officer and independent agent and separates the locations of where insurance is sold and where banking products are sold in a bank, he said.

Not only is insurance representation needed in local, state and federal posts, but running for office also is a natural extension of an agent's professional role, said Mr. Bissett.

"There are lots of things agents bring to the table that translates naturally to running and winning a campaign," he said.

Agents are typically well-known leaders in their community; they work closely with customers, which translates into a constituency base; they have a natural awareness of the concerns of their local segment of consumers; they know how businesses are running in the community; they have the ability to explain complicated issues; and they know how to close a deal, which can help in securing votes, Mr. Bissett said.

Agents agree. "We represent the community. We write insurance on all levels, from automobile, to earthquake, to business to health care to life," Mr. Hernandez said. "We have a better understanding of people's concerns in the community."

Rhode Island's Sen. Bates added: "I think the very nature of selling insurance. . .winning people's trust to write an insurance policy, helps in campaigning."

Sen. Bates, who is running unopposed for his fourth term, added one piece of advice for agents contemplating running for office: "Agents have to understand the time commitment and have a solid footing in the agency before taking the leap."

Because the Rhode Island Legislature is part-time, when it is in session Sen. Bates works at the agency every morning and all day every Monday. He goes back to the agency full-time during the five months that the legislature is not in session.