Appointed or Elected? State Insurance Chiefs Like How They Got Their Jobs

November 7, 2006

In a demonstration of how divergent political campaigns can be in terms of dollars invested, incumbent Georgia Insurance Commissioner John Oxendine revealed that he had spent $3 million by Halloween in his 2006 bid for reelection, while George Dale, eight-term Mississippi insurance commissioner, currently in his 31st year of service, said he never spent more than $150,000 on a campaign.

Oxendine, embroiled in a hotly-contested battle with Democratic opponent Gaeton “Guy” Drexinger, took part in a round table discussion at the Southeastern Regulator’s Association annual conference in South Carolina last week and had a hard time stepping away from the campaign trail.

When moderator Michael Maloney asked Oxendine what legislation is pending in his state, he responded by saying he is “up for reelection,” then launched into the rigors and details of his campaign schedule. He was placed back on track – with tongue in cheek – by colleague Walter Bell, Alabama’s insurance chief.

“John, there are only three people out there who can vote for you,” Bell said, referring to the audience made up of insurance regulators from half a dozen southeastern states.

The panel moderator eventually posed a related question to the group of insurance commissioners on stage: “What do you see are the benefits of being an elected official versus appointed?”

“I like the idea of people electing officials and having direct power through their vote,” Oxendine said. “I’m a populist, but also a conservative and a Republican.”

Oxendine added that when people have a direct voice in a political contest, it satisfies the emotional aspect of the process.

Bell said there are 11 elected commissioners and the remainder are appointed by their governors: “I’m in favor of appointment. I would not be in this position if I had to be elected.”

As an elected officer, Mississippi’s Dale, who revealed he will “most likely run for a ninth term in 2007,” said he can see both sides of the issue: “Some governors only serve two-year terms – that can be a short job for an appointed official. Thirty-one years might be too long and 18 months may not be long enough.”

Dale voiced his favor for campaign finance reform, saying things have gotten way out of hand: “Something is wrong with the current system.”

Eleanor Kitzman, the appointed South Carolina director of insurance, and host of the 2006 SERA conference, said the process is politicized either way.

“The turnover is a real problem,” Kitzman said. “But it doesn’t matter if the commissioner is elected or appointed – the rates on the coast are not going down.”

For Arkansas Insurance Commissioner Julie Benafield Bowman, appointment is the preferred method of attaining office.

“I am not comfortable with contributions from industry – and that’s where they will come from if you have to run for election,” Bowman said. “Being appointed, you only need the vote of the governor – you’re not beholding to anybody else.”

Virginia Insurance Commissioner Alfred Gross was appointed by a panel of judges who serve on a court established by the state’s constitutional agenda.

“I am serving an open-ended term,” Gross said. “It provides professional longevity and a degree of independence, especially when dealing with solvencies and licensing.”

Others suggested that the time appointed officials save by not having to campaign for reelection is time that can be used to do the work that is expected of the office.

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