Local Politics

Former N.C. insurance commissioner Long dies

Posted February 2, 2009 4:10 p.m. EST
Updated March 9, 2009 5:12 p.m. EDT

— Jim Long, who battled insurance companies for more than two decades to keep rates low for North Carolina consumers, died Monday. He was 68.

Long suffered a stroke on Jan. 21 while on his way to a legislative committee hearing about coastal homeowners insurance. Although he had retired two weeks earlier, he wanted to offer his experience to those at the hearing.

He was taken to Rex Hospital, where he lapsed into a coma and never regained consciousness.

He is survived by his wife, Peg O'Connell, two children and five grandchildren.

His funeral will be at 2 p.m. Friday at The Episcopal Church of the Holy Comforter in Burlington. Visitation will be held at 10 a.m. Friday at the church and from 2 to 4 p.m. and 6 to 8 p.m. Wednesday at Brown-Wynne Funeral Home in Raleigh.

Gov. Beverly Perdue ordered all state flags to be flown at half-staff until sunset Friday.

“It is with heavy hearts that our family witnessed Jim's passing,” O’Connell said in a statement. "We will be forever thankful for the prayers and kind words the people of North Carolina offered to Jim and our family during this difficult time. Jim loved this great state and its gracious people. He was honored to serve them."

O'Connell urged people to educate themselves about strokes and how to prevent them.

"I know Jim would want some good to come of this," she said. "There is nothing more precious than health and family."

Long served as the state's insurance commissioner from 1985 to 2009, and he took pride in keeping the state's homeowners and auto insurance rates among the lowest in the country. He was so closely linked to the state Department of Insurance that the department's main phone number spelled out 1-800-JIM-LONG.

“Our hearts are broken over the loss of our former leader and dear friend," Insurance Commissioner Wayne Goodwin, Long's former assistant, said in a statement. "As our family grieves, we will try to find comfort knowing that through our work we can honor Commissioner Long’s legacy of serving the people of our state that he so loved."

A native of Burlington, Long attended North Carolina State University before transferring to the University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill , where he earned bachelor's and law degrees.

His father and grandfather served in the state House, and he followed in their footsteps, serving two terms as a lawmaker in the 1970s. He also followed his father's tradition of wearing red ties while on the job.

He later worked as legal counsel to House Speaker Carl Stewart and as chief deputy commissioner of the Department of Insurance before being elected insurance commissioner in 1984.

During his six terms regulating the insurance industry in the state, Long would routinely cut increases requested by the North Carolina Rate Bureau, the agency representing insurance companies. The Department of Insurance estimated he saved consumers $4.2 billion in auto insurance premiums alone during his tenure.

North Carolina has the fifth-lowest auto insurance rates in the U.S., according to the department.

Long' job went beyond dealing with auto and homeowners insurance rates. Part of his job as insurance commissioner involved serving as the state's fire marshal, and he also regulated bail bondsmen and the state's building codes.

In 2003, he won a $1.8 million settlement from Blue Cross Blue Shield of North Carolina, which state regulators accused of mishandling patients' claims for hospital emergency room services over a five-year period.

He gladly accepted criticism the following year when auto insurance refund checks were mailed to 6 million policyholders statewide shortly before the general election.

"It was great timing," he said with a chuckle at the time. "But the important thing is we got the money back to the policyholders as quickly as we could get the companies to do it."

He also clashed with Blue Cross when the nonprofit made an attempt to change to a for-profit company. Blue Cross eventually backed off the idea.

Last fall, the National Association of Insurance Commissioners awarded Long its inaugural President’s Award for Distinguished NAIC Member Leadership. He served as the group's president in 1991 and later chaired various committees.

His 24 years in office was tied for the third-longest tenure for a statewide elected official in North Carolina, behind only former Secretary of State Thad Eure and former Agriculture Commissioner Jim Graham.

Long also was one of the founders of Special Olympics North Carolina, which provides athletic competition to more than 37,000 mentally disabled North Carolina athletes each year. The state hosted the International Special Olympics in 1999.