When the Sparks bus comes to a stop in the parking lot of the Fort Payne K-Mart, on a Tuesday one week before the election, a cheer goes from the 100-plus people gathered here. When the candidate himself emerges, people line up to have their pictures taken with the man they hope will be Alabama’s next governor.
It all seems pretty run-of-the-mill, until you realize that most of these folks were on first-name basis with Sparks be-fore he was old enough to shave.
“I’ve known him since way back yonder,” said Jimmy Lindsey, retired DeKalb County circuit clerk. “He didn’t come from a bunch of rich folks. He’s like us.”
This is Ron Sparks. In his own element, the Democratic candidate is a rock star, even if you’ve never heard of him.
Like his opponent, Republican Robert Bentley, he has flown almost entirely under the public’s radar until this election season. But he has a strong following among the people he has most influenced –- farmers, fellow Democrats and Northeast Alabama residents who are irked by the fact that their region hasn’t produced a governor in recent memory.
Most Alabamians know the Sparks of 2010 — the man in the suit who wants an education lottery, the man who bested a Harvard-educated African-American in the Democratic primary by pounding the pavement and court-ing the black vote.
Yet his life story, to this point, seems perfect for schmaltzy political ads.
For the most part, Sparks hasn’t gotten around to telling that story yet.
A little mischievous
“When I was young, I didn’t think at all about becoming governor,” Sparks said. “Ask anybody who knows me. I come from an ’umble background, and it wasn’t really something you considered.”
Sparks grew up in Fort Payne, in the rugged, wooded hills of Alabama’s northeast corner. A land of shotguns and pickups, it’s about as far as you can get from the state’s mossy-oak stereotype and still be in Alabama.
And he really did grow up here. The young Sparks wasn’t a governor in miniature. He was a kid.
“He was a good boy,” said Sara Noles, a retired educator who taught Sparks in middle school. “I guess he was a lit-tle mischievous, but never anything serious.”
It was clearly a working-class childhood. Sparks’ parents were divorced, and he was raised by his grandmother, who worked in the hosiery mills that were once Fort Payne’s economic backbone.
Asked if she saw any qualities in the pre-teen Sparks that would have made him a good governor, Noles pauses for a long, uncomfortable time.
Finally, she says it never occurred to her that anybody from Fort Payne would become governor.
“It just didn’t seem possible for anybody to get there from here,” Noles said.
But it was clear, early on, that he was willing to work hard. Sparks spend at least some of his summer breaks haulin-ing the “Snowball Wagon” –- a Sno-Cone cart operated by a kid named Walter ‘Red’ Rose –- around Fort Payne.
“It’s pretty hilly, so you needed two people to push it,” said Rose, now retired from a career teaching air condition-ing repair at the county tech school in Rainsville. “We shaved ice, put in the flavor and sold it for 10 cents a cone.”
Sparks freely admits that, like many small-town kids, he didn’t have a clue about what to do with his life -- even as the milestone of high school graduation whizzed by.
So he did what a lot of aimless small-town kids do. He signed up.
In 1971, while staying with his father in Merritt, Fla., Sparks marched down to the recruiter and joined the Coast Guard. In a September interview with The Star, he said he chose the Coast Guard in part because he “liked excite-ment” and was thrilled by the idea of rescuing people on the high seas.
He got his wish. Sparks became a boatswain’s mate – a sort of at-sea jack-of-all-trades – on the Coast Guard vessel Sagebrush, stationed in Puerto Rico. Later he would transfer closer to home, where rescuing stranded boaters on the Tennessee River was part of his job.
That work would cost him a friend and earn him a medal. In a series of floods on the Tennessee in the early 1970s, Sparks saw a shipmate, Terry Dickerson, drown, and later earned the Coast Guard Commendation Medal for saving boaters stuck in the the floodwaters.
Some politicians would lead with that story, but Sparks has made little use of it.
It may be that, while people love a war hero, they don’t know what to make of a rescuer from an unremembered dis-aster. But in a September interview with The Star, Sparks seemed reluctant to go into details about the floods, as though the story were too personal for the political arena.
One thing is clear: Sparks emerged from his Coast Guard service with a kind of ambition he didn’t have before.
“The military kind of shook me up, in a good way, and made me focus,” he said.
Behind home plate
More than once during his political career, Sparks has told the story of how, as a child, he became catcher on a baseball team.
His grandmother couldn’t afford to buy him a glove, the story goes, but the team would supply a mitt for the catcher. So Sparks learned to squat behind home plate.
It’s a good metaphor for Sparks’ life after the Coast Guard. He built a career out of finding open spots on the team, and taking them, and doing a good job – good enough that people remembered it.
His first foray into politics came in 1978 when Sparks became one of DeKalb County’s youngest-ever county commissioners. He was also in business, as owner and operator of the Scooper Duper Ice Cream Parlor in Fort Payne.
