Robert J. Bentley (1943- ) served as Alabama‘s 53rd governor from 2011 to 2017. A native of Shelby County and a physician by training, Bentley operated a dermatology clinic before entering politics. He served as a state legislator for eight years before he was elected governor in 2010. Bentley resigned from office on April 10, 2017, when faced with impeachment proceedings and possible jail time for allegedly violating state campaign funding and ethics laws related to an extramarital affair with an aide.
Robert Julian Bentley was born in Columbiana, Shelby County, on February 3, 1943, to David Harford Bentley, who worked at a sawmill, and Mattie Boyd Vick Bentley. He was one of five children. Bentley attended public schools in Columbiana, where he excelled at debating; he was student body president during his senior year at Shelby County High School. In 1961, Bentley entered the University of Alabama, Tuscaloosa, Tuscaloosa County, where he majored in chemistry and biology. After graduating in only three years, he entered medical school at the University of Alabama at Birmingham. In 1965, Bentley married Martha Dianne Jones, a native of Montgomery; the couple would have four sons. The following year, Bentley graduated with an M.D. and began a residency at Carraway Methodist Hospital in Birmingham.
In 1969, Bentley joined the U.S. Air Force, serving for two years as a captain in a medical unit at Pope Air Force Base, in Fayetteville, North Carolina. He oversaw treatment of troops and their family members and was appointed commander of the base hospital near the end of his service in 1971. When his military service ended, Bentley returned to medical school, where he completed a three-year specialization in dermatology. After graduating, he opened a practice in Tuscaloosa. Soon after, he founded Alabama Dermatology Associates, which would become one of the largest dermatology practices in the Southeast.
Bentley entered politics in 2002 and was elected to the Alabama House of Representatives from Tuscaloosa County; he was re-elected in 2006. During his tenure in the legislature, he served on the Education Appropriations Committee, the Boards and Commissions Committee, and the Agriculture and Forestry Committee. He was also vice-chairman of the Internal Affairs Committee. Much of his attention in the legislature was devoted to health-related issues. He oversaw revisions to organ-donor laws and training of primary care physicians, including helping to create the Alabama Medical Education Consortium to provide space in medical schools for primary-care specialists. Other efforts included increasing funds for nursing education and for the Rural Medical Scholars program, which provides financial support for doctors who work with the rural poor. He opposed federal single-payer healthcare legislation. In 2008, Bentley served as a delegate for presidential candidate governor Mike Huckabee of Arkansas at the Republican National Convention and was a member of the Republican Platform Committee. He was the 2009 winner of the Statesmanship Award from the Christian Coalition of Alabama.
Gov. Bentley and Pres. Obama In 2010, Bentley entered the race for Alabama governor as a candidate for the Republican Party. In the race, he faced high profile competitors who included Tim James, son of former two-time governor Forrest “Fob” James, controversial former Alabama Supreme Court justice Roy Moore, and two-year college chancellor Bradley Byrne, who was considered the front runner. Bentley trailed in the polls for most of the election season, with Byrne, Moore, and James leading the field. Bentley had publicly agreed not to run negative campaign ads, but late in the election, investigative journalism uncovered evidence of secret dealings between Bentley’s campaign and the powerful Alabama Education Association (AEA), the state’s major teachers union and a formidable force in Democratic Party politics in the state. The AEA mounted an expensive campaign of attack ads against Byrne that helped drop him significantly in the polls. The ads focused largely on critiquing Byrne’s support for teaching evolutionary theory and forced Byrne to respond with seemingly anti-evolution ads of his own. The ad campaign garnered significant national attention and often ridicule for Alabama’s educational system in the media. Additionally, journalists reported that Bentley sent out automated calls over the AEA’s phone system to potential voters. Bentley’s office denied any connection with the AEA.
On June 1, 2010, Bentley came in second in the Republican primary, prompting a call for a recount by Tim James, who came in third by about 200 votes. Bentley again emerged victorious in the recount, and because Byrne did not have more than 50 percent of the total vote, a runoff was held. Bentley won the runoff against Byrne with slightly more than 56 percent of the vote. He then easily won the general election against Democratic Party nominee Ron Sparks with 58 percent of the vote in a historic election that saw the Republican Party take control of both the state Senate and House of Representatives as well as the office of governor for the first time in more than 130 years.
