Born in Ft. Payne, Alabama, in 1952, Ron Sparks began working in the sock mills of Dekalb County while he was still in high school. Upon graduating, he joined the Coast Guard and in 1978, Sparks became one of the youngest County Commissioners elected in the state of Alabama.
Sparks was also active for over 20 years coaching the youth athletics in the Dekalb County area. In 1993 he was appointed Director of the 911 System and was instrumental in designing and implementing the on-line program in Dekalb County. In 1998, he was elected the State President of Alabama 911.
First elected Assistant Commissioner of Agriculture & Industries in 1999, Sparks served in that position for three years until he was elected Commissioner. His grandmothers, always an important part of his life, held the bible while he was sworn in. He is currently in his second term in that office and has recently announced his bid to be the Democratic nominee in the 2010 Governor’s race.
Sparks has three children; Misty, Sparky, and Luke, and two grandchildren, Jake and Atticus.
Melissa Parker (Our Prattville): I’d like to start by talking about your duties as the Commissioner of Agriculture & Industries. Can you give me a brief summary of those responsibilities?
Ron Sparks: The Department of Agriculture is the second largest constitutional office in the state. Some of the major responsibilities would be food safety, animal health, and weights and measures… anything that’s weighed and measured in Alabama; it’s our responsibility to make sure it’s accurate.
The other responsibility is to make sure that when people buy a gallon of gas they get a gallon of gas or when they buy 93 octane, it is 93 octane. Also, to make sure that any chemical that’s used in Alabama is registered. We also certify and permit chemical applicators.
We have four animal diagnostic labs around the state; a chemical lab and a pesticide lab at Auburn University. We have a food safety lab here in Montgomery where we check food safety items every day. We’re also responsible for our seed lab that makes sure that the seeds people are selling are good seeds. We are over livestock marketing and food and drug inspections. It’s a very large department with about 400-500 employees.
Melissa Parker (Our Prattville); You’re involved with the Mobile Pantry program that distributes food, correct?
Ron Sparks: Yes, we have worked with Mobile Pantry and we’ve worked with a lot of nonprofit organizations.
Melissa Parker (Our Prattville): Is that an ongoing program to provide food for the needy provided for by the Food Bank?
Ron Sparks: I think so. I know we’ve been involved with the Food Bank on a number of programs. But, yeah, we work with them as much as we can. The last thing that we did was the peanut butter. The Peanut Association donated a large amount of those products. We work with the Food Bank periodically on special programs and projects.
Melissa Parker (Our Prattville): In your opinion, what is the value of farmers shifting from food crops to bio fuel crops by offering them subsidies to do so?
Ron Sparks: Well, you know, farmers have to go where the profits are, where the markets are. Certainly, I’m a very strong promoter of food crops and will continue to be. You’ve got to realize that in the 1950s and 1960s we had 250,000 farms in Alabama, and today we have about 46,000. It has been my goal to get up every day and fight to try to keep that farmer on the farm.
Alternative fuel has certainly made a difference especially in north Alabama where we see a lot of cotton farmers going over to grain and wheat where the prices are higher… and you can’t blame them. But, we continue to promote locally grown products. We work with small farmers and will continue to do everything we can to promote them.
Melissa Parker (Our Prattville): Do you think our trade relations with Cuba and other Communist nations are improving?
Ron Sparks: No doubt about it. We had virtually no trade with Cuba when I first became the Commissioner. Now, over 50% of the poultry that goes to Cuba comes out of Alabama; 90% of the utility poles that go to Cuba comes out of Alabama. We’ve created a lot of jobs and made about $350 million in economical impact there.
I mean, we’ve got a great relationship with Cuba. But, it’s not only Cuba. We’ve opened a trade office in India, we’ve been to Africa, Brazil, Argentina, Ukraine… we’ve been basically around the world pushing and promoting Alabama products. I think that is extremely important to push what we grow and what we make in Alabama.
Melissa Parker (Our Prattville): What was it like meeting Fidel Castro?
Ron Sparks: Well, it was pretty amazing, to be honest with you. The first time I met him we went to the capitol. They pulled us up underground and then when you get out, it’s sort of a strange feeling as you walk up the tall steps. Then, eventually you go to this room where a couple of big doors open and there he stands in his khaki uniform. He was very personable.
Of course, his meetings are not short. It was probably a three or four hour meeting that time. He certainly does a lot of communicating on everything that you can imagine. But, he was very respectful. He did not have anything negative to say about our country or our President at the time. I’ve had a number of meetings with him after that and our relationship with Pedro Alvarez (CEO of Cuban Ministry of Foreign Trade) has been remarkable, and with the other leaders also.
