What could you buy with $16.9 million?

George Joseph, the billionaire auto-insurance magnate, hopes it will be enough to score votes from a plurality of Californians — that's how much of his personal fortune he'd spent, as of Nov. 3, to push Proposition 33. (For the latest, check out the nonpartisan Voter's Edge website; if his spending rises, that'll be reflected here.)

And Prop 33 is actually Joseph's second bite at the apple. In June 2010, the company he founded, Mercury, spent $16 million on the similarly phrased Prop. 17, only to lose, narrowly.

The goal? Allowing insurance companies to extend discounts to customers who've had uninterrupted coverage for at least five years — even if they switched insurance companies during that period.

Joseph and his backers say that it would allow more competition for customers — resulting in lower rates. Consumer groups counter that it would basically mean anyone who hasn't had continuous coverage — young people, poor people — would pay more. (Prop 33 explicitly exempts veterans, people who've been laid off, and children living in their parents' home.)

So why does George Joseph care? To understand that, it's worth taking a look at his surprising back-story.

According to Mercury's website, Joseph has a biography good enough to tempt Joe Biden's appropriation. The son of Lebanese immigrants, he was born in West Virginia, where his father worked as a coal miner and small business owner. After enlisting in the Air Force, he fought in World War II and then attended Harvard on the GI Bill.

After the war, he started his career selling life insurance in Los Angeles. Per Mercury's website,

A lot of his customers began asking George about auto and home insurance, so he tried to persuade Occidental management to allow its agents to offer a full line of coverage. When the company declined, his remedy was to begin packaging auto and home insurance from another company with the Occidental life policies he was already selling.

This led to his belief that the private passenger auto insurance system simply wasn't very flexible. Back in the '50s, everyone paid the same rate, regardless of their driving record. Joseph decided he could create a new system by developing an insurance company that used different factors to create fair and equitable rates for a variety of drivers.

Armed with a belief that there was a better way to provide insurance to California drivers, he managed to raise $2 million in start-up capital and his new company sold its first policy on April 1, 1962.

“We called our company Mercury, because I wanted us to be fast and nimble, just like the Roman God of business and merchants,” says Joseph.

The business was a staggering success; its assets exceed $4 billion, and Joseph is now #392 on the Forbes list, with an estimated net worth of $1.1 billion. At 91, Joseph is no longer CEO, but reportedly still goes to the office five days a week.

And, yes, he's still fighting to switch things up in the insurance industry. The question for voters is whether the real benefit will be to customers — or insurance companies.

For more on Proposition 33, check out this comprehensive guide from Voter's Edge.

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