Race for Georgia insurance commissioner seeks to move past scandal

Insurance commissioner candidates (from left to right) Matthew Wilson, John King, Janice Laws Robinson and Patrick Witt.

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Insurance commissioner candidates (from left to right) Matthew Wilson, John King, Janice Laws Robinson and Patrick Witt.

Soaring insurance premiums. High rates of fraud. Scandal. Whoever is elected as Georgia’s next commissioner of insurance and safety fire will have a long to-do list.

Three Democrats and three Republicans are vying for their party’s nominations in separate primaries May 24. The insurance commissioner regulates insurance and small loan businesses and also serves as Georgia’s fire marshal. It’s a relatively low-profile job with a big influence on your wallet.

Recent surveys have painted a bleak picture of Georgia’s insurance landscape. Auto insurance premiums are among the steepest in the nation, fraud is a huge problem, and a large percentage of residents lack health care. A study by Breeze, an Omaha, Neb.-based insurance technology company, found that from 2010 to 2020, Georgia’s insurance premium per capita saw the biggest rise in the nation, jumping by 66%.

Add to that the turmoil in 2019 when sitting Insurance Commissioner Jim Beck was indicted on federal fraud and money laundering charges shortly after winning office. Beck, a Republican, is currently serving a seven-year prison sentence after his conviction.

Republicans

John King became the first Latino to hold a statewide constitutional office in Georgia when Gov. Brian Kemp appointed him to serve out the remainder of Beck’s term. Now, the former Doraville police chief and major general in the U.S. National Guard is facing voters for the first time as he campaigns to keep the job.

King said since he arrived 2 1/2 years ago he has concentrated on getting the office back on track and making changes to improve services. An example, he said, was moving arson investigators and their K-9 units outside of Atlanta to reach other parts of the state.

King, who describes himself as a “a lawman,” has also focused his investigators on rooting out insurance fraud, which costs U.S. families between $400 and $700 a year in increased costs for nonhealth care insurance premiums, according to the FBI. He made headlines in March when he levied a $5 million fine against Blue Cross Blue Shield, also known as Anthem, for a repeated, yearslong pattern of violations of policyholder’s rights. It’s the largest fine ever levied by the office.

But King struck a more cautious tone when asked about tougher insurance regulations, saying he supported efforts to attract more insurers to Georgia to boost competition that would drive down prices.

“Being a consumer advocate is my No. 1 task, but I can’t wreck the industry in the process,” he said.

King is being challenged by lawyer Patrick Witt, who has trumpeted the endorsement of former President Donald Trump. Witt served on Trump’s legal team in Georgia in the aftermath of the 2020 election and also worked in the Office of Personnel Management under Trump.

Witt said he wants to bring insurance rates down by cutting the state’s premium tax and, like King, he supports luring more insurance companies to the state. Witt said he was drawn to the job because of the influence he could have on Georgians.

“You can directly impact the lives of every person in the state by keeping costs low and and leaving a few extra dollars in their pocket,” Witt said.

Both King and Witt are campaigning on red meat Republican issues outside the commissioner’s power and jurisdiction.

King’s first campaign ad decried “woke radicals,” called for a wall along the U.S.-Mexico border to keep out illegal immigrants and attacked calls to reduce or redirect police funding. Witt’s website said he would “keep insurance from going woke” on issues of abortion and gender-altering treatment for children. He also vowed to protect unvaccinated Georgians from being required to pay more for insurance. The commissioner would not have direct control over such mandates.

Ben Cowart, a Republican from Sandy Springs, has also qualified for the race. He did not return phone calls seeking comment.

Democrats

On the Democratic side, insurance broker Janice Laws Robinson is making a second bid to become the state’s insurance chief. Laws Robinson was the Democratic nominee in 2018 but lost to Beck in the general election.

Laws Robinson pointed out that she is the only Democrat in the field who has run for statewide office, noting that she won 1.8 million votes in the 2018 contest. She also said that as a wife and mother she can relate to the needs of Georgia families.

“I want to give them a seat at the table,” she said.

Laws Robinson said reining in “out of control” auto insurance rates would be her top priority. She would also focus on halting predatory underwriting, where where insurers take advantage of consumers with unfair practices.

Laws Robinson said her background in insurance is an asset, not a liability. She has not accepted donations from the industry, she said.

“As an insurance broker, I’ve worked with Georgia families. I’m not an industry insider,” she said.

She is facing off against state Rep. Matthew Wilson, who represents portions of DeKalb and Fulton counties. If elected, Wilson would be the first openly LGBTQ constitutional officer in the state.

Wilson, a lawyer, said that he is the only Democrat in the race who doesn’t currently work for the insurance industry he would regulate.

“I sue insurance companies when they don’t deliver on their promises,” he said.

He pledged to be an aggressive advocate for consumers and said that top priorities would be attacking racially discriminatory practices in setting insurance rates and speaking out for Medicaid expansion, which he said would create more stability generally in the Georgia marketplace.

“For the past 25 years Georgia’s elected insurance commissioners have done the bidding of the insurance industry,” he said. “I’m a consumer advocate who is willing to go toe-to-toe with insurers.

Both Laws Robinson and Wilson said they would work to rebuild integrity in the scandal-plagued office and also supported the repeal of a 2008 law that limits the insurance commissioner’s ability to challenge rate increases. But they also said that, even without that change, the commissioner could make greater use of the powers already available.

Insurance agent Rapahel Baker, a Democrat, also qualified for the race but did not return phone calls seeking comment.

Learn more about the candidates:

DEMOCRATS

Raphael Baker: https://www.raphaelbakerforgeorgia.com/

Janice Laws Robinson: https://www.janiceforgeorgia.com/

Matthew Wilson: https://matthewforgeorgia.com/

REPUBLICANS:

Ben Cowart: N/A

John King: https://votejohnking.com/

Patrick Witt: https://patrickwitt.com/