If Jim Long, who died Feb. 2 at age 68, had chosen another line of work, he could have been a good judge. Or a good teacher, banker or accountant. Whatever his choice, he’d have given it his best effort.
Instead, Jim Long chose to be a friend to North Carolinians from all walks of life — not as a chest-thumping populist, but as a smart, clear-eyed and strong-willed advocate for insurance consumers, a category from which few of us are exempt.
Advocacy wasn’t something he picked up on the fly. Long practiced law before representing Alamance County in the state House of Representatives. But it was during his six-term service as state Insurance Commissioner that he really showed his mettle.
On day one, he had not only the duties of the office (and those of state fire marshal) to perform; he had a mess to clean up. His predecessor, bombastic and forever eyeing some higher office, had been more successful at self-promotion than at taking care of business.
Long was political to the bone, a lifelong Democrat and down-home campaigner. But he could park his party affiliation at the door, along with whatever aspirations to higher office he may have entertained, when it was time to ride herd on insurance companies large and small. He didn’t gouge them — would in fact take care to give them room to turn a respectable profit — but they weren’t going to gouge the consumer on his watch.
His political instincts served him well. He didn’t harangue. When auto insurers pushed for big rate increases, Long would call for rate cuts in order to push the debate back into a manageable range. Not that he was bluffing: He went to court when negotiations failed, and he usually won. When Blue Cross Blue Shield of North Carolina tried to change its nonprofit status, Long was part of the vocal opposition.
Despite his close scrutiny and their sometimes-adversarial relationship, a Blue Cross official reacted to Long’s death by calling him what he was: “a committed, hard-working commissioner who had a strong focus on what he thought was best for North Carolina consumers.”