By Kim Chandler --
The Birmingham News
Published: Sunday, January 01, 2012, 11:00 AM

MONTGOMERY -- Gov. Robert Bentley said he realizes that, when many people voted for him in 2010, they "really didn't know the kind of governor I would be."

"People voted for me because they didn't like the guy I ran against or they just liked me and connected with me," Bentley said in a recent interview.

"You really don't know ... (how someone will cope) until people are tested," Bentley said.

It didn't take long for Bentley to be tested.

On his 100th day in office, the state was swept by deadly tornadoes. Even before that he was dealing with high unemployment and a difficult budgeting process in an economy still struggling from the Great Recession.

Bentley has won accolades for his actions after storms swept through the state on April 27, killing almost 250 people.

"I think the highlight of his administration has been how he handled the aftermath of the tornadoes in Alabama in April. I think he responded quickly. He responded with the full force of the state of Alabama," said Senate Majority Leader Jabo Waggoner, R-Vestavia Hills.

Bentley said it was a poignant time as he toured the state to assess the devastation.

"It was very emotional to go back to your hometown and drive down the streets where you have lived for 35 years and to see all the homes and the businesses destroyed, all the death and the destruction there in your hometown," Bentley said.

He has not won as much praise for actions in the political realm.

In his first year in office, Bentley signed bill after bill approved by the new GOP-controlled Legislature. But lobbyists and legislators said the new governor has scarcely been a player in the legislative process, instead largely deferring to the legislative leadership.

"To be honest, that would be the weakest part of his administration -- as far as the Legislature having his help on our agenda," Waggoner said.

"You know, the governor in the past has always had somebody working on the floor of the House and the Senate," Waggoner said.

Bentley said it is a fair observation that he has not been as involved legislatively as his predecessors, but he said that will change.

"Your first year in office is an organizational year," Bentley said.

Like his low-key, courtly style, Bentley's first year in office has been marked by a quietness and a ramping up of his administration, rather than an all-out push of sweeping agendas.

The state's past two governors stormed out of the starting gate in their inaugural years. They put their political capital on the line to push for controversial policies. Don Siegelman tried to persuade voters to approve a lottery. Bob Riley proposed a record tax package coupled with accountability reforms. Both initiatives failed.

Bentley has made no such bold moves.

Legislators from opposite sides of the political aisle give him mixed reviews so far.

"I think for a first-year governor he has done a more than adequate job in the first year of his administration," Waggoner said. "And I think it will get better and better as he gets more and more experience."

House Minority Leader Craig Ford, D-Gadsden, said not enough has been done in the past year to turn around Alabama's economy. While Republicans talk about job creation, the state still is in economic shambles, Ford said.

Ford quipped that Bentley, who promised not to take a salary until the state's unemployment rate drops, has earned every penny he's been paid as governor.

"I believe we are getting what we are paying for right now with no salary," Ford said.

Bentley, who said he has never been the "establishment candidate," came under particular criticism from his own party early in his administration because he appointed three Democrats to cabinet positions, including his Democratic opponent in the governor's race, Ron Sparks, to focus on rural development and former Speaker of the House Seth Hammett to head the Alabama Development Office.

Alabama Republican Party Chairman Bill Armistead said he chastised the governor, imploring him to start being more politically minded.

"I said, 'Governor, I don't understand why you are doing this.' He said he had a reason for making those appointments," Armistead said.

"I would say there is not a political bone in his body, much to my chagrin sometimes," Armistead said.

Bentley also didn't make much political hay out of the most controversial bill to come across his desk in his first year -- the immigration law. He signed the bill into law, but he declined most national media requests for interviews about it.

"I did not want to demagogue the issue. I did not want to be the face of illegal immigration bills across this country and I could have been," Bentley said.

Bentley said he had qualms about some sections of the law, often described as the toughest in the nation, and he'll support some rewrites to the bill this year, but not its repeal.

"Is it a perfect bill? No. Is the essence of the bill unjust in any way? It's really not. It just follows federal law," Bentley said.

For instance, he will not support getting rid of the requirement that businesses use E-Verify to check the immigration and citizenship status of workers. "I want to keep the essence of the bill in place, which is if you live and work in Alabama, you need to be a legal citizen."

But he doesn't like a portion that asks school children to provide proof of citizenship.

"I am not for the part that deals with school children. And we need to make sure that churches and hospitals and people can do humanitarian work," Bentley said.

A rewrite of the immigration law might not be the most difficult task Bentley oversees this year. That distinction is likely to go to Bentley's budget proposal.

"Our major problems deal with our budget," he said. "We knew the 2013 budget will be our worst budget. We are working to solve that budget."

The 2013 General Fund, which funds non-education state services, is facing a shortfall of at least $400 million.

"I have promised the people of the state we are going to do everything we can to not raise taxes and to live within our means," Bentley said.

He has floated the idea of taking some of the "growth taxes" such as sales and income taxes, which fuel the state's education budget, and shifting them to the cash-strapped general fund -- an idea that immediately met with opposition from Democrats.

But Bentley quickly adds that money would need to be replaced in the education budget somehow.

"I'm not trying to hurt education," Bentley said.

The governor said he would like to focus more on education. He said he is still developing proposals, but they may include a pilot program of charter schools.

"We need to make sure every child is able to reach his or her full potential. We need to close this gap between black and white. There are a lot of things we need to work on," Bentley said.

"Everyone says they are for the children. But some may just kind of use the children to get what they want," he said.

To stay grounded while filling the state's highest office, the retired dermatologist and former legislator has maintained some down-to-earth pastimes, including working the soil in a vegetable garden he installed next door to the Governor's Mansion.

"I love having a garden and I have always had a garden. I love fresh tomatoes," he said.

Bentley, who is 68, planted the 30 tomato plants, plus watermelons, peppers and other vegetables himself.

He had planned to plow the soil himself -- until his wife intervened.

Alabama Gov. Robert Bentley toured tornado devastation in the Tuscaloosa area with President Barack Obama and his wife Michelle on April 29th, 2011

"I told Dianne, 'Hey, I'm going to Lowe's this weekend. I'm going to buy a tiller.' She got the word out to somebody over here and when I went over Friday afternoon, it was all tilled up."

At least once a week, Bentley tries to get out of Montgomery to talk with Alabamians, most recently on his "Road to Economic Recovery" tour.

"I love it. I love getting out with the people. It's my favorite time of the week," Bentley said.

Bentley said it's a much better way to learn about people's needs by talking to them than talking to professional bureaucrats and politicians.

"Montgomery is like Washington. It's kind of a bubble. People talk to each other and they think they are running the state. When you get out with the people you realize what the people are really thinking," he said.

"If you can't get out and listen to people and get a sense of how they are going to look at situations and how they are feeling, then you are really not going to be a good leader," Bentley said.