He entered public service again in 1993, when DeKalb County set up its first 911 service. Hilly, sparsely populated DeKalb was a bit of a latecomer to the 911 game, and many homes here weren’t recorded in the 911 database – a task that Sparks, as the system’s new director, would have to complete.
It was a crash course in small-town political infighting. When he was hired, one member of the commission openly speculated about whether a director was even needed, and the commission hired a database manager at a salary al-most as high as Sparks’ $25,000 per year. Later, a commissioner would accuse Sparks of sleeping at work, after he stayed overnight at the 911 center during stormy weather -– a fairly common practice for emergency management of-ficials. Sparks would later take a commissioner to the state Ethics Commission for allegedly asking a 911 worker to spy on Sparks’ comings and goings.
Sparks can’t really say what attracted him to the 911 job, except that it was an open position where he could make a difference.
“They just needed someone to provide leadership,” he said. “I’m proud that I was there at the start, and that we were able to provide a service that was really needed here.”
His work got him noticed. He was elected head of the National Emergency Number Association, the field’s profes-sional association. And in 1999, he was appointed assistant commissioner of the state Department of Agriculture and Industries.
It was a bigger leap than it might seem. Almost a government within a government, Agriculture and Industries regu-lates a wide swath of the economy – from fielding consumer complaints to inspecting scales in grocery stores to re-sponding to disease outbreaks on farms.
Again, Sparks was squatting behind home plate, stepping in to the biggest position he could get.
On the job training
“Ron likes a challenge, he likes to fix things,” said Dickie Odom, a Greene County catfish farmer and member of the state agriculture board. “He wants it done right, and he likes to get in there and make them do it right.”
Odom says Sparks came to the department “without any background in ag, as far as I know,” and surprised the farm community with his ability to pick things up on the job.
You don’t need Odom to tell you that. Sparks seems to be popular with farmers across the state, in part because of an ability to think outside the box and open new markets to Alabama products. In Odom’s neck of the woods, people will tell you how Sparks pounced on complaints about contamination in foreign-raised fish, giving Alabama fish farms a shot in the arm. In Fort Payne, farmers praise Sparks for opening trade with Cuba – now a major consumer of the chicken raised in poultry farms here.
Of course, Sparks hasn’t been afraid to use his office to build a little internal PR. During his first run for commis-sioner in 2002, he and then-Commissioner Charlie Bishop appeared in a series of federally-funded ads promoting Alabama farm products.
That kind of patronage doesn’t raise an eyebrow in the old-school world of agriculture policy. Neither does Sparks’ 2002 endorsement by the Alabama Farmers Federation, also known as ALFA, a powerful group on Goat Hill and a kingmaker in the agriculture commissioner race.
Early in his first term, Sparks sat out the debate over Gov. Bob Riley’s $1.2 billion tax reform plan. He said it was out of deference to the governor – but ALFA was one of the major opponents of the plan.
But then, Sparks has his own plan to raise funds for schools – and as every Alabamian with a television knows, it involves a lottery, and legalization and taxation of gambling.
You might think that legalized gambling and trade with Cuba would be campaign killers in a place where people go to church on Wednesday night and hunt deer on Saturday. But in DeKalb County, people seem excited to see anyone with a plan to get them out of the doldrums.
“We need industrial development. We need jobs,” said David Smith, a Rainsville resident and local organizer for Sparks. “Fort Payne used to be the sock capital of the world, but… there are just a few (textile mills) holding on.”
Pictures of dead presidents
For the most part, Sparks’ campaign ads have focused on his lottery plan, or on his criticisms of Bentley. In debates, he tends to come out swinging, blasting his opponent for perceived shortcomings right out of the gate.
But if he’s really the genuine article – the small-town boy who made good – why isn’t he telling that story?
“It’s hard to talk about the way you’ve been raised, about the experiences you’ve had,” Sparks said.
Sparks campaign staffer Danny LaMunyon offered a different assessment.
“It’s all about pictures of dead presidents,” LaMunyon said. “It costs $3,500 per spot to run an ad in the Birmingham market.”
LaMunyon and other staffers are positive about Sparks’ chances, even though the latest polls have shown Bentley with nearly a 10-point lead. They point out that Sparks was surging at the end of that poll, and they hope that surge will peak on Election Day Tuesday.
He has come from behind before. Sparks’ victory over Artur Davis in the primary stunned almost everyone. The press had already crowned Davis as Alabama’s Barack Obama, but it was Sparks who picked up the black vote. And he did it largely by paying calls on black leaders, something Davis often declined to do.
“Davis did it to himself,” LaMunyon said. “I don’t know what he was thinking … He must have thought he could take his base for granted.”
Which may be why Sparks came to Fort Payne to shake hands with people he already knows. And why, a few days later, he showed up in the Black Belt, hoping to get out the vote.
“Stay on message. Tell the truth. Work hard,” Sparks said. “That’s how you win.”
Name: Ron Sparks, Democrat
Hometown: Fort Payne
Education: Northeast Alabama Community College, associate degree in business
Current job: Alabama Commissioner of Agriculture and Industries