Trial Attorney, Insurance Agent, Former Cop
Although the election is still months away, the race for Georgia insurance commissioner already is a campaign of firsts — and some strong rhetoric aimed at insurance companies and regulators.
Janice Laws Robinson, an insurance broker who in 2018 came within a few percentage points of being elected the state’s first black and first woman commissioner, now faces a Democratic state representative, Matthew Wilson, a trial attorney known for suing insurers. He would be the first openly gay commissioner.
The winner of that May 24 Democratic primary will likely square off against current Insurance Commissioner John King, who is the state’s first Hispanic statewide official.
The election promises to be the latest upheaval in what has been a tumultuous decade at the Georgia Department of Insurance.
King is in office today because the elected commissioner was forced out of office in 2019, just a few months after he was sworn in. Jim Beck was convicted of fraud and money laundering after diverting almost $3 million from a homeowners insurer of last resort that he had managed. Georgia Gov. Brian Kemp then appointed King, a former Georgia police officer, to the post in early 2019.
Before Beck, Insurance Commissioner Ralph Hudgens was accused of laying off hundreds of workers unnecessarily and promoting a hands-off regulatory environment that saw auto insurance rates increase sharply, according to news reports.
Before Hudgens, John Oxendine left office in 2010 after three terms. He is the subject of a continuing ethics investigation into the alleged use of campaign funds for personal use.
This year, all three candidates have talked extensively about the need to restore integrity to the insurance commissioner’s office.
“For the past 25 years, we’ve had Republican commissioners bought and paid for by the companies the office is supposed to regulate,” Wilson said in answers to a questionnaire by Ballotpedia. “The last elected commissioner was convicted of fraud and money laundering; his predecessor’s mismanagement forced hundreds of staff furloughs and layoffs; and the one before him is still under investigation for campaign finance corruption.”
He added: “I’ll return the office to its intended role: that of a consumer advocate …”
Wilson is a personal injury attorney in Atlanta known for battling insurers in claims disputes. His strident comments may play well with some voters but probably not with the insurance industry.
“For too long, our commissioners have been more focused on the profit margins of the big insurance companies than the wallets of Georgia consumers,” Wilson said in his Ballotpedia answers. “They have rubber-stamped premium increases, changed the law to make it easier to raise premiums, and refused to use the investigative and regulatory power of the office to hold insurance companies accountable.”
A number of Georgia trial attorneys have said their money is on Wilson. The LGBTQ Victory Fund, a national organization, also has formally endorsed the lawmaker. But it’s unclear if Georgia insurance interests support King or Robinson. Insurance groups could not be reached for comment this week.
Robinson, also of Atlanta, has spent most of her career in the insurance business, part of it with State Farm, Nationwide and MetLife. Since 2014, she has managed her own brokerage and insurance agency.
But she, too, has called for consumer-friendly change at the Department of Insurance and has pledged to fix “what’s broken in the insurance industry,” according to news reports and her websites.
“Georgians still do not have an insurance commissioner elected by the people that has stood the test of public trust,” Robinson said on her campaign website. “Georgia continues to be a hub for technological advances and innovations that when applied to the area of insurance and fire safety, I believe can make an unprecedented difference in the quality of life for all us Georgians.”
She did not go into detail on the technological changes but said that she would implement a statewide “engagement platform” that would allow people to easily report fraud and abuse and to share ideas on insurance practices.
If elected, Robinson, like King, would be one of the first foreign-born commissioners. She is a native of Jamaica and immigrated to the United States as a teenager. King is a native of Mexico.
In 2018, Robinson, who then went by her maiden name of Janice Laws, handily won the Democratic primary and took 47% of the vote in the general election, to Beck’s 51%. Beck later was accused of using the funds siphoned from the residual insurer to finance his campaign.
Robinson told a Georgia newspaper this week that campaigns are hard work but she hopes her second attempt will be successful.
King also has vowed to continue changing the culture at the insurance department. His perspective is unique: He has no insurance business experience, but was police chief in Doraville, Georgia, and worked for many years with the Atlanta Police Department.
“I don’t come from the Insurance background,” King said in December when he was formally sworn in to the office. “It allowed me to do a really critical look at every function of our agency, to really see, is it really needed, does it add value to Georgia consumers or do we need to do away with it.”
King said it hasn’t been easy reforming the agency after Beck was forced out. “It was tough. We let a lot of people go. They had no business working for Georgians,” said King, according to a local news report at the time.
King did not detail who was laid off or other changes that were made. His office has said that under his leadership, the department has been proactive in investigating insurance fraud around the state. Shortly after he took office, King made headlines when he issued a cease-and-desist order against a Nevada direct-pay company. He said the firm was attempting to hoodwink medical offices into making the company their exclusive third-party administrator.
The party primary for the insurance commissioner race is May 24. The general election is set for Nov. 8.
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