Former Gov. Guy Hunt dies in Birmingham at 75

Published 4:28 pm Friday, January 30, 2009

MONTGOMERY — Guy Hunt, who in 1987 became Alabama’s first Republican governor since Reconstruction but six