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State ag commissioner to run for governor

MONTGOMERY, Ala. (AP) — Alabama Agriculture Commissioner Ron Sparks kicked off a Democratic campaign for governor on Friday, promising to focus on rural development and expressing support for the “Sweet Home Alabama” gambling bill.

Sparks, 56, grew up in Fort Payne, a northeast Alabama town that has seen some of its sock mills close and jobs migrate overseas. Sparks said his goal as governor would be to help rural Alabama land new jobs.

“The only way that we are going to rebuild rural America is with alternative fuels, and in Alabama we can do that,” he said.

Sparks joins U.S. Rep. Artur Davis of Birmingham as the announced candidates for the Democratic primary in June 2010. State Sen. Roger Bedford of Russellville says he’s considering the race. Democratic Lt. Gov. Jim Folsom Jr. announced Wednesday he won’t run for governor.

Davis, who is trying to become Alabama’s first black governor, issued a statement saying he expects Sparks and Bedford to be formidable candidates. But he added, “The question is, can candidates who are part of the entrenched status quo in Montgomery be counted on to fix Montgomery?”

Byrdie Larkin, a political scientist at Alabama State University, said she doesn’t expect race to be an issue at the outset of the Democratic primary contest between Sparks and Davis.

“Both of them are gentlemen, so I don’t think initially they are going to introduce race as a factor. … If anybody introduces it, I think it will be someone in their camps who introduces it inadvertently,” she said.

Sparks made his announcement on the steps of the state Archives Building standing next to Jerome Gray, the longtime field director for the Alabama Democratic Conference, the black wing of the party. Gray, who now works for the agriculture department, was political director for Barack Obama’s presidential campaign in Alabama last year, and Davis was state chairman.

Larkin said Davis can’t expect monolithic black support in the Democratic primary, and Sparks can’t expect monolithic agricultural support because Davis has a strong record of helping farmers in his congressional district.

Sparks, in his Montgomery announcement, also said as governor he would push for equal educational opportunities for all children regardless of where they live. He also supports raising the school dropout age, which is now 16, and providing more state economic incentives to help existing Alabama businesses add jobs.

When asked about the “Sweet Home Alabama” bill in the Legislature — which would expand, tax and regulate gambling machines — Sparks said, “I would say I would be for the bill.” But he added that he has concerns about the part of the bill that expands electronic gambling to new counties.

Sparks said gambling isn’t going to be shut down in Alabama, and the state needs to start getting tax revenue from it.

Sparks has served two terms as state agriculture commissioner and can’t run again. In his last election, he carried 62 of Alabama’s 67 counties, including several heavily Republican counties. Sparks credited that to a record of bringing Democrats and Republicans together without regard to who gets credit.

“It ain’t all about power. It ain’t all about ego,” he said.

Gray, who stood next to Sparks at the announcement, went to work for the state Agriculture Department after retiring from the ADC. Gray said he plans to be active in Sparks’ campaign.

“He’s a good organizer. He’s a good friend,” Sparks said.