By Phillip Rawls
The Associated Press
TUSCALOOSA, Ala. -- The woman who drove Robert Bentley from one campaign stop to another during the race for governor wasn't a paid campaign staffer. That was his wife, because the long-shot candidate couldn't afford a driver.
"I didn't want him out there by himself, so I said, 'I'm going with you,"' Dianne Bentley said.
The Bentley campaign was bleak in those early days. The retired dermatologist from Tuscaloosa had little name recognition despite serving two terms as a legislator. Few people were giving donations, and it was literally a do-it-yourself effort run with the couple's money.
But now, with the inauguration coming up Jan. 17, she can look back and laugh about her husband's campaign and her role in it.
"I remember one time we pulled up to the newspaper in Huntsville and they said, 'Where's your entourage?' And he said, 'Well, my wife is sitting out in the parking lot."'
As proof, she shows off a quilt she made from his old ties while sitting in the car waiting for him at stops across the state.
She can also crack jokes about what's ahead as governor and first lady.
"We're not frou frou. We don't belong to country clubs. We don't like to go out and socialize. And now what have we done for the last two years, and what are we going to have to do for the next four?" she said in an interview with The Associated Press in their Tuscaloosa home.
The Bentleys, both 67, met while attending the University of Alabama and married in 1965 after she finished her senior year in bacteriology. She worked in medical labs for $325 a month to help put him through medical school. After his residency in Birmingham, they moved to Tuscaloosa, where they raised four sons and lived a quiet life until he got interested in running for the Legislature 12 years ago.
It's an understatement to say Dianne Bentley wasn't excited about the prospects of being a politician's wife.
"I'm just a very shy person. I'm not comfortable out with people and crowds.
"I said, 'Do I have to do anything?'
"He said, 'No. I'll just do it.'
"So I'd just let him doing his thing, and I'd go along with him just to be there," she said.
Robert Bentley lost his first race for the Legislature in 1998, but won in 2002 and got re-elected in 2006.
Then he broke the news that he wanted to run for governor.
She agreed to help, even though she underplays her role by saying, "I'm not a great political asset."
As they drove to small towns across Alabama, she said her husband made it a habit to speak to cooks in restaurants, cleaning crews in motels, and clerks in courthouses and city halls. The political establishment paid him no attention, but ordinary people began to relate to him.
"I knew God gave him the gift of his bedside manner and the way he can relate to people," she said. "It wasn't showing up in polls, but everywhere we went people were saying, 'We're for you."'
There was one huge problem -- he ran out money for TV ads.
He mortgaged their Tuscaloosa home and dipped into their insurance and retirement, eventually lending about $1.9 million to the campaign.
"I was a little apprehensive about that," she said. "But he grew up so poor that money doesn't mean anything to him. He said if he lost it, he'd just go back to work and be a dermatologist. I said, 'OK, but that's a lot of dermatology."'
Bentley narrowly made the Republican runoff with Bradley Byrne, then won the nomination and went on to beat Democrat Ron Sparks with 58 percent of the vote.
"Everybody wanted something different from a candidate. They had become tired of politicians," she said.
Those votes changed Robert Bentley from an also-ran to governor-elect, and they changed his wife.
The once-reluctant campaigner said that, as she drove her husband across the state, she fell in love with Alabama's small towns and the people she met. Along the way, the once-shy candidate's wife began to relish new adventures.
"My favorite weekend was when we went to the Chittlin' Festival in Arley on Friday and the Rattlesnake Rodeo in Opp on Saturday," she said.
She laughs as she describes being offered cooked pig intestines in Arley.
"I said I ought to try a little bit because I never grew up eating those things. I didn't care for it and won't do it again," she said.
Then in Opp, she was offered fried rattlesnake and decided why not.
"I think mine was anorexic. It was all bones," she said.
Throughout the campaign, she kept hearing one complaint about her husband. It had nothing to do with his political views or his party. It was his suits.
People insisted he needed to buy better-fitting suits. It was nothing new to her. She said her husband is frugal about clothes and he has never seen any reason to get rid of old clothes even if they are showing wear or no longer fit correctly.
"He likes to come home and get in his old comfortable clothes. His favorite pants are all frayed at the bottom.
"He'll say, 'I'm going to get gas.'
"I'll say, 'No, change your pants.'
"He'll say, I'm just going to get gas.'
"I'll say, 'No, I know you. You will run into somebody.'
"Sure enough, he will change his mind and decide to go to Lowe's and run into somebody."
She said that in 45 years of marriage, her husband has never shown any interest in yard work, but his favorite pastime is driving a tractor pulling a Bush Hog at the family farm.
"I don't understand it. It must be a man thing," she said.
Inside the house, you won't find him doing anything in the kitchen other than baking biscuits.
"He's not very domestic at all," she said.
As governor and first lady, the Bentleys will have a staff to take care of the cooking and yard.
For their residence, they can choose among three houses: the Governor's Mansion, the Hill House that was recently restored next door or the Winton Blount estate that was donated to the state following the death of the former postmaster general.
She said they haven't decided what to do, but showing her own frugal nature, she said their decision will be influenced by the budget problems facing the state.
"I don't want to make a decision that would cost the state more money because we have to be aware of that," she said.
The incoming first lady has not had time to set her own goals, but she would like to continue to use the Governor's Mansion to help charitable organizations like outgoing first lady Patsy Riley has done.
She said she has a special interest in children that stems from 28 years of working in the nursery at First Baptist Church in Tuscaloosa, and that's likely to figure into her goals.
As an avid quilter, she also hopes to use the first lady's position to bring attention to the state's many artistic quilters.
She's also wondering what adventure her husband will take her on next.
"He's been so successful because he has to have a goal up there. Now that he's governor, I'm thinking what's next?
"People will say, 'You need to run for president.'
"And I'll say, 'Shut your mouth. I'm not going there."'