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When a billionaire auto insurance executive personally sponsors a statewide ballot initiative to delete regulations on his industry, would we Consumer Watchdogs be right to smell a rat? Yeah, we thought so. That’s why Mercury Insurance Chairman George Joseph is not only putting millions of dollars into getting people to sign his ballot petition, he’s also throwing a brigade of quick-draw PR at the image problem.


Take for instance Josh Richman’s InsideBayArea Political Blotter. Richman wrote a piece about Joseph giving $8.1 million dollars to the ballot initiative this week, properly describing it as a redo of last year’s Prop 17, and instantly got a call from a member of the Mercury brigade. He added the conversation semi-verbatim at the end of his column. Thusly:


UPDATE @ 4:26 P.M.:I got a call this afternoon from Rachel Pitts of Sacramento-based Marketplace Communications, representing the committee behind this ballot measure. She said she wanted to make it clear that Joseph’s contribution was out of his personal fortune, and that Mercury Insurance itself isn’t funding the measure; she went on to give me a thumbnail profile of Joseph as a spry 90-year-old California native and World War II combat veteran who still walks to work every day, “a true California success story.”… [S]he said it’s dirty politics for [Consumer Watchdog] to go after someone like Joseph who has done so much for California. …


It’s no stretch to imagine that the message above came straight from the chairman, a lifelong micromanager of Mercury’s political actions. So let’s go ahead and imagine that conference call between Joseph and his spinmeisters.


George Joseph: OK, listen up. I’m 90 years old, I’m filthy rich and I want this fight over with. We spent $16 million on Proposition 17 last year and lost. My job this year is to spend more. Your job is to make me into a folk hero, not an insurance executive with a grudge. It’s not about Mercury Insurance, even though Mercury Insurance is me, get it?


PR Brigade: Ok, yeah. Better to have the money coming from a billionaire executive than from a multibillion-dollar corporation. We have the bio here… If we go back 60 years we see good stuff. War record. Check. California native. Check. What about your charities?


George Joseph: I leave that major-philanthropy stuff to Eli Broad. I need my millions for politics. And to pay you.


PR Brigade: We keep getting asked math questions, and it’s hard. Like how your insurance company, and now you, can spend tens of millions of dollars on this stuff without making your customers pay….Or why we favor surcharging customers just because they didn’t have a car in the past.


George Joseph: Dammit, no! The story is me, not what Mercury will get out of it. I’m 90, I’m a Californian… I’m 90 and I’m spry but kindly. I still walk from my mansion to my corporate headquarters around the block…. No. Strike that. Just make it “walk to work.”


PR Brigade: Um, got it. Do you bench press?


George Joseph: If it’ll help, yes! Do you have a good Photoshop guy?


PR Brigade: Ok, will do. Now how do you want us to handle all this facts-and-figures stuff on how your initiative will jack up the number of uninsured drivers in California and penalize anyone who gave up their car for a few years, or whose income got whacked by the recession.


George Joseph: Don’t get into that fact stuff. Accuse them of being greedy billionaires. Or millionaires. Or thousandaires. Sheesh, what am I paying you guys for anyway?  You PR people represent offshore oil drillers. Mercury Insurance has never spilled a drop of oil on the shores of California. You can use that, too.


PR Brigade: Ok, we’re on it. Spry. Bench press. No oil spills. Our bill’s in the mail.