On the telephone, Betty Tamisiea doesn't sound angry.
She speaks softly, as if embarrassed to utter words that she knows will later appear in a newspaper. Maybe she is simply nervous because she has never spoken to a reporter before, or because there are two public-relations specialists "on her side" who are also on the line, carefully monitoring her every comment. She chooses her words carefully. Her tone is childlike and utterly without malice.

"I'm just one of those people who usually procrastinate until election day to figure out how I'm going to vote," she says sweetly.

It's a far cry from the self-assured Betty Tamisiea that one million Arizonans encountered when they opened their mailboxes last month to discover a vitriolic personal letter from the self-described Phoenix "homemaker, wife and mother of three growing children." On the envelope was a biting typewritten teaser:

Dear Mr. Jones, I'm writing to warn you about a consumer-fraud scheme . . . a scheme that will rip you off.

The letter begins in a conversational, chat-over-coffee style. It is dated "Monday morning" and opens with the warm salutation "Dear Friend." But it quickly shifts to a no-holds-barred attack on the evils of Proposition 201, an auto-insurance initiative on the November 6 ballot that Tamisiea claims is a put-up job by "politicians and some TV lawyers . . . who lie and cheat us."

On its face, the letter is a sincere, impassioned plea from a concerned citizen, a warning that there is a plot afoot by trial lawyers and politicians to fleece the populace.

"This isn't fun for me. I have a family to take care of, and I don't like to get used," Tamisiea writes. "I resent it when a politician lies to me and uses me as a means to his own political ends."

Remember, Tamisiea urges, the "TV lawyers and the politicians who are pushing for the passage of Prop 201 are not our friends . . . Vote no on Prop 201."

The question is, who are our friends? One way to find out--especially when it comes to insurance--is to read the fine print.

On the back of the letter, in very fine print indeed, is the notation, "Paid for by People for Fair Insurance," an Arizona political action committee financed to the tune of $1.2 million by six of the nation's largest insurance companies.

A variety of insurance-industry front groups is waging a war against Prop 201 and in favor of Props 105 and 203, the so-called "no-fault" or "consumer choice" issues on the November 6 ballot.

As it turns out, the insurance industry's front groups not only paid for the letter, they bought Betty Tamisiea as well.

Tamisiea is indeed a Phoenix housewife and mother. But she's not really a militant who put down her apron so she could lead a ragtag group of angry citizens.

Yes, she's the "co-chair" of People for Fair Insurance. But she doesn't have a desk at the group's headquarters. A former employee of a Valley insurance agent, she admits she was approached by "insurance company interests." She agrees with the letter but confesses that she didn't write a word of it. And she admits she was paid for her signature.

"I was asked to sign the letter--and some money was exchanged," Tamisiea says hesitantly. Then Bill Sileo, the campaign manager for People for Fair Insurance, quickly breaks in. "Betty is being paid a stipend for her work for us," he says, "but I want to point out she wasn't paid directly for this letter--are you going to print this?"

IN THE WAR of auto insurance, things aren't always what they seem.
The insurance industry's campaign against Prop 201 and in favor of Props 105/203 is one of disinformation cloaked in shadowy political tactics and blatant untruths.

"There are probably only a few thousand people in Arizona right now who understand these auto-insurance propositions well enough to cast an informed ballot on them," says Ralph Nader, who visited the Valley earlier this month at the request of no-fault opponents. "And most of those are lawyers or insurance salesmen. What does that tell you?"

At stake is the most radical auto- insurance reform plan ever proposed in the nation. Propositions 105 and 203, the "no-fault" measures that the insurance industry is peddling as "consumer choice," could have the biggest impact on consumers of any new state law in the past decade.

There would be fewer personal-injury lawsuits, but the money people would collect from insurance companies would be less. To compensate for that sour note, there would be a limited, one-time rate rollback.

If two drivers with no-fault policies smack into each other, each driver's own insurance company would pay for that driver's medical, wage and property losses up to the limits of the policy. It wouldn't matter who is to blame, and nobody would go to court to sue for damages.

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Darrin Hostetler