Attorney Maria Sheffield has become the latest candidate to enter the Republican primary to be the next insurance commissioner in Georgia. She is one of several candidates hoping to succeed current Insurance Commissioner John Oxendine, who is running for governor.
Sheffield is currently an attorney with Burr, Forman, LLP, where she handles regulatory and corporate insurance law and insurance coverage disputes. Before private practice, she spent six years with the Georgia Department of Insurance working in several units including compliance and licensing.
Sheffield has worked for the Georgia State Republican Party and on the presidential campaigns of Phil Gramm’s and George Bush.
But rather than stressing politics, Sheffield hopes to distinguish herself as the candidate with insurance regulatory experience as well as private sector experience as an attorney representing the insurance industry in regulatory matters.
“For me, it wasn’t a matter of running for public office because I was interested in being a politician,” she told Insurance Journal in an interview. “I saw an opportunity here to run for an office where it truly was my area of expertise. I felt that I can really make a difference in an office where from day one, I understand the issues that the industry is facing and how those issues impact the citizens and the consumers in the state of Georgia.”
At this early stage in the campaign, Sheffield is still working out positions on specific issues. She expects the key issues will change during the course of the campaign, especially if Washington acts on insurance-related issues. “I’m watching all the issues that are occurring in D.C., and we’ll make some decisions regarding my platform as we move along, and I talk with more citizens and find out what the general concerns are out there in the public,” she said.
However, she is firm on several issues: she is an advocate for state regulation of insurance, not federal; she promises an aggressive fight against insurance fraud; she vows to work to keep the state’s insurance costs down; and she wants to encourage growth of captives in the state.
“I certainly understand why there is a push for certain areas of the industry to be regulated at the federal level. But I’m clearly a proponent of the state-based regulation of insurance,” she said.
“I have to shake my head every time I hear someone at the federal level say, ‘Well, AIG is a perfect example of why we need the federal regulation of insurance.’ That makes no sense to me. That’s not even a logical argument to me. I think at the federal level, there’s a lot of housekeeping that needs to be done before they involve themselves in regulating an industry that seems by all accounts to be faring pretty well under a state-based system of regulation.”
One of her areas of expertise is captives, which she has worked on in private law practice. Georgia has had a captive law since the 1980s, but the state has never been an active domicile like Vermont, South Carolina or Hawaii. Growing this sector would be one area of focus for Sheffield.
“I know that there are major corporations that have headquarters here in Georgia that have not only one, but sometimes two and three captive insurance companies that are domiciled somewhere else, because although we have a captive law, we do not have a law that allows them the flexibility that they need to domicile their captives here in Georgia,” she said.
She would like to see changes in the state’s captive law so that these corporations based in the state can also base their captives in Georgia and she’d like to see someone within the state insurance department with captive experience to help run the program.
“Vermont says that the industry has created 1,400 jobs in the state of Vermont. I think we have all the infrastructure here. I think we just need to embrace the concept. I certainly would make a push to do that,” she said.
She may not be as experienced a politician as some of her opponents but she thinks the current system of electing the state’s insurance commissioner, who also serves as state fire marshal, is good policy. “I like the idea that the commissioner’s office is elected in Georgia,” she said when asked if she would prefer the position be an appointed one. “I think the citizens have more of a voice in a system like the one we have in Georgia where we have so many constitutional officers elected at the statewide level.”
The job inevitably leads to tensions between the needs of insurance companies for higher rates and the pocketbooks of voters. Sheffield says she can protect consumers without becoming adversarial towards the industry.
“I think a good insurance commissioner, whether elected or appointed, will be able to balance the industry, be able to balance the concerns within the industry, make sure that the industry is responsive and responsible to the citizens of the state, but at the same time recognize that the industry has to make a profit. It is not a non-profit industry,” she said.
Without being specific, Sheffield says that while she will have her own ideas, she can build on some of what Oxendine has done. “[S]ome of the things that Oxendine has done in office I did support, and I think he’s done a good job with, and people in the state are proud of. He certainly has some initiatives that I would be interested in continuing as well,” she said.
Sheffield is just one candidate in what is turning out to be a crowded field of candidates hoping to replace current Insurance Commissioner John Oxendine, who is running for governor.
On the Republican side alone, state Sen. Seth Harp, Sen. Ralph Hudgens, Rep. Mike Coan, ex-Rep. Roger Hines, Peachtree City Mayor Harold K. Logsdon, insurance broker Stephen Northington, and benefits consultant and former Army officer Gerry Purcell have been identified as running.
Those vying for the Democratic nomination thus far are former House Speaker Terry Coleman, Rep. (and insurance agent) Keith Heard and ex-Sen. Mary Squires. The primary is not until next June, with the general election after that on Nov. 3.
Editor’s Note: This profile appeared in the Southeast edition of Insurance Journal magazine, Oct. 5, 2009. Watch for Insurance Journal interviews with other candidates.