- Associated Press - Saturday, March 29, 2014

BIRMINGHAM, Ala. (AP) - Democratic candidate for governor Parker Griffith is a lot like Republican Gov. Robert Bentley. Both are 71, both are doctors and both are running for governor. That’s about where the similarities end.

Bentley is running as the incumbent. Griffith is trying to restart his political career after losing his seat in Congress.

Bentley has raised more than $3 million in campaign contributions. Griffith has largely funded his own campaign.

Bentley has always run as a Republican. Griffith has run as a Democrat, then a Republican and now as a Democrat again.

Bentley announced his re-election campaign in 2013. Griffith waited until 15 minutes before signup deadline for candidates on Feb. 7.

Griffith said he had been considering it for a few months. He even had a poll done in December by Public Policy Polling in Raleigh, N.C., that indicated Bentley’s favorability rating was low enough that he might be vulnerable.

But Griffith said he waited because he thought former Gov. Jim Folsom Jr. or state Sen. Billy Beasley might enter the race. When it became clear they weren’t, he and his wife, Virginia, dashed to the state Democratic Party headquarters in Montgomery. He walked in, filled out the qualifying papers, but then walked outside to the sidewalk with his wife to give it one more thought.

“She said, ‘How will you feel if you get in the car and drive back to Huntsville not having thrown your hat in the ring? I think you ought to do it.’”

At that, he walked inside, filled his paperwork and began another campaign.

Griffith, a retired Huntsville cancer physician, got elected to the state Senate as a Democrat in 2006. He was elected as a Democrat to represent Alabama’s 5th Congressional District in 2008. He voted against the federal health care law, but not before straining his relationship with then-House Speaker Nancy Pelosi when he told her the law was difficult to understand, was not well designed, and would lead to Republicans gaining control of the House.

He met with a group of Republicans, who said he would get a seat on the House Energy and Commerce Committee if he switched parties. He said he switched because the committee post was a great way to protect government jobs in the Huntsville area. But he said he didn’t realize tea party Republicans were gaining power in the Alabama Republican Party. “I was no longer welcome in the Republican Party because they saw me as an opportunist,” he said.

He lost the Republican primary in 2010 to Mo Brooks and lost another primary race against Brooks in 2012.

Griffith said that while he wasn’t at home with the national Democratic Party or with tea party Republicans, he figured he had been at home with Alabama Democrats. He contacted state Democratic Party Vice Chairman Joe Reed about returning. After a letter and some meetings, the party’s executive committee let him return, but not by a unanimous vote.

At the time, Reed was trying to help the state Democratic Party keep its Montgomery headquarters open while facing more than $500,000 in debt.

“A Democrat said to me, ‘Did you have to write him a $600,000 check to get the party out of debt?’ I said, ‘No, it never came up,’” Griffith said.

Since rejoining the party and entering the governor’s race, Griffith has spent much of his time traveling the state to meet with Democratic and labor groups. He’s already picked up two union endorsements in the Mobile area, and he’s working on others. Each of the meetings has involved tough questions about why he left the Democratic Party and why he came back.

Griffith tells them he thought he was doing what was best for his district, but it was a mistake in hindsight.

At the end of the explanation, they get a punch line: “I’m not a politician. I’m certainly not a good one.”

Griffith faces Fayette businessman Kevin Bass, a political newcomer, in the Democratic primary June 3. But with a far bigger campaign chest and campaign staff than Bass, he’s already talking about a November general election campaign against Bentley.

He tells voters that unlike Bentley, he would expand Alabama’s Medicaid program to add about 300,000 more people under the federal health care law.

“I’m a pro-life Democrat and I voted against the Affordable Care Act because I knew there is a better way to do this. But now that it’s the law, I want to take what is good in that law and apply it to Alabama,” he said.

He calls the immigration law that Bentley signed in 2011 “mean spirited” and says he would work to repeal it and replace it with one that doesn’t put so many regulations on Alabama businesses.

He said he would also work to repeal the Alabama Accountability Act that Bentley signed last year. The law provides tax credits for parents who move their children from failing public schools to private schools and provide scholarships to private schools for low-income students.

“It’s an attack on public education. It’s shifting money into private schools while pretending you are trying to protect children in failing schools,” he said.

While Griffith and Bentley disagree on several key issues, they are close on one. Bentley was elected in 2010 after promising not to take a salary as governor until unemployment drops to 5.2 percent. It’s now down to 6.4 percent. Griffith said he won’t take a salary no matter how low the rate goes.

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