Elizabeth “Liz” Johnson, a Bulloch County resident who once represented Georgia on the Democratic National Committee but ran unsuccessfully for local offices such as clerk of court, is now her party’s nominee in the statewide race for insurance commissioner.
In fact, Johnson received 203,318 votes, or 69.9 percent of the total in the May 20 primary, while the other Democratic candidate, former state Rep. Keith G. Heard of Athens, captured only 87,437 votes.
Now Johnson, 60, who has worked in various aspects of the insurance business, faces the opponent she has been talking about all along, Insurance Commissioner Ralph Hudgens, the Republican incumbent.
How does it feel to get more than 200,000 votes?
“It tells me that many Georgians are ready for something other than politics as usual,” Johnson said. “It tells me that my message of putting Georgians first is resonating with voters, and we’re just going to continue that message because the incumbent, Ralph Hudgens, is wrong for Georgia.”
Of course those primary votes didn’t really count against Hudgens, but for Johnson against Heard. The two of them divided the votes of the 290,755 Georgians who chose the Democratic ballot and then selected an insurance commissioner candidate.
Meanwhile, Hudgens received 451,599 votes as the unopposed candidate on the Republican ballot. That’s no strike against Johnson at this point. But participation was similarly lopsided in favor of Republicans in all statewide primary slots. So Georgia Democrats will have to vote in proportionally larger numbers, or get crossover votes from Republicans or independents, for their candidates to stand a chance on Nov. 4.
Campaign finance reports, which local and state candidates must file with the Georgia Government Transparency and Campaign Finance Commission, also suggest a Republican advantage in the insurance commissioner’s race. Johnson, according to her report for the period ending March 31, had received $11,237 in contributions, spent $8,446, and so had $2,791 on hand, rounded to the nearest dollar.
But also as of the March 31 required report, Hudgens, whose campaign committee has been in existence since before the 2010 election, had $386,800 on hand. Campaign disclosure reports, which also identity donors, can be viewed online at http://ethics.ga.gov.
The reports did not yet reflect activity for April and May. Nor do these figures include any help the candidates will now receive from their parties or any campaign spending that independent groups could do for or against them. But as of March 31, Johnson’s personal campaign fund was less than 1 percent the size of Hudgens’.
One factor that could draw outside resources to the race is that it pits an openly pro-Affordable Care Act Democrat against a staunchly anti-Obamacare Republican — those being two names for the same federal law.
Talking to a Republican group in Floyd County last August, Hudgens vowed “to be an obstructionist” in opposing Obamacare, as was widely reported.
“While Georgia auto and homeowners insurance rates are skyrocketing, his main focus is taking affordable health care options away from Georgia families and the many others who need it most,” Johnson said this week.
She has promised to do what she can to implement the Affordable Care Act — “because it is the law,” she says — while monitoring its effects on insurance costs.
But as Hudgens has reminded the news organizations elsewhere, and as Johnson quickly noted in this week’s interview, the office of state insurance and fire safety commissioner is concerned with other matters than federal health insurance laws.
“I’ll fight for a very competitive insurance market to lower premiums, I’ll protect Georgians from costly insurance fraud and I’ll enforce laws that promote fire safety to save lives and money, and I’ll build the insurance industry relationships and seek to balance their business goals with the needs of our citizens for affordable and effective insurance products,” Johnson said.
This is not Johnson’s first run for a statewide office, but it is her first in Georgia. The Statesboro Herald’s pre-primary profile story mentioned only her candidacies for Bulloch County Board of Commissioners in 2004, probate judge in 2008, clerk of court in 2012 and District 157 state representative in 2010. But as Internet searches revealed and Johnson confirmed, she was also a write-in candidate for Florida treasurer/insurance commissioner in 1994.
“I did not at make it at that point to the ballot, but my supporters chose to have me continue,” she said.
The Democratic Party nominee in Florida that year was Bill Nelson, who served as treasurer/insurance commissioner until elected to the U.S. Senate in 2000. He is now Florida’s senior senator. Florida has since abolished its elected treasurer/insurance commissioner office, effective in 2003.
Born in Miami Beach, Florida, Johnson has been a Bulloch County resident since 1996.
Her work in insurance, spanning about 40 years, included twice owning a small independent agency, as well as working for other agencies. In Statesboro, she previously operated Brooke Insurance and at another time was a Met Life agent.
She was licensed for about 15 years, she said, as an agent in both the property-and-casualty and life-and-health categories, but retired her licenses in 2011. In Florida, she was once secretary for a specialty insurance agents association.
She has been active with the Bulloch County Democratic Party for 18 years. She has served as 12th Congressional District director for the Georgia Federation of Democratic Women and as district party chairwoman.
In December 2011, Georgia Democrats at a state party meeting elected Johnson to serve on the Democratic National Committee through 2012.
Al Hackle may be reached at (912) 489-9454.