A Short Autobiography

I’m a consumer advocate and public interest lawyer.

A Longer Biography

By Ali Arace

Harvey Rosenfield was born in 1952 in Boston, Massachusetts and grew up in the suburb of Randolph.

Harvey says he was born to be a consumer advocate. There is some evidence to back him up: a letter he sent to a manufacturer complaining about a broken toy when he was seven years old (much gratitude to Harvey’s parents for saving this priceless document).

But consumer advocates aren’t just born, they’re also bred. Going to public school in Randolph, Massachusetts, Harvey was very fortunate that a couple of teachers took him under their wing. Harvey says they taught him how to read, write and, most importantly, think. One such mentor was Harvey’s high school guidance counselor, Arthur Mullaney, who got him involved in an innovative idea: the high school would sponsor a “no-smoking” day, in which everyone in the town would stop smoking, and instead donate the price of a package of cigarettes to a scholarship fund. Back then (1970) everybody smoked, and the cost of a package of cigarettes was about thirty cents. Pretty soon, the project involved the entire school. Mr. Mullaney called it “the Smokeout.” On February 18, 1970, hundreds of students were deployed to canvass every home and business in town, asking for donations. This was Harvey’s first experience with grassroots organizing. Meanwhile, the event drew the attention of the national news media.  The students raised several thousand dollars – a pretty decent amount at the time. A few years later, the American Cancer Society adopted the project, and today it’s called “the Great American Smokeout.” You can read a recent article about their efforts and the 30 year public health campaign they helped to spawn. This experience demonstrated for a young Harvey the power of people coming together to make a difference.

After high school, Harvey attended Amherst College, a liberal arts school in western Massachusetts, where he majored in psychology. However, by the time he was ready to graduate, he decided that he did not want to pursue a career in his major. Harvey felt he could help people more by being a lawyer than a shrink, so he packed his bags for law school.

Harvey moved to Washington, D.C., the day after he graduated from Amherst in June, 1974.  That summer, he was one of thirty interns for Massachusetts Congressman Michael Harrington (no relation to the author). It was an exciting time in American history. After the House of Representatives convened impeachment proceedings, Richard Nixon became the first president to resign. That fall, Harvey attended Georgetown University, where he began a joint degree program in law and international affairs.

In 1976, Harvey became an intern at the citizen lobbying group founded by Ralph Nader – Public Citizen.  There, his focus was on energy issues – particularly nuclear power. This was the beginning of what became Harvey’s long association with the famous citizen advocate, whose research and lobbying for consumers in the 1960s and 1970s established a new paradigm of public service. Harvey considers Nader his mentor, and says that he knew then that consumer advocacy would be his calling. But he had some other things he wanted to do first.

Harvey took the next year off from law school so he could do some extended traveling. In order to save money for the trip, he worked a while longer for Public Citizen. Then he clerked at a small law firm in DC, working nights as a busboy at a local restaurant.  In the spring of 1977, Harvey sailed out of the Port of New Jersey as a hired hand on a freighter for passage across the Atlantic. For the next five months he traveled through Europe and the Middle East to Asia, through the Soviet Union and then home. He came back with a strong appreciation for America’s democracy and the importance of protecting it.

Harvey finished Georgetown in 1979, became a member of the D.C. bar, and went to work full time for Nader’s Public Citizen Congress Watch, where he continued to specialize in energy issues, which was a hot topic then, as it is now.  The 1979 oil embargo had crippled the American economy, and Congress began to debate whether to pursue a fossil and nuclear fuels-based strategy for energy independence – or, as he advocated, conservation, solar and other alternative energy resources. (The debate is, sadly for our nation, still going on.)

After living in D.C. for seven years, Harvey decided to move to Los Angeles, California. There, he became Program Director for the California Public Interest Research Group. At CalPIRG he lobbied on a variety of issues, including public access to government, utility and campaign finance reform.

Harvey resigned from CalPIRG to set up a new non-profit consumer advocacy group in California, Consumer Watchdog (formerly the Foundation for Taxpayer and Consumer Rights), in 1985. At the time, insurance rates were soaring throughout California and the nation. Insurance companies claimed that lawsuits were responsible for skyrocketing insurance rates. The insurers joined with a group of manufacturing firms to back a ballot initiative to restrict the right of injured consumers to go to court – so called “tort reform.” Harvey’s research convinced him that the real problem was that the insurance industry was unregulated in California.  But the industries spent millions on Proposition 51, and California voters, not knowing the true story, passed the initiative in 1986.