Melissa Parker (Our Prattville): What character traits do you feel you would bring into the Governor’s Office from your experiences as a County Commissioner and as the Commissioner of Agriculture?
Ron Sparks: I think leadership, honesty, telling people just exactly what the problems are and what I feel would be the solutions to those problems. Courage… I think any politician who doesn’t have courage is lacking a trait (in my opinion) that will not serve him very well. You’ve got to have courage to do things as an elected official just as I had courage to go to Cuba.
I just believe that my work ethic and working hard would be positive factors for me, just as I have been doing for the last seven years as the Commissioner of Agriculture, I’ve loved to just roll up my sleeves, get in there, and get the job done.
Melissa Parker (Our Prattville): You are running on a casino platform.
Ron Sparks: Yes, I’ve told the people of Alabama that I was not going to tax the working men and women nor the businesses of the state, but I am going to tax the fastest growing industry in Alabama and that’s casinos.
I also came out with the lottery program. We are spending millions and millions of dollars every year educating children of our neighboring states and our children are continuing to lag behind in education. I just don’t see how we can hold our heads up with pride with what we are doing with our children in Alabama by not giving them the same opportunities that other states give their children.
Less than 7% of our children get pre-K, we’re only graduating 60% of our children, and those who do graduate only 16% are going on to get a college education. Well, I want to give a kid a college education regardless of what neighborhood or family they are from, what color they are, what economical income, etc. I want that kid in the ninth grade to realize that if he stays in school and gets a diploma or a GED, there is a scholarship waiting for him on the other side. I believe that’s exactly what we need to be doing. If we don’t educate our children and let them drop out of school, it normally will cost the taxpayers the rest of their lives.
When I finished high school I really didn’t know which direction I was headed and I went into the military. After the military I got my education from the G. I. Bill, but I was a young man that could have possibly been influenced one way or the other. But, the military was available at the time for me and it turned out to be a good thing. So, I just believe it’s our obligation to educate our children.
When it comes to casinos… well, a lot of us want to pretend that it’s not here. But, gambling is here in Alabama. We can pretend it’s not here or we can hope that it’s not here, but it’s here. And the fact is, that there were over 4,000,000 visits from Alabama citizens to Mississippi last year. In Biloxi, for example, 10,000 jobs were created by the gaming industry with $330 million of tax money and over $980 million put into the economy in Biloxi.
I’ll be the first to say that certainly that’s not the silver bullet to solve all of our problems. But, to sit here and to continue to allow what’s going on in this state and pretending it’s not here… and our people at Medicaid are continuing to suffer because we can’t fund them, it’s just something I have a hard time accepting.
I want to make sure that we tax it, regulate it, and control it. Right now we’re not controlling it. I mean, we’ve got bingo halls popping up all over the state of Alabama. I want a statewide Gaming Commission in Alabama. So, I’m hoping my plan will be something the people will look at and think that this is what we need to be doing. It’s here so let’s control it, let’s get our revenue off of it, and let’s make sure it doesn’t get out of control.
Melissa Parker (Our Prattville): How would you answer certain Christian theologians who say that gambling is a sin?
Ron Sparks: Well, you know, everybody has his own personal beliefs. But, I would ask them what they would be willing to do to help me take care of those children who are not getting a high school education. What would they be willing to do to help me get education for those 93% of the kids that don’t get pre-K?
I’m not going to argue the moral issue. The moral issue is their belief. The problem is that it’s here. It’s here and we can continue to demagogue it or we can control it and tax and regulate it. Right now we’re not doing any of that.
Melissa Parker (Our Prattville): Do you think you can obtain the bipartisan support you need to legalize casinos?
Ron Sparks: I would hope so. I’m going to lay it on the table and I’m not going to have a hidden agenda. The state of Alabama is hurting. We haven’t seen anything yet in the state of what we’re going to see in the future. The 2010 and 2011 budgets are going to be a disaster.
So, I’m going to be honest and not have a hidden agenda… and we’ll let the chips fall where they may. I just hate to see any more people suffer, whether it’s in state government, private industry, or whatever it is. I want to take advantage of what is here and I want to try to use that advantage to help people maintain their jobs and to create more jobs.
Melissa Parker (Our Prattville): So, that is your primary plan for funding education?
Ron Sparks: Well, I want to make sure that we divide that, okay? Taxes from the casinos that are here now… I want to take that money and put it in a special education trust fund, in Medicaid, and in an agriculture relief fund. I want to use the lottery for a scholarship program.
Melissa Parker (Our Prattville): Is that your Life Start Scholarship Program?
Ron Sparks: Yes. And then with casinos, that would be additional money that could go into a special education trust fund and also the general fund.
Melissa Parker (Our Prattville): Where do you stand on raises for state employees and state retirees?
