Georgians have grown used to seeing ads from “independent” political committees in major races, but now one largely funded by a company with insurance subsidiaries is trying to influence voters to pick its candidate for state insurance commissioner.
It is a rare case of such a committee — which can take unlimited contributions from deep-pocket donors — spending big money on a down-ballot race.
Three Republicans and two Democrats are running in the May 22 primaries to replace Georgia Insurance Commissioner Ralph Hudgens, who critics say has done too little as auto insurance premiums skyrocketed. Georgia has ranked first or second in rate increases nationally in recent years.
Hudgens announced last summer that he wouldn’t seek a third term, and he has endorsed his former deputy, Jay Florence, and contributed to his campaign.
Florence, a Republican, has vowed to fight to change state law so that the commissioner has more power over auto insurance rates, but he also has been the top choice of insurance agents and executives, who have played a significant role in funding his campaign.
Late last month an independent committee was set up to support Florence. Insuring America’s Future, which listed a UPS Store post box as its address, boasted online that it is sending mail pieces to 98,000 Republican primary voters in Atlanta, Augusta and North Georgia border areas touting Florence as the “trusted conservative choice for insurance commissioner.”
The mailings — which have a Dublin, Ohio, address — say Florence would defend consumers, that he helped stop insurance fraud, and that he would “promote free market, state-based solutions for Georgia insurance.”
One of the mailings also includes a not-so-subtle message, showing two pistols below a caption that states, “The right of the people to keep and bear arms shall not be infringed,” and calling Florence a “constitutional conservative.”
Although the Insurance Commissioner’s Office doesn’t set policy on gun rights, Florence has touted his support for the Second Amendment on the campaign trail. “Constitutional conservative” is a nod to the movement by gun rights advocates for “constitutional carry,” the right to legally carry a handgun, openly or concealed, without a license or permit.
The mailer states, “Jay won’t let gun grabbers backdoor your gun rights by manipulating the coverage of guns on your insurance policy.”
A campaign report filed May 8 — two weeks before the primary — reports $224,000 in contributions. One contribution of $24,000 came from a medical malpractice insurance company, The Doctors Management Co. in Napa, Calif.
The rest — $200,000 — came from Eli Research of Durham, N.C., part of Eli Global, a diversified company that includes insurance companies, such as Global Bankers Insurance, which specializes in life insurance and annuity products.
Independent committees are not legally allowed to coordinate with a candidate’s campaign, and the mailers state that they were not authorized by a campaign.
But at least 11 executives, staffers and board members with Eli Global or Global Bankers Insurance have contributed to Florence’s campaign, according to a review of records by The Atlanta Journal-Constitution.
They include Greg Lindberg, the chairman and founder of Eli Global ($6,600); George Luecke, the vice chairman and co-CEO of Global Bankers; and Lou Hensley, the co-CEO and president of Global Bankers.
In all, executives and staff at the companies have contributed about $23,000 to Florence’s campaign, making them among his top donors.
The independent committee posted the mailings on its website — www.insuringamericasfuture.com — and included when they would be sent out.
Company officials were not immediately available for comment.
As of last week, most of the money had been spent with a media firm called Axiom Strategies of Kansas City. The same firm was paid $264,000 for work on former Insurance Commissioner John Oxendine’s unsuccessful gubernatorial campaign in 2010, and an executive with the company was Oxendine’s campaign manager.
Oxendine contributed $6,600 to Florence’s campaign on April 18.
Florence said the fact that such a committee has been formed “shows a lot of confidence in my campaign and some real concern about my opponent.”
“He doesn’t have a record of somebody you can trust, and he likely wouldn’t win with that kind of baggage,” Florence said.
The opponent Florence is talking about is Jim Beck, who like Florence is a former aide to Hudgens and is a Republican who is largely self-funding his campaign. Beck has been accused of working a state job and a private industry job at the same time.
Beck, who has denied any wrongdoing, said the committee’s activities have been the subject of rumor for several months.
“I believe it is coordinated” with Florence’s campaign, Beck said.
“I am disappointed insurance companies continue to pour tens of thousands of dollars into Jay’s campaign,” he said. “They are tying to steal the office for Jay Florence. My message is: Don’t let the insurance industry control that office for another eight, 12 years.”
Tracy Jordan, a pharmacist, Realtor and former Hoschton city councilwoman also running in the May 22 Republican primary, said the committee’s existence “speaks volumes” about how politics are run in Georgia.
“Follow the means, the motives and the money and you will find the problems that exist in politics,” Jordan said. “We should not have situations where money can buy influence and votes.”
The candidate said she would push legislation to ban insurance and small loan executives from giving to candidates for insurance commissioner.
Sara Henderson, the executive director of the watchdog group Common Cause Georgia, said: “This is problematic on all fronts. This is why we need serious reform to our campaign finance laws.
“Candidates keep talking about having informed voters,” she said. “How are we going to create informed voters if we cover things up?”
Support real journalism. Support local journalism. Subscribe to The Atlanta Journal-Constitution today. See offers.
Your subscription to the Atlanta Journal-Constitution funds in-depth reporting and investigations that keep you informed. Thank you for supporting real journalism.