"Democracy," observed the hard-bitten newspaperman H.L. Mencken, "is the theory that holds that the common people know what they want — and deserve to get it good and hard."
It's a sure bet Mencken would've felt his cynicism justified by the curious political career of John Oxendine.
In case you hadn't heard, Oxendine is the clear front-runner for the Republican nomination in this year's governor's race. Even his detractors concede that, come the July 20 GOP primary, the tinny-voiced, washboard-coiffed Georgia insurance commissioner is the only real shoo-in to make the runoff.
While his opponents have largely touted their experience or administrative competence, the Ox — a dubious nickname he's eagerly embraced — has taken the lead by noisily declaring himself the biggest gun-loving, God-fearing, gay-hating, flag-waving, tea-drinking, rootin' tootin' conservative around.
Recent polls rate his support as twice that of either of his two nearest rivals, Secretary of State Karen Handel and Nathan Deal, a longtime congressman. Meanwhile, Eric Johnson, once the top man in the state Senate, hasn't been able to break out of the mid-single digits.
How did it come to this? First elected in 1994, Oxendine has become a familiar name on statewide ballots, but his obscure, down-ticket post hardly offers the kind of visibility to serve as a stepping stone to the Governor's Mansion.
Instead, Oxendine was previously best known for his many peccadilloes and mini-scandals: wrecking two state vehicles and ordering a third without proper authorization; having his knuckles rapped by the State Ethics Commission for banking illegal campaign contributions; and being accused by everyone from consumer advocates to fellow GOP officials of being a shake-down artist who long ago turned his office into his own personal, pay-for-play fiefdom.
Then there's Oxendine's various conflicts of interest: brazenly collecting ass-loads of campaign cash from the very industries he's responsible for regulating; favoring contributors and cronies with cushy appointments; even marrying an executive with the state's largest health insurer without recusing himself from decisions affecting the company's fortunes. And we haven't even mentioned his son accidentally shooting a man during a hunting excursion. In short, Oxendine is carrying more baggage than Paris Hilton on a world cruise.
That said, here's our suggestion: On July 20, vote for the Ox.
For the love of Christ, this walking ethics complaint, this hot suburban mess of a gubernatorial hopeful deserves to be propelled to his rightful destiny — imploding into a supernova of questionable fundraising, hyper-inflated ego and holier-than-thou grandstanding. If Oxendine wins the GOP primary, we promise that the months leading up to the Nov. 2 general election will be amazing to behold — especially when contrasted to the courtly eloquence and veteran's savvy of the all-but-certain Democratic candidate, former Gov. Roy "Comeback Kid" Barnes.
How do we know Oxendine is on a collision course with political oblivion? Frankly, we don't (although the fact that he was scheduled to again be hauled before the Ethics Commission only a day before this paper hit the stands is a good tip-off — but more on that in a bit).
Still, we're willing to run the risk of proving Mencken right in order to see Georgia's biggest elected blowhard get his comeuppance in a showdown with Barnes.
Truth be told, the secret to the Ox's longevity has been his utter shamelessness, both in soliciting campaign contributions and in using his wide latitude of official discretion to flout Georgia's flaccid conflict-of-interest laws. His entire M.O. as a public official could be summed up by one double entendre: barely legal.
Examples? Why, of course:
Within months of taking office in 1995, Oxendine created a group he dubbed the "Commissioner's Roundtable," the membership of which consisted of insurance workers invited to pony up $1,000 for the privilege of attending breakfast confabs with the guy who regulates their industry.
The same year, he awarded a no-bid contract worth $828,000 over three years for managing insolvent insurance firms to MC Consulting, several of whose principals — including his former campaign manager — and their wives later contributed $5,000 apiece to Oxendine's re-election campaign.
In late 2003, Oxendine married Ivy Dunn, a sales executive with Blue Cross, claiming he could still make impartial decisions involving the company. The following year, he approved a lucrative merger of the insurer's parent corporation with another firm.
In October 2005, a month after UnitedHealthcare beat out Blue Cross for a coveted $55 million contract to manage a health insurance network for state employees, the Ox slapped United with a $2.4 million fine — the largest such penalty in state history — for being tardy in paying claims.
Not to imply that Oxendine hasn't sometimes bitten the hands that feed him. In 2006, for instance, he fined Blue Cross $600,000 for various violations — less than two weeks before facing re-election.
Under state law, Oxendine is prohibited from accepting campaign contributions directly from the companies he regulates. But over the years, he's raked in millions from insurance executives, lobbyists, their families and others whose livelihoods are derived from the industry — in some years accounting for more than half of his collected funds, the AJC has reported. Donors with connections to Aflac have been particularly generous, giving him more than $85,000 in 2002 alone.
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I listen to you every morning..great show..love it