"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.
And the frequent charge that he shakes down his industry for donations? We'll let the Ox himself address that one, using a presumably off-the-cuff 2003 speech to a roomful of car-insurance managers, as quoted in Fortune magazine: "I am not one of these Socialists [who is] never ever going to give out a rate increase. ... [But] you need to realize that you have to find a way to always make me look good in front of the voters. ... I'm the incumbent. You all are going to give me money because you're afraid not to."
None of these actions was technically illegal, mind you, but merely suspicious in their timing or for the pungent aroma of influence-peddling and political payback.
Normally, the companies under Oxendine's thumb don't complain publicly about his tactics, but every once in a while, someone breaks ranks. In 2005, the Ox launched an investigation of California-based insurer Trans World for selling potentially fraudulent policies to military personnel. As is customary, Trans World was ordered to pay a fee to an independent investigator appointed by Oxendine, in this case, actuarial consultant John Humphries.
Three years and $150,000 in fees later, Trans World filed suit in Fulton Superior Court, claiming Oxendine refused to provide the company with a status update on the investigation, an accounting of how the fees had been spent or an explanation of why it was taking so long. The complaint also noted that Humphries began contributing generously to the Ox's campaign coffers soon after receiving the appointment.
"Using his political crony as an examiner, the Commissioner has investigated Trans World for three years," the lawsuit fumed. As part of a settlement finalized just this past May, Oxendine withdrew a revocation of the company's license and the insurer agreed to pull out of Georgia.
To those who don't follow business news, however, Oxendine is most notorious for his demolition-derby antics. In 1997, he crashed his state-owned car into a stand of trees in Gwinnett County, later telling police he swerved to avoid a deer.
Two years later, while sitting at a red light in Cobb, he activated the flashing blue lights on his brand-new, state-issued car, started through the intersection and promptly plowed into a pickup truck.
Although Oxendine claimed he was responding to an emergency call from his office nearly eight miles away in downtown Atlanta, state investigators later concluded he'd pulled the blue-light special simply because he was running late for a ribbon-cutting photo op. Discovering that the insurance commissioner — who also serves as state fire marshal — had misused emergency equipment on previous occasions, Attorney General Thurbert Baker asked him to remove his lights and sirens. Oxendine did so, but not without calling the request from the Democrat "politically motivated."
The Ox, however, has been more than willing to clash with members of his own party. In 2003, he disregarded a ban on new vehicle purchases imposed by Gov. Perdue and bought a new, loaded Crown Vic, ordering a deluxe model complete with pursuit suspension, leather seats and a six-disc CD player. After a stern report from the inspector general's office applied pressure on him to reimburse the state for the $25,000 car, he finally wrote a check — and an apparently straight-faced press release stating, "I have decided to purchase this vehicle personally and donate it to the Georgia Department of Insurance to finally resolve this matter and demonstrate this office's commitment to fiscal responsibility."
You've got to give the Ox his due: The man spins like a pro, without a hint of irony. But then, when you've already told your parents by age 25 that you aim to one day be governor of Georgia, you need to keep your eyes on the prize.
Somehow, Oxendine has managed to stay on course, despite accusations by political opponents that he rewards big donors with rate-hike approvals at the expense of insurance customers; conflict-of-interest warnings from consumer advocates; widespread disapproval of his inane support of a highway slicing through Morningside, Virginia-Highland, Inman Park and East Atlanta; and even efforts by fellow Republicans to rein in his influence over the companies he regulates.
On occasion, however, the Ox has overstepped his own legal gray zone. In 1998, he was fined by the Ethics Commission for accepting an illegal $7,500 contribution from an out-of-state insurer. And, in an admirable piece of investigative reporting, the AJC revealed last year that two insurance companies controlled by an Ox supporter had funneled $120,000 in blatantly illegal contributions to his gubernatorial campaign.
Oxendine quickly returned the money, claiming that he hadn't seen anything suspicious in 10 Alabama-based political action committees each giving him identical amounts — $12,000, just under the limit — in the same contribution cycle.
To add to the rich aura of coincidence, the insurance executive whose companies made the illicit donations — one Delos "Dee" Yancy III of Rome — was also the Ox's longtime appointed chairman of an influential industry oversight board.
See what kind of entertaining shenanigans we would've missed out on had we never elected John Oxendine? And how many more scandals will we miss if we send the Ox packing now?
That's why this flawed, ambitious, more-than-a-little-kooky man deserves your vote.
Worried about such progressive ideas as equality for gays? Vote for the Ox. Concerned about road-building usurping investment in public transit? Vote for the Ox. Obsessed with accountability in government? The Ox is your man.
Because really, a vote for Oxendine could very well be a vote for Roy Barnes.
And if Barnes were to lose? Well, then perhaps Georgia deserves what it gets.
As a downtown resident I am all for this thing... but the location sucks in…
I think the "insular orientation" of AmericasMart and Peachtree Center is a big factor contributing…
I live two blocks away from the Civic Center on McGill St., yet this is…
Not to be a stingy asshole, but $13? For a ferris wheel ride?
Infrastructure, Police, Education, these costs are all substantial and perpetual. Setting up free wifi for…