The election to pick the state’s commissioner of insurance is the most-important race on this year’s ballot, and few will pay any attention, says the chairman of the state Senate Insurance Committee.

“It’s always about rates: Homeowners, automobile, health,” said state Sen. Dan “Blade” Morrish, R-Jennings. “They may not know who the commissioner of insurance is, but people do know how much they pay for insurance.”

The election is Oct. 22. Early voting begins Saturday and ends on Oct. 15.

The contest to lead the state’s Department of Insurance boils down to differing approaches to lowering rates and improving service.

Incumbent Jim Donelon said he prefers to make a business environment that attracts enough companies willing to compete for Louisiana business. Challenger Donald C. Hodge Jr. said he wants a state Insurance Department that protects consumers more than it helps the insurance industry.

Complicating the race is widespread anger at insurance companies, which make rosy promises in their sales pitches, but downplay small-print caveats, Morrish said.

“There is a credibility issue. I don’t care what they (insurance company executives) say, it’s true. The insurance companies are right there with used-car salesmen and politicians” in the public’s estimation of trustworthiness, Morrish said.

Donelon, who has been the state’s insurance commissioner for six years, said he recognizes he is a convenient target for voters angry about their insurance. But Donelon said he has enticed insurance companies to do business in Louisiana, thereby creating competition that keeps premium prices from skyrocketing. He has brought respect to an agency still mostly known in other states for having three consecutive commissioners sent to prison, he said.

But Donelon said he also remembers 2007, when he faced three relative unknown and under-funded challengers. The longtime fixture among Jefferson Parish Republican politicians, Donelon won by only 20,869 votes out of 1.19 million cast.

It’s why, Donelon says, he takes seriously a challenge by young Baton Rouge lawyer Hodge. Hodge loaned himself his entire $20,000 campaign war chest. His work experience is helping hurricane victims battle their insurance companies.

Donelon has $413,341 on hand, even after spending $272,457 over a two-month period prior to filing his campaign finance disclosure on Sept. 21. Most of Donelon’s money comes from insurance companies and officials who work for those companies or sell their products, the Sept. 21 report and earlier disclosures show.

Hodge says it is unethical for a regulator to receive money from the companies his agency regulates. It is further evidence the insurance industry, which annually extracts $3 billion from the state’s economy, runs roughshod over Louisiana consumers, said Hodge, a Democrat.

Hodge said in his experience with Catholic Charities, “I saw firsthand how people were treated and how it affected their lives. … And I saw how our Insurance Department refuses to advocate for you.”

Hodge argues that the commissioner’s position should be appointed by the governor from nominations from consumers, businessmen, labor organizers and the industry.

“I want to abolish the office as an elected position, like in 32 other states. We need an insurance department that will be consumer friendly,” Hodge said. “I believe we can change the climate in Louisiana, how we do business with insurance companies.”

Jeff Albright, who heads an association of insurance agents, disagrees.

After years of corruption, politically motivated rate decisions and massive losses from hurricanes, the Louisiana insurance market has stabilizedsaid Albright, chief executive officer for the Baton Rouge-based Independent Insurance Agents and Brokers of Louisiana. He said it now offers consumers more choices and prices.

Albright dismisses Hodge’s arguments that his members donate money — mostly to Donelon — saying few other people care about the race.

“The only real issue is what can be done to lower the rate. It’s a complex question,” Albright said. “But it should be a professional discussion, not a political discussion. … It’s keeping a level approach to regulation.”

The Louisiana Public Service Commission, for instance, gets its power to approve the prices a private business charges its customers from the constitutional authority that allows utility companies to operate as monopolies in their service areas. Privately owned insurance companies, on the other hand, have no similar protection from competitors, therefore can come and go as they please.

Albright said the insurance commissioner has the delicate task of protecting consumers, while ensuring a regulatory environment that entices private companies to do business in a small state like Louisiana.

“I could just say ‘no,’ as my opponent says I should,” Donelon said, and the insurance companies “could just not write (new policies) as they are doing in Florida, that’s their prerogative.”

Under the procedures first put in place by Robert Wooley, who hired Donelon as his assistant, and continued under Donelon after Wooley returned to private practice in February 2006, insurance companies apply for rate increases using financial models to support claims that more money is needed to cover expected losses. State experts review the evidence, then the Insurance Department, with the commissioner at its head, decides the rate increase.

Donelon said he once backed the idea of an appointed commissioner, but now supports electing commissioners.

“Elected commissioners have to run to the center to win election. The ‘appointeds’ are friends of the governor. They stay there, on average two, two and-a-half years. They polish up their résumés and take a job in the industry. The ‘electeds’ stay around doing their job from the middle, trying to do the job of regulation and protection of consumer simultaneously,” he said.