As a result of the high unemployment rate in Alabama, job creation was a major theme of the campaign season. Bentley pledged he would not take a salary as governor until Alabama achieves full employment (about 5.0 percent) and also pledged to address the issue of illegal immigration. Several stated goals included the creation of 250,000 new jobs and construction of a convention center on the Gulf Coast. On the subject of legalized gambling, a hot-button issue in the state, Bentley supported a simple popular vote to determine its future in the state, despite his personal objections to gambling; Sparks was far more supportive of a state lottery and expanding and taxing bingo. As governor, Bentley also promised to address accountability in government.
Robert and Dianne Bentley on Inauguration Day Bentley was inaugurated on January 17, 2011, and immediately drew attention from the national media and criticism from a number of religious and civil rights groups for his remarks at the Dexter Avenue King Memorial Baptist Church. Addressing a crowd of Baptist church attendees, Bentley stated that non-Christians were not his brothers and sisters, arousing concerns about his impartiality regarding the diverse citizenry that he was elected to represent. Bentley quickly apologized for the insensitivity of his remarks the next day to a group of Christian and Jewish clergy and pledged to represent all citizens of Alabama equally.
In 2011, he signed what was considered by many immigration advocates to be one of the harshest immigration laws in the nation. House Bill 56 mandated that public school officials determine the immigration status of students, denied most services to illegal immigrants, and allowed local authorities to question without cause individuals suspected of being in the country illegally. A federal challenge in the U.S. District Court Northern District of Alabama claimed it violated the Supremacy Clause of the U.S. Constitution but was defeated. In 2012, the United States Court of Appeals for the Eleventh Circuit partially invalidated HB 56. Bentley also opposed implementing provisions of the Affordable Care Act, most notably expanding Medicaid, despite predictions from some economists that it would greatly increase employment in the state. He signed into law the controversial Alabama Accountability Act, which uses public tax dollars to subsidize public school students in low-performing schools who wish to attend private schools.
In 2014, Bentley easily won the Republican gubernatorial primary, defeating Democratic challenger Parker Griffith by a margin of approximately 28 percentage points. Bentley again ran on economic growth. The state’s unemployment rate did fall during his first term, but it lagged behind the national jobless rate. During his second term, European aircraft manufacturer Airbus agreed to build an assembly plant at the Mobile Downtown Airport, boosting employment in that area. Employment rose generally during Bentley’s second term, but he was beset by budget shortfalls and controversies over closing driver’s license offices and five state parks.
The governor garnered attention in the news media in fall 2015 when his wife, Dianne, sued for divorce amid accusations of an affair with a staffer and insider dealings with opponents and supporters. In early April 2017, reports from two investigations prompted Bentley to resign from office. The Alabama Ethics Commission found probable cause that Bentley violated state campaign and ethics laws, notably using public resources for personal gain, illegally receiving campaign funds after his election, and using campaign funds to pay legal fees for Rebekah Mason, the aide with whom Bentley allegedly had a personal extramarital relationship. The Alabama House Judiciary Committee report noted that the governor’s lack of cooperation with the investigation could also have been grounds for impeachment. Among its charges were allegations that Bentley used state resources and campaign funds to cover up and further his personal relationship with Mason. On April 10, Bentley pleaded guilty to two misdemeanor charges, received a reduced sentence, and was ordered to pay fines and other financial penalties and perform community service. Lt. Gov. Kay Ivey was then sworn in as the state’s second female governor.
In February 2017, Bentley had appointed Alabama attorney general Luther Strange to take the U.S. Senate seat then held by Jeff Sessions, who had been confirmed as U.S. Attorney General in the administration of Pres. Donald J. Trump. Strange had been leading an investigation into allegations that a senior law enforcement officer fired by Bentley had allegedly misused state funds. (Bentley was reportedly angry with the officer for cooperating with the investigation into Bentley’s conduct. A grand jury declined to act on the allegations against the officer.).