February 2017
Homeplace & Community

From Rivalry to Rural Development

Ron Sparks leads an important mission to serve Alabama’s rural communities.

  Ron Sparks discusses important issues related to rural development in Alabama during an interview in his Montgomery office.

Just call them the "Odd Couple" of Alabama politics.

One is Gov. Robert Bentley, a second-term Republican who is defending himself as critics allege questionable conduct as Alabama’s chief executive.

The other is Ron Sparks, a Democrat who completed two terms as commissioner of the state Department of Agriculture and now directs the Alabama Rural Development Agency – a job made possible by Bentley, who defeated him in 2010.

Bentley and Sparks didn’t know each other that well during that gubernatorial campaign but they became friendly rivals as the weeks passed.

What began as good-ole-boy conversations to pass the time as they waited to debate or speak at political rallies leading up to the election eventually became a friendship neither man expected.

"Many people didn’t think (Bentley) would win the Republican nomination for governor, let alone become governor," Sparks said. "Well, it was much the same in my case."

Neither man had solid, statewide support because they had primarily served local or regional constituents and, when they began campaigning, it didn’t take long to realize just how expensive the challenge would be.

The two continued their friendship along the campaign trail from Huntsville to Mobile and the more they talked the more their mutual respect grew.

"He’d kid me about not being able to go anywhere during the campaign without seeing me at the same place," Sparks said. "Our discussions were always cordial and I never dreamed things would work out the way they did."

Voters made the final determination and, Nov. 2, 2010, Bentley, a Tuscaloosa doctor, defeated Sparks, a DeKalb County leader. The future governor received 58 percent of the vote.

As Sparks pondered what to do next, he was surprised to get a call from Bentley, who asked him to drop by his office for a chat and it didn’t involve postelection discussions.

"Both of us were happy the election was finally over and that’s when the governor approached me about taking over a new agency," Sparks said. "I was happy to have the opportunity to do just that because I know how important rural development is in Alabama."

Sparks did such a good job that he continues as director of the agency emphasizing use of new technology to help those in Alabama’s rural regions.

Telemedicine and Telehealth have similar programs offering ways to use computer science to reach people who might not have financial resources to drive to big cities for treatment.

Telemedicine, called "health care of the future," offers clinical health care from a distance, much like programs used by high schools and colleges to provide courses for students living far from campuses.

The program has been used to save lives in critical care and emergency situations across the country by providing medical imaging and health information from one site to another.

Sparks was fascinated by the program, but knew little about some of the specifics; so he drove to Waycross, Georgia, where he conferred with experts in the field.

"I didn’t know enough of it to scare me, but the more I thought about it the more I just knew we had to have a similar system in Alabama," Sparks explained.

He made it clear Telemedicine is not designed to put any local doctors out of business. Instead, Sparks sees it as a better way to serve people who live in rural Alabama, where those in country communities worry about basic health care.

"It’s had a snowball effect, moving faster today than we ever thought it would be in such a short period of time," Sparks recalled. "It’s not intended to hurt any medical professionals, either."

Telemedicine provides physicians with another tool in their tool box because it can be done from rural locations to big city clinics through the use of technology.

In the years since Sparks and Bentley formed their unusual partnership, they’ve continued to work together on issues directly involving rural regions.

"(Bentley) knows he’s the governor and I know I’m not," said Sparks, stating the obvious. "I’m not a member of his cabinet but he does ask me for reports from time to time, and he knows I’m not going to do anything that might waste his time."

The two friends occasionally reminisce about those hectic days of scouring Alabama for votes during the 2010 campaign. They also are aware that they’re in positions to do much to help the people they serve.

When Bentley picked Sparks to lead the rural development agency and they discussed their concerns about the need for improved rural health programs, he knew he had the right man for the job.

"This is an example of how we can put politics aside and work together for the common good of all Alabamians," Bentley said when he made his decision to establish the rural program. "I also appreciated his willingness to serve."

Sparks feels the same way and one of his first moves after he was appointed was to help improve the quality of life in some of our state’s poorest regions.

The uniqueness of their relationship today hasn’t faded since they first met on the campaign trail but Sparks still must pinch himself about a political development that’s one for the books.

"I don’t know of anything quite like this happening before," he said. "The winner usually hires somebody from his own party."

That’s been the case for decades in Alabama and many other states, but Sparks and Bentley have identical visions about how to go about improving health care in rural regions.

"Many times we’d be standing behind a stage waiting our turn to speak at campaign appearances and we’d say something that became almost a routine thing for us," Sparks said.

What they did was wish each other good luck.


Alvin Benn is a freelance writer from Selma.