Only this time, he’s working for Robert Bentley — the man who defeated him in the governor’s race last year.
“We’ve hit the ground running,” said Sparks, head of the state’s new Rural Development Agency. “We’re working with the University of Alabama to try to retain doctors in rural Alabama, we’re working on poverty and development in the Black Belt — there’s a lot to be done.”
Sparks, a Democrat and former commissioner of agriculture, ran for governor last year on a populist campaign that drew on his rural, working-class roots and promised to expand college access through gambling taxes and a lottery. He was soundly defeated by Bentley, a retired Tuscaloosa physician who rode the Republican wave with promises to trim down the government and a pledge to accept no salary until Alabama reaches full employment.
Shortly after his inauguration, Bentley collapsed two rural development programs — the Rural Action Commission and the Black Belt Commission — into one, and offered Sparks the job of running it.
It was, by most pundits’ accounts, a brilliant political move. In a time when voters were wringing their hands over the intensity of partisan rhetoric, Sparks’ hiring cast Bentley as the man who could reach across the aisle and shake hands. In the process, Bentley headed off any possibility that Sparks would become a shadow governor, criticizing his every move.
Sparks got similar points for bipartisanship — and a chance to stay on at the highest levels of government and work on the issues that matter to him.
“I love Alabama, and I’m from rural Alabama, I care about rural Alabama and I have a lot of experience in agriculture, which is the state’s largest industry,” Sparks said by telephone from his office in the headquarters of the Alabama Department of Economic and Consumer Affairs. “I’m glad I have a chance to work in this field.”
Sparks said he’s on the road often, meeting with state and local leaders, recruiting new business and working on plans to re-shape the way rural Alabama is viewed by visitors and investors.
He wants to market rural Alabama as a retirement destination. He wants to expand rural broadband access. And he’s looking at ways to keep doctors in rural counties where access is scarce.
Sparks already claims a couple of successes. One is an economic development prospect; Sparks said he is in contact with a business that may want to open operations near Scottsboro. He won’t discuss it in greater detail, saying he doesn’t want to jeopardize any negotiations.
Another success, he said, was with Kid Check, a state initiative to give children free health screenings at events across the state. Sparks said the program’s connections with the state made it ineligible for funds from outside foundations — so his office helped convert the organization into a 501(c) 3 nonprofit.
If that sounds like a GOP solution — spinning a government effort into a non-government entity — it may well be. It’s a Republican administration.
“I’ve been in the military, and I understand the chain of command,” Sparks said. “Dr. Bentley is the boss.”
Is Sparks abandoning his responsibility to his party — a responsibility to put the opposition in “loyal opposition?”
Sparks says no.
“This isn’t war,” he notes.
He says bipartisan, outside-the-box thinking is needed to get the state out of the doldrums. And he claims he and Bentley laid the groundwork for their present relationship in the heat of the campaign.
“We broke the mold,” he said, claiming that both candidates ran positive, respectful campaigns in 2010.
It’s true that the Sparks-Bentley race was genteel compared to what came before it. Bentley rose to the top in the GOP primary after presumptive frontrunners Tim James and Bradley Byrne vaporized each other with negative talk. Sparks and fellow Democrat Artur Davis engaged in a bare-knuckles fight for the Democratic base, swapping accusations on a daily basis before the primary vote.
By comparison, Sparks’ ads ridiculing Bentley for a changing his name twice during the election — an attempt to get the honorific “Dr.” on the ballot — may not seem like much. Sparks claims both candidates remained collegial behind the scenes, no matter what the TV ads said.
Asked whether he’ll join the crew of former Democrats who’ve switched to the GOP, Sparks says an emphatic “no.” But he seems hungry for news about the latest defectors, asking a reporter about who in Calhoun County had gone over the wall this week.
Sparks refuses to speculate about future runs for office. He’s more interested in mapping out plans and benchmarks for efforts to redevelop the Black Belt and bring businesses to rural areas.
“What a blessing to be able to put party aside and work on something that’s important for everybody,” he said. “Some people don’t know how to do that. Some people don’t want to do that. For some people it’s all about power. But that’s not me.”
Star Assistant Metro Editor Tim Lockette: 256-235-3560.