Monday, October 25, 2010

Both were longshots once. now Robert Bentley or Ron Sparks will lead Alabama after November 2 election

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Published: Sunday, October 24, 2010, 5:00 AM ??? Updated: Sunday, October 24, 2010, 7:04 AM

For all their differences -- and they have many -- Republican Robert Bentley and Democrat Ron Sparks have this in common: Almost nobody thought either man stood a chance of winning his party's nomination for governor, let alone actually winning the state's highest office.?

"Not even my wife thought I stood a chance," Bentley said with a grin as his wife, Dianne, nodded in agreement.?

"Let's just say you wouldn't have gotten good odds on my chances in Las Vegas when we started," Sparks said with a smile.?

[INTERACTIVE GRAPHIC: Click it?to see where Ron Sparks and Robert Bentley stand on the issues]

Sparks was thought by power brokers in his own party to be such a long shot against heavily favored U.S. Rep. Artur Davis that they actively sought to persuade other Democrats -- most notably Chief Justice Sue Bell Cobb -- to get into the race in hopes of keeping the nomination from Davis, who establishment Democrats didn't like or trust.?

Bentley was so dismissed as a serious contender by one-time GOP front-runners Bradley Byrne and Tim James that both men spent millions on strategy aimed solely at each other while ignoring poll numbers that showed Bentley steadily gaining ground.?

Yet, Bentley and Sparks now stand alone as nominees for governor, and in just nine days one of them will be chosen by Alabamians to succeed Gov. Bob Riley and become the state's 53rd governor.?

The choice they offer voters is not between Tweedledum and Tweedledee. These guys are anything but identical in their views on most issues, most especially in their philosophical outlook on the role of government.?

"Bentley and Sparks represent really classic differences in outlook and attitude toward the role of government," said Bradley Moody, who long has observed Alabama politics from his perch as professor of political science at Auburn University at Montgomery. "Bentley sees it (government) as creating obstacles as people and businesses pursue their goals. Sparks sees government as a vehicle to help citizens overcome obstacles in their lives."?

The duties:
State's chief executive; appoints heads of many state departments and members to boards; proposes budgets; can call Legislature into session and veto bills; can commute death sentences; commander-in-chief of state militia.
The pay: $120,936

Ron Sparks
Date of birth:
Oct. 29, 1952; 57.
Residence: Lives in Montgomery, born in Fort Payne.
Family: Three children.
Political experience: Agriculture commissioner since 2003; DeKalb County commissioner, 1978-1982.
Professional experience: Assistant commissioner of agriculture, 1999-2003; former director of 911 system, DeKalb County; served in the U.S. Coast Guard.
Education: Graduated from Northeast Alabama Community College.

Robert Bentley
Date of birth:
Feb. 3, 1943; 67.
Residence: Lives in Tuscaloosa, born in Columbiana.
Political experience: Member of state House of Representatives since 2002.
Professional experience: Founder of Alabama Dermatology Associates and practicing physician for 34 years; captain and hospital commander in the U.S. Air Force at Pope Air Force Base at Fort Bragg during the Vietnam War.
Education: University of Alabama; bachelor's and M.D.

Those philosophical differences are likely to make them very different kinds of governors, Moody said.?

"Like Governor Riley, Bentley will seek to promote the needs of businesses over almost anything else, but probably smaller business rather than big business, which Riley tended to favor most," Moody said. "Bentley will support tax breaks for business and less regulation over it. Sparks, on the other hand, would be likely seek to give more support to public sector needs, to better funding schools, health care for seniors, pay raises for teachers and state employees, both key groups for Democrats."?

Sparks, who was raised by his mother and grandmother and who joined the Coast Guard after high school because there was no money for college, is the state's two-term agriculture commissioner. Before going to Montgomery eight years ago, he spent time as a DeKalb County commissioner and businessman.?

Bentley, who grew up in Columbiana as the son of a sawmill worker, is a retired dermatologist who built a lucrative practice in Tuscaloosa and once counted as one of his patients Paul "Bear" Bryant. He has served the past eight years in the state Legislature.?

A quick look at a few issues shows how different the two men are from each other.?

>>>Abortion rights: Bentley opposed. Sparks in favor.?

>>>Lottery for college scholarships and early childhood education: Bentley opposed. Sparks in favor.?

>>>State implementation of federal health care law: Bentley opposed. Sparks in favor.?

>>>Legalizing a wide variety of gambling: Bentley opposed. Sparks in favor.?

>>>Illegal immigration: While both men would fine businesses that hire illegal immigrants, the issue is high on Bentley's agenda, but for Sparks it ranks well down the list behind education, the economy and gambling.?

>>>Public corruption: Bentley uses terms such as "Montgomery needs a bath" to illustrate how he feels about the issue. Sparks is often critical of Bentley's harsh words, saying that as governor he would focus on working with legislators, not attacking them.?

Glen Browder is a former legislator and congressman who is now professor emeritus of political science at Jacksonville State University. He said Bentley and Sparks are unique because they are not the hand-picked candidates of their respective party establishments.?

"Usually at least one if not both candidates for governor get to that point because the party has picked them or key interest groups in the party have championed them. For example, big business for the GOP and the teacher's union for Democrats," Browder said. "That's not true of these two men, and it means that the one who wins won't really owe anything to any one interest group, maybe with the exception of Sparks and the gaming industry. That said, I think whichever one wins will be fairly free to pursue their agendas in a way we have not seen in some time."?

William Stewart, professor emeritus of political science at the University of Alabama, said anybody who thinks Bentley and Sparks are interchangeable politicians is not paying attention.?

"George Wallace used to say that there was not a dime's worth of difference between Democrats and Republicans," Stewart said. "That's not true of these two candidates. They really believe very different things about many of the issues and about what the role of government is. Bentley thinks it's part of the problem. Sparks things it's part of the solution."

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