Gov. Robert Bentley, 69, dressed in a crisp, white shirt and a tie, warmly ushers guests into his office like a preacher welcoming a wayward soul to church. He settles down at the end of a conference table, folds his hands and describes his rise to the highest political office in Alabama as an unexpected journey guided by providence.
“Five years ago, would I have even thought I would be governor of the state of Alabama?” asks Bentley. “Probably not. Not realistically. So we never know what the Lord has in store for us.”
The son of a sawmill worker and the youngest of six children, Bentley grew up on a 40-acre homestead near Columbiana in Shelby County. His family, he says, grew enough food on their land to eat, raised hogs and planted rows of cotton.
“I remember during that time we had no electricity, ” says Bentley. “No indoor plumbing. I remember even having to go on Saturdays to get ice and putting it in the ice box, and it would last until Thursday.”
Of his parents, Bentley says, “They were not well educated, but they were very smart.” His father had only a 7th grade education. His mother went to the 8th grade.
“They believed in education but didn’t personally have a chance to do that. But they always encouraged me.”
Bentley says he was studious. At Shelby County High School, he joined the school’s champion debate team and eventually became president of the student body. He later enrolled at the University of Alabama in Tuscaloosa. The plan, he says, was to get his degree in aeronautical engineering and build airplanes. But Bentley, deeply devout since childhood, says he felt God leading him to become a medical doctor instead. So, after college, Bentley studied medicine at the University of Alabama School of Medicine.
After medical school, Bentley enlisted in the U.S. Air Force as a commissioned captain in 1969. He was a general medical officer and later hospital commander at Pope Air Force Base at Fort Bragg, N.C. After leaving the service, he completed his residency in dermatology at the University of Alabama at Birmingham. Then in 1974, Bentley returned to Tuscaloosa and established his practice, Alabama Dermatology Associates.
While he enjoyed practicing medicine, Bentley says he began considering another interest: politics. He set his sights on running for the state Senate in 1998 against the incumbent, state Sen. Phil Poole, D-Moundville. The time, Bentley says, seemed right.
“I would not have given up what I thought was a calling to practice medicine until I got to a certain age and also until my sons were at an age where I thought I could give up part of that and do public service, ” he says. “That’s why I waited until my 50s before running for anything.”
He lost the election by just 58 votes. But Bentley was philosophical about his defeat.
“It’s not always bad to lose, ” says Bentley. “People think that it’s terrible to lose something. But I just went right back to work and continued practicing.”
Then in January 2002, state Rep. Tim Parker, R-Tuscaloosa, representing District 63, announced that he would not run for a fourth term. It was the second chance Bentley had waited for. Bentley won the House seat and was on a path to a career in Alabama politics.
Bentley arrived in Montgomery as a freshman legislator representing parts of Tuscaloosa, Northport and Tuscaloosa County. He came with high hopes, but it wasn’t long, he says, before he felt that the controlled environment of his dermatology practice was poles apart from the world of statehouse politics where deal making, give and take, grandstanding and fights along party lines were the order of the day. It was a place, he says, where he felt he had little chance of accomplishing what he wanted.
“In the legislative branch, you’re one of many, ” he says. “If you can get one or two significant things done while in the Legislature, you’ve done a pretty good job. Being governor is different. Every 30 minutes I’m dealing with a complicated issue, a problem, listening to people who have problems and trying to help them solve those problems.
“Being governor is like when I was practicing medicine when I would go in and see a patient every 15 or 20 minutes, listen to their problem, come up with a diagnosis and come up with a solution. They’re very similar, and I could make decisions and get things done. Whereas, when I was in the Legislature, there were very few things that I could influence other than as a group. You just don’t have the ability to get things done other than being in the executive branch.”
In the House, Bentley served on the Education Appropriations Committee and the Agriculture and Forestry Committee, and he was vice chairman of the House Internal Affairs Committee. He also helped create the Alabama Medical Education Consortium, which aimed to boost the number of primary care physicians in Alabama.
Voters reelected Bentley to the House in 2006. It would be his last term, he says, because he had determined early on in his political career that he would serve only two terms. So he began thinking about his next move.
In 2008, he was a delegate to the Republican National Convention in support of presidential candidate and former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee. Bentley later served on the party’s Platform Committee.
Afterward, Bentley says he began mulling over a possible run for governor, weighing his chances for success.
“It would be a wide open field, ” he says. “If I worked hard enough and presented my case, prepared, and used my experience in the Legislature on the education appropriations committee and my knowledge of government, I felt like if I worked hard enough, I could convince people to vote for me.”
So, in May 2009, Bentley publicly announced his bid for the GOP nomination for governor. In his own party, he faced several much better known opponents, including former chancellor of the Alabama Community College System Bradley Byrne, Greenville businessman Tim James, former state Supreme Court Justice Roy Moore and state Treasurer Kay Ivey. The Democrats in the race included U.S. Rep. Artur Davis and state Agriculture Commissioner Ron Sparks. In a field of such heavy hitters, says Bentley, getting support for his campaign proved to be more difficult than he first thought.
“I was certainly very naïve at the time, and no one gave me a chance, and very few people would give me any money, ” he says. “Most of them gave me money because they felt sorry for me, or they gave me a little money because they were friends.”
In the primary election in June 2010, however, Bentley came in second, but he failed to win enough votes over James to move on to face Byrne in a runoff. A recount was conducted and Bentley prevailed over James by just under 200 votes. Unconvinced, James demanded a county-by-county tabulation. The second count showed that Bentley was ahead by 270 votes. James conceded, and Bentley went on to beat Byrne in the July 13 runoff. Afterward, Bentley, dark horse of the gubernatorial race, faced off against Sparks in the general election and won with 58 percent of the vote.
While he was still a candidate, Bentley had pledged to take no salary as governor until the state reached full employment with a jobless rate at 5.2 percent. He has adopted the Republican mantra of “job creation” with earnestness. Washington snipping is a close second.
“The unemployment rate is high because the economy is just bad everywhere, and not just in Alabama, ” he says, “and until we get some confidence in what’s happening in Washington, I think it’s going to remain fairly high. All we can do is to continue to work on a state level to try to produce jobs.”
In his second year in the governor’s seat, providence again paid Bentley a call. In July, the governor joined executives of European air giant Airbus in Mobile to announce one of the largest economic development breakthroughs in the state’s history — a $600 million assembly plant in Mobile that will employ about 1, 000 workers.
While his efforts to get the state’s economy back on track has been one of many challenges he’s faced in his first two years in office, Bentley says his greatest test so far came in April 2011, when an outbreak of deadly tornados ripped through Tuscaloosa and other sections of the state, killing about 250 people. Rebuilding would cost up to $4.2 billion, according to a 2011 report by the University of Alabama’s Center for Business and Economic Research. Bentley says the storm and the ongoing recovery efforts have proven to be a defining moment in his time as governor.
“I believe that you’re tested when you go through difficult times, ” he says. “The April 27 tornadoes defined me more than anything. I believe people voted for me because they liked me, but they didn’t know what kind of leader I would be in a time of crisis. A crisis defines a governor. You can do well and people say you’re a great leader; do terrible and that defines you also. No one tells you how to be a governor. No one gives you a book and says to you this is how to be a governor. It really comes from your past experiences; it comes from your life long experiences.”
Gail Allyn Short is a freelance writer for Business Alabama, based in Birmingham.
Gail Allyn Short