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.
Speaking on the Martin Luther King holiday at King's old Montgomery church, Bentley said, "Anybody here today who has not accepted Jesus Christ as their savior, I'm telling you, you're not my brother and you're not my sister, and I want to be your brother."
His remarks drew immediate criticism from Jewish groups, and he quickly apologized.
Looking back, Bentley said he wishes he had expressed himself differently.
"I probably would not have continued on a spiritual level like I did in there because I was at church and I was talking to fellow Christians. I would have said, 'But as governor of this state, I swear to uphold the Constitution of the United States and the Constitution of Alabama and that everyone has the right to worship in any way they wish or not wish. And it is my sworn that we protect everyone's right to worship however they wish,'" he said.
Bentley drew criticism from his own party when he hired some Democrats for top staff positions, including Sparks, his former opponent, to handle rural development. Bentley said he hired the Democrats because they had been friends for years and he knew they could do the job.
"I do not have a stronger supporter out there every day than Ron Sparks," he said.
Bentley ran for governor at a time of high unemployment and promised he would not take a salary until Alabama's unemployment fell to 5.2 percent.
A year later, he's nowhere close to getting paid, but unemployment is down.
The rate is down to 8.7 percent from a high of 10 percent. Bentley kept his campaign promises to enact tax credits for businesses creating jobs and to have 10,000 jobs announced by new or expanding industries in his first year in office. In fact, he beat it handily, with 13,632 jobs announced.
One campaign promise that Bentley hasn't addressed is giving voters a chance to say yes or no to gambling. Bentley made the proposal when state police were shutting down gambling halls in 2010 and federal authorities were charging 10 casino owners, legislators and lobbyists with swapping campaign contributions for pro-gambling votes in the Legislature.
Bentley said he hasn't proposed a statewide referendum because the issue has died down.
"I just don't feel a strong sense that people are interested in that right now," he said.
Halfway through Bentley's first year, he signed what he calls the nation's toughest immigration law. It contained nearly all the items he advocated in his campaign for governor, but the writing was handled by legislators, not by Bentley.
Ford sees that as an example of what he considers Bentley's biggest failure. He said Bentley relied too heavily on Republican legislative leaders to come up with bills. "He's letting Republican legislators lead the state. He's got to step up to the plate," Ford said.
A Republican, Senate President Pro Tem Del Marsh of Anniston, said the governor worked closely with Republican legislators and that doing so made for a successful first year for the governor and GOP majority. Lawmakers rewrote the state tenure law, banned abortions at 20 weeks or later in a pregnancy and required voters to show photo identification at the polls.
For Bentley's second year, he plans a much more aggressive legislative agenda. He said he will propose:
—combining Alabama's education budget and General Fund budget into one budget covering both education and state agencies. That would allow state agencies to use some of the tax revenue now set aside for education.
—selling roughly $2 billion in bonds for the largest road and bridge construction program in state history.
—legalizing charter schools and starting a limited number to give students a choice in public education.
—providing more tax breaks to businesses that create jobs.
Bentley said he will also work with a variety of medical interests to develop a program to make Alabama healthier.Comment on this story
The Republican Party chairman said Bentley is setting big goals for the 2012 legislative session. "The outcome of that will define him for this year," Armistead said.
The 68-year-old governor knows it will be difficult to accomplish everything he has proposed for his second year, but he wants to be known for shaking up Montgomery politics.
"You can be a caretaker governor. There have been a lot of caretaker governors," he said. "Or you can be a governor that has dreams for this state and wants to make this state a better place. That's the kind of governor I want to be."