ATLANTA — Insurance Commissioner John W. Oxendine has the credentials to be one of Georgia's most influential Republican insiders.
He won his statewide office in 1994 when Georgia was still controlled by Democrats. And he's been a favorite among voters ever since: No candidate running statewide in 2006 earned more votes than Oxendine.
In spite of his success, he's not well-liked within the Republican establishment, and that suits him just fine. "I have never been the insider," Oxendine said. "I'm popular with everyday Georgians. Everyday Georgians are the ones that vote."
Oxendine is clearly the candidate to beat in the Republican primary, in spite of some bumps along the campaign trail. He's been the front-runner for months and has more cash on hand than his rivals, according to disclosure reports. He says he's in the lead because of a populist approach to governing that has more in common with the tea party crowd than the Republican elite.
"When I got to a Kroger or a Publix or I'm walking down the street or walking through the airport, people will stop and say, 'You helped my sister with a problem, you helped my daddy, you helped me with a problem. I just want to say thank you,' " Oxendine said. "My entire career has been focused on that person down the street."
As insurance commissioner, Oxendine licenses insurance companies and agents, reviews companies for solvency, sets rates for some types of insurance and investigates complaints. His office also oversees fire safety statewide and regulates the industry that makes small loans of $3,000 or less.
"I think he is one of the most powerful people in the state," said Bob Constantine, an attorney who represents insurers and a former chief deputy at the insurance department. "People don't realize the extent of the office."
On the campaign trail, Oxendine points to a long list of accomplishments. Among them: helping consumers mediate disputes with insurers, fining insurers who don't follow the rules and pioneering a telemedicine program that helps rural Georgians access better health care.
Some experts say his record on consumer protection is mixed.
"John is kind of a funny guy," said Bob Hunter, the Consumer Federation of America's director of insurance and a former Texas insurance commissioner. "He goes both directions. There are times when he is pro consumer and times when he seems to give away the store."
An analysis of state auto insurance rates shows that Georgia's insurers earn profits at about the national average and have won rate increases on par with the nation as well. Oxendine has levied significant fines, including a $2.3 million penalty against UnitedHealthcare in 2005 for slow payment of claims. He also opposed an effort to legalize payday lending, a move consumer advocates applauded.
His record as a consumer champion isn't as strong on lower-profile issues. He has not sought changes to the small loan industry he regulates, even though the cost of borrowing a few hundred dollars from the storefront lenders often exceeds 100 percent. He also has allowed insurers selling disability policies with loans to earn some of the highest profits in the nation, according to an analysis.
If he becomes governor, Oxendine said his most pressing task would be addressing Georgia's unemployment problem. "Virtually everybody in Georgia either has lost their job, knows somebody who has lost their job or they're in fear of losing their job," he said. "That is going to be the biggest challenge — bringing jobs to Georgia."
Oxendine, who was elected at 32, was a little known former Democrat from Gwinnett County when he upset incumbent Insurance Commissioner Tim Ryles. Oxendine's father, a retired superior court judge, was a political insider in Georgia's old Democratic Party with close ties to former governors Joe Frank Harris and Zell Miller.
The elder Oxendine was quoted in a 1987 article in The Atlanta Journal-Constitution talking about his son, then just 25 and fresh out of law school. "He has already told me he wants to be governor and I believe he can do it," James Oxendine said at the time.
Oxendine, who switched parties about a year before his first campaign, said he identifies strongly with Republican ideals: pro-life, pro-guns, small government, no tax increases. "I'm very Republican, very conservative," he said. "I'm just not a party hack."
Since his election in 1994, Oxendine has never offered the public an understated personal style. Even some of his supporters say he can be brash, outspoken and full of himself. He's attracted criticism over the years for taking lots of campaign money from those he regulates — about $3 million in the past decade from people working in the insurance and small loan industries.
Oxendine has also been criticized for enjoying all the perks of his job, whether it's taking quail-hunting trips courtesy of insurance companies, demanding that high-powered executives appear before him or using the lights and sirens he once had on his state vehicle in his role as the safety fire commissioner. Oxendine gave up the blue lights nearly a decade ago, after an attorney general's investigation found he routinely turned on the equipment to beat traffic in nonemergencies.
Criticisms related to campaign fund-raising resurfaced last year when the AJC reported that a Rome-based insurer funneled $120,000 to Oxendine's campaign through 10 Alabama-based political action committees. The State Ethics Commission has an ongoing investigation.
Oxendine returned the money. "The fact is, everything I have done has been completely above board and in compliance," he said.
While some critics portray him as an industry guy, others who have dealt with him as a regulator disagree. "My experience with him is he is firm, but fair and is not afraid to use his position to resolve a problem," Constantine said.
Others in the industry say he will let you take him out to an expensive dinner one day, and then hit you with a big fine the next, if you deserve it.
Jill Jinks, an insurance executive and longtime supporter of the commissioner, said Oxendine would be a hands-on leader. "John would be a pothole governor," she said. "He's going to get things fixed. He is not a policy guy. That's just not in him. He's the guy who is going to fix the pothole himself."
She said he will face challenges because he won't have strong support inside the Capitol. "He will have his own party against him and he will have the Democrats waiting for him to screw up," she said. "But the people of Georgia will end up liking him because he will get the potholes fixed in front of their house."