Harvey decided to focus on promoting insurance rate reductions and reform in California. After extensive research, Harvey drafted insurance reform legislation, but the insurance lobby killed the proposals in the state legislature. So he began drafting a ballot proposition and assembling a campaign to sponsor it.

The result was insurance reform Proposition 103. Passage of that law at the ballot box in 1988 was a record battle; you can read about the campaign for Proposition 103 (and the failure of “tort reform”) in a lengthy article Harvey wrote, and in many places online, especially at the Consumer Watchdog site. The insurance industry, fearing they would be unable to defeat Proposition 103, sponsored three competing initiative measures intended to confuse and deceive the public. A fourth alternative was sponsored by members of the legal community. The insurance industry alone spent $80 million on its attempt to defeat Proposition 103. But California voters saw through the industry’s unprecedented propaganda barrage. Asked to explain this unprecedented David versus Goliath victory, Harvey says the support of Ralph Nader was crucial to the initiative’s passage.

In 1994, after devoting several years to the defense and implementation of Proposition 103, Harvey delved into the health care issue. The nation was just beginning to witness the dangerous impact of HMOs on health care quality. Meanwhile, doctors and insurance companies were sponsoring bills to prevent victims of poor quality health care from suing them. Consumer Watchdog fought for HMO patients’ rights in California and around the country. In 1996, Consumer Watchdog joined the California Nurses Association to sponsor a ballot Proposition (216) to protect quality health care. The insurance industry spent millions to defeat it, but most of the reforms it proposed were later enacted by the California Legislature and other states as HMOs became a national scandal. Meanwhile, Harvey and Consumer Watchdog began to challenge abusive HMO practices in court.

Consumer Watchdog was likewise ahead of its time on the issue of energy deregulation. With several other consumer advocates, Harvey co-authored Proposition 9 on the November, 1998, California ballot. It would have blocked some of the most egregious aspects of the infamous deregulation law passed by California lawmakers in 1996. But the utility and energy companies spent over $40 million against Prop. 9, and it failed. Two years later, when the energy and utility companies used deregulation to jack up prices in what was a phony energy crisis, Consumer Watchdog’s opposition to deregulation was vindicated. Check out the film “The Smartest Guys in the Room” [http://www.enronmovie.com/] for a devastating portrait of how that $70 billion scam went down.

Today, Harvey frequently goes to court to protect consumers against rip-offs and abuses. The enforcement of insurance reform Proposition 103 remains his highest priority, and many of the cases he has brought on behalf of Consumer Watchdog involve insurance companies that are overcharging or otherwise abusing consumers in violation of California’s insurance laws. Other defendants include HMOs and cell phone companies. You can find a list of some of these lawsuits at www.consumerwatchdog.org. Harvey also works with the Consumer Education Foundation, a non-profit organization that focuses on public education. Take a look at its blog on the 2008 financial crash and its impact on American consumers and taxpayers: “wheresourmoney.org,” written by journalist Martin Berg and Harvey.

In speeches, articles and testimony before legislative bodies throughout the country, Harvey continues the battle for a fair marketplace and a system of justice in which every person can have their day in court.

If you’ve gotten this far, you are most likely a member of Harvey’s immediate family, or perhaps someone contemplating a public interest career for yourself. As Harvey’s is far from over, he is not prepared to make any wise pronouncements – try checking back in a few more years, he says. In the meantime, Harvey offers instead two particular quotations that he has found inspiring:

It is not the critic who counts; not the man who points out how the strong man stumbles, or where the doer of deeds could have done them better. The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena, whose face is marred by dust and sweat and blood; who strives valiantly; who errs, who comes short again and again, because there is no effort without error and shortcoming; but who does actually strive to do the deeds; who knows great enthusiasms, the great devotions; who spends himself in a worthy cause; who at the best knows in the end the triumph of high achievement, and who at the worst, if he fails, at least fails while daring greatly, so that his place shall never be with those cold and timid souls who neither know victory nor defeat.

— President Theodore Roosevelt, April, 1910

There can be no daily democracy without daily citizenship.

— Ralph Nader


 Posted by at 9:28 pm