Ron Sparks: Well, certainly, I’ve always been a strong supporter of state employees and retirees. You know, some people just have a bad opinion of state employees. We’ve got state employees that work at poverty level and some of the benefits that they have gotten have been in lieu of raises.
We’ve got some state employees that get paid very well, but there is a large proportion that does not get paid very well. I would not be for putting any more pressures on our state employees. I want an employee to give me eight hours work for eight hours a day, to be dedicated to their job, and to help the citizens of Alabama. But, I’m a very strong supporter of state employees, teachers, and retirees.
Melissa Parker (Our Prattville): Rep. Artur Davis maintains that you’ve been on the fence regarding extending unemployment benefits.
Ron Sparks: Well, if they would spend as much time with their press secretary as they do sending out presses on me, they would get it right. That’s not the case. What I said was, and I made it very clear – yes, I would accept the money that came down from the federal stimulus package, but when the money runs out the program should be over. I don’t want to strap businesses with the undue obligation that I don’t think they deserve. So, that is my position.
I made the call, I sent a letter to the Governor asking him to put that in the last Special Session and it passed. So, my position is very clear. I am for extended unemployment benefits, but I am for ceasing the program once the money runs out and not strap businesses any more that they have already been strapped.
Melissa Parker (Our Prattville): Do you support Obama’s health care plan?
Ron Sparks: I don’t know if anyone knows what to support there. That health care plan is changing daily. Certainly we are going to end up with a health care bill. I don’t know what it is and they don’t know what it is. So, certainly, I support his effort to try to help those who do not have health care. But, I don’t think that anybody could tell me today what is going to come out of Washington, D. C. when it comes to health care.
Melissa Parker (Our Prattville): Do you think that is part of the problem that the public doesn’t understand it either?
Ron Sparks: Yes, I think so. You know, sometimes we’re very good about getting the emotions up and common senses do not prevail. But, certainly, there are people who should have some type of a program that would allow them health care. But, as of today, I don’t think anybody knows exactly what the health care package is going to be.
Melissa Parker (Our Prattville): Your campaign has painted Rep. Artur Davis as an elitist. Can you expound on that?
Ron Sparks: Well, I think that speaks for itself. I’m going door-to-door and shaking hands of the folks in Alabama. He has gone to penthouses in New York. He has had fundraisers scheduled at Martha’s Vineyard. So, I guess you could just label that anyway you want to.
Melissa Parker (Our Prattville): Who do you see as the frontrunner Republican?
Ron Sparks: Oh, I don’t know. They have some excellent candidates on the Republican side and I wouldn’t attempt to place one ahead of the other. I’ve had the opportunity to stand on the stage with every one of them and it was a pleasure to do that.
I’ll look forward to debating whoever the nominee is on the issues because there is no doubt in my mind that there will be differences in the way I feel we should move Alabama forward and they way that they do. I’m just a firm believer of letting the voters decide who the frontrunner will be.
Melissa Parker (Our Prattville): I read that you were close to both of your grandmothers as you were growing up in Ft. Payne. What advice did they give you that might have helped when you first ran for public office?
Ron Sparks: That’s a very soft spot with me. I give all of the credit to my family and my grandmothers have been a big part of my life. Both of them were very religious ladies. I just lost one of them about 30 days ago and I still have one that is 100 years old. They always said, “Ronnie could do no wrong.” In their eyes, I’m their little boy. But, at the same time I realize how important their conversations and their influences are on me… I realize that more today than ever.
The main thing is to help those who are less fortunate than we are. Don’t ever feel like you are better than anybody else. It all may be well and good for you today, but that may not be the way it is tomorrow. You may be the one who is reaching your hand out for help rather than reaching your hand out to help someone. So, that’s sort of been my philosophy.
I enjoy working and helping people and being honest… telling the truth and having courage and certainly letting God guide me. In my business and in the decisions I have to make, if you don’t say a little prayer occasionally you’re probably going to make some major mistakes.
Melissa Parker (Our Prattville): If you could have run for a third term as Agriculture Commissioner, do you think you’d be running for Governor now?
Ron Sparks: I would probably be running for governor. This is an opportunity that only comes around once in a lifetime and I feel like I am the most qualified. I feel like I understand exactly the direction that Alabama needs to go. Certainly serving as Commissioner of Agriculture has been an honor and I appreciate it more than you’ll ever know. I won 62 counties out of the total 67 counties.
The people have been good to me and I’m honored to have served in that position, but it’s time for me to move on. You know, the door of opportunity only opens once and if you don’t step through it, it’s your fault. The door has opened and I’m going to step through it and I’m going to do everything that I can to lead Alabama into the future in a positive way.
Interview by Melissa Parker
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