Health advocate enters race for Georgia insurance chief

A prominent Democratic health advocate entered the race for Georgia’s open Insurance Commissioner seat on Tuesday with a pledge to serve as a compassionate voice for consumers, sensing an opportunity to flip a down-ticket office that’s been held for decades by Republicans.

Cindy Zeldin, the executive director of Georgians for a Healthy Future, is the first high-profile Democrat to announce a bid to succeed Republican Ralph Hudgens. The two-term Republican said Monday he would not run for another stint in office.

“For too long, the office hasn’t been focused on the consumers,” said Zeldin. “The people need a champion – they need someone who will do everything to make sure they have insurance options that are fair, affordable and transparent.”

Zeldin contends the office is too cozy with insurers, and that the next commissioner should be focused “first and foremost about consumers.” She plans to step down from her advocacy group, which was one of the more forceful supporters of Medicaid expansion in Georgia.

Even with an open seat, Zeldin faces a grueling battle. Republicans have held the office since John Oxendine’s 1994 victory over Democrat Tim Ryles, and the GOP field is already getting crowded.

Healthcare provider Shane Mobley and Deputy Insurance Commissioner Jay Florence are in the race and Jim Beck – a longtime aide in the insurance office and one-time president of the Georgia Christian Coalition – is exploring a run. So is Jim Kingston, an insurance executive who is the son of former U.S. Rep. Jack Kingston. Democrat Tomeka Kimbrough, an insurance agent, has also filed paperwork to run.

All are likely to focus on consumer protection – which was also a tack that Hudgens took in his 2014 campaign for a second term. During that easy re-election victory, Hudgens aired ads pointing to $30 million his office said it won from insurers who initially refused to pay claims.

Hudgens also carried baggage. He made waves in 2013 when he declared he and his office “would do everything in our power to be an obstructionist” over the Affordable Care Act, inciting criticism from both sides of the aisle. He later dismissed those comments as “red meat” for a partisan crowd.

He faced outrage from some industry analysts as insurance rates rose over the past few years. And his office was forced to lay off staffers and furlough employees after it dramatically overspent its budget.

Zeldin, 41, said she would use the office to advocate for minor fixes – but not a full repeal – of the Affordable Care Act and spur more competition from insurers. She said she would back legislation that would give her office powers to review insurance premium increases “with a new level of scrutiny.”

She’s lined up support from a range of influential Democrats, including Red Clay Democrats chief Adrienne White and state Sen. Elena Parent. Jason Carter, the party’s 2014 nominee for governor, called Zeldin a “breath of fresh air.”

“I know her focus every day will be to ensure that Georgians are treated fairly by insurance companies and have an advocate to fight for them when they’re not,” he said. “These are human issues, not partisan issues.”

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About the Author

Greg Bluestein
Greg Bluestein
Greg Bluestein is a political reporter who covers the governor's office and state politics for The Atlanta Journal-Constitution.