Crowd of Republicans seeking Georgia insurance seat

ATLANTA -- A crowded field of candidates is battling it out to become the state's next insurance commissioner, with several vowing to fight the new federal health care law.

Nine Republicans and one Democrat have entered the race to replace Commissioner John Oxendine, who is running for governor in the Republican primary. The list of candidates includes the chairmen of both the state House and Senate insurance committees.

The federal health care law, pushed by President Barack Obama, has emerged as a key issue in the race.

Earlier this year, Oxendine declined -- as part of the new law -- to set up a state insurance pool for high-risk Georgians who have been uninsured for at least six months. The Republican candidates say they will help the state fight against the law.

"I think it's totally unconstitutional," said Senate Insurance Committee Chairman Ralph Hudgens, 67, a Republican from Hull.

Among the candidates, Hudgens has raised the most money -- $367,000 overall and has $260,000 in cash on hand.

Hudgens said if elected, he would consider decentralizing the department and create field offices across the state to help speed up workers' compensation claims, arson investigations and fraud probes.

Also raising considerable cash are Republican attorney Maria Sheffield with $160,000 and House Insurance Committee Chairman Tom Knox, a 66-year-old Republican from Cumming who has raised $125,000. Sheffield supports more funding for arson investigations to speed up the process and a tax break for volunteer firefighters.

Knox said he wants to battle federal involvement in the insurance industry in Georgia.

State Sen. Seth Harp, a 67-year-old Republican from Midland, is outgoing chairman of the Senate Higher Education Committee. He has reported $87,000 and is campaigning on a promise to build bipartisan support and restore honesty and integrity to the office.

The state ethics commission is investigating whether insurance companies used political action committees to funnel money to Oxendine's campaign. State law prohibits public officials from accepting money from companies they regulate.

Oxendine has returned the money and denied any wrongdoing.

The other Republicans in the race are Alpharetta businessman Gerry Purcell, Hazlehurst insurance agent Dennis Cain, Moultrie attorney Rick Collum, Savannah insurance agent John Mamalakis and Acworth insurance agent Stephen Dale Northington.

The lone Democrat in the primary race, Mary Squires, has raised $131,000. The Atlanta consultant served in both the state House and Senate and is executive director of the Georgia Society of Professional Benefit Administrators, which supports the self-insurance market.

The state's primary election is July 20, and the general election is Nov. 2.