Insurance commissioner candidates pledge to stand up for consumers

Georgians suffering sticker shock from rising insurance premiums can pick someone to fight their battles for them in the November general election.

The Georgia insurance commissioner’s race doesn’t get as much attention as the contests for governor or the U.S. Senate. But the job may have a more direct impact on many consumers’ wallets.

The commissioner regulates rates for auto, health, homeowners, life and other types of insurance and investigates consumer complaints. The commissioner also serves as the state fire marshal, overseeing safety and prevention programs, building inspections and related matters.

The race pits incumbent Republican John King against Democrat Janice Laws Robinson. Both pledge to prevent insurance companies from gouging consumers. But they have very different backgrounds that they say prepare them for the task.

King spent most of his career in law enforcement and the military. He was an Atlanta police officer and detective who later became the longtime police chief in Doraville. As a member of the National Guard, he deployed to combat in Bosnia-Herzegovina, Iraq and Afghanistan.

Gov. Brian Kemp appointed King insurance commissioner in 2019 after then-Commissioner Jim Beck was charged with stealing more than $2 million from a former employer. Beck was later convicted and sentenced to seven years in prison.

A native of Mexico, King is the first Hispanic statewide officeholder in Georgia. He pledged to restore public trust in the office and said he’s done that over the past three years.

King cited his efforts to combat insurance fraud. He said his office has recovered more than $40 million from insurance companies and levied a $5 million fine against Blue Cross Blue Shield for years of violating policyholders’ rights — the largest ever levied by the insurance commissioner.

“Other commissioners knew there were problems and looked the other way or were afraid to go after the largest insurance companies,” King said.

Robinson is making her second run for the office — she received 1.8 million votes in 2018 but lost to Beck. The Coweta County resident is a licensed insurance broker who has spent her career in the field.

She now owns her own insurance company but said she is not running it while she campaigns for office. If elected, she said she’ll sell the business.

Robinson said her insurance experience would be an asset as commissioner. She noted King had no insurance industry experience before Kemp appointed him.

“I believe if someone is running for insurance commissioner, they need to at least understand insurance,” she said.

Robinson said she will prevent insurance companies from discriminating against people because of socioeconomic factors such as race, gender, employment status and credit scores.

“I will challenge (companies) to make sure they have to justify their rates,” she said. “I am to be the watchdog for consumers.”

Georgians have seen plenty of insurance rate increases. Last year a study by the disability insurance firm Breeze found Georgia’s premiums per capita for various kinds of insurance rose 66.5%, to $2,260, from 2010 and 2020. This was the largest increase in the nation.

One of the possible reasons for the rate hikes: In 2008 the General Assembly took away the insurance commissioner’s power to approve new auto rates before they took effect.

Both candidates said they support legislation giving that power back to the commissioner. King said his efforts to remake the agency give him credibility with the General Assembly to get the legislation passed.

Robinson said the legislation would help. But she said the commissioner already has tools to make sure Georgians aren’t overpaying for insurance.

As fire marshal, both candidates pledged to improve safety and prevention programs.

King cited his efforts to hire arson investigators living in rural areas across Georgia. He said they now can arrive at the scene of any fire within 90 minutes.

Under King, the agency created a new database for elevator inspections — previously, the office didn’t know where all the state’s elevators were and whether they were due for inspection. King said he successfully lobbied state lawmakers for funding for more inspectors.

“We have a solid plan,” he said.

If elected, Robinson said she will assess fire and building safety programs. She cited last year’s death of a man in an elevator accident in Atlanta as evidence that more needs to be done. Eighteen-year-old JauMarcus McFarland died of cardiac arrest after he was pinned by the elevator as it slowly descended from the building’s third floor, according to an Atlanta police report.

Robinson also pledged to make sure rural fire departments have the resources they need.

“There’s a lot of work to be done,” she said. “I’m ready to bring everyone to the table to improve fire safety across the state.”

On the campaign trail, King at times has strayed far from insurance issues — criticizing “woke radicals” and “anti-American propaganda” in schools. But his core argument is that he offers effective leadership for an agency that needs it.

“I clearly have a track record of solid performance, of turning around a troubled office that’s been hindered by corruption, cronyism and inaction for several (election) cycles,” King said.

Robinson bills herself as an insurance expert, but also as a wife and mother who understands the needs or ordinary Georgians.

“I’m not a politician,” she said. “I’ve heard their cries and I want to make a difference.”