AP Interview: Tornadoes define Ala. gov's 1st year

By Phillip Rawls

Associated Press

Published: Sunday, Jan. 15 2012 12:00 a.m. MST

MONTGOMERY, Ala. — Looking back on his first year in office, Robert Bentley knows that some people thought his election as governor was a fluke and that they questioned whether he could effectively lead the state. He figures he erased their doubts on his 100th day in office.

Bentley, like many officeholders, had planned to spend his 100th day reflecting on what he had done and what needed to be done.

"We didn't have time to do that," Bentley told The Associated Press.

Alabama got pummeled by 62 tornadoes on April 27, 2011. They left some 250 people dead, nearly 2,800 injured, and 23,500 homes damaged or destroyed. Bentley immediately announced that he would lead the response — and that he would not rely on the Federal Emergency Management Agency or anyone else.

Over the next few weeks, he visited all 38 counties affected by the tornadoes, encouraging the thousands of volunteers, helping county officials and mourning with families who lost loved ones.

"A lot of time, governors are judged by how they respond to natural disasters — positively or negatively ... that's where they decide on your leadership skills," he said.

State Republican Party Chairman Bill Armistead said the empathy Bentley developed for patients as a doctor in Tuscaloosa served him well in identifying with tornado victims, and he proved his leadership ability during the recovery.

"The tornado situation defined his first year in office," Armistead said.

On the Democratic side, House Minority Leader Craig Ford of Gadsden also praised Bentley's performance.

"He did what every governor should do and get out and be seen by people," Ford said.

Bentley said the tornadoes brought out the best in people.

"That is what I have enjoyed the most — to see how people came together, how they took care of each other," he said.

The tornadoes came early in a year that saw Bentley apologize for offending Jews, sign a tough immigration bill and keep a campaign promise to get more Alabamians working.

Two years ago, few people expected Bentley to take the oath as governor on Jan. 17, 2011. The two-term legislator was polling near the back of the Republicans' seven candidates for governor.

Then the two front-runners, Bradley Byrne and Tim James, attacked each other viciously. The state teachers' organization, the Alabama Education Association, finished off Byrne with attack ads. Bentley stayed out of the fray and appealed to voters with an ad campaign about Alabama hurting and needing a doctor.

He edged out James for second place in the Republican primary in June, knocked off Byrne in the Republican runoff in July, and defeated the state's Democratic agriculture commissioner, Ron Sparks, in the November general election.

Speaking to the Birmingham Kiwanis Club last week, Bentley addressed his doubters head on.

"You may think it's a fluke I'm standing here, but it really wasn't. I was put here for a purpose. I was put here by the people of Alabama," he said.

During the campaign, voters were attracted to Bentley's non-political style of speaking, where he chats about anything on his mind rather than using a prepared text or notes. He admits it drives his staff crazy and sometimes gets him in trouble.

One occasion happened on his first day in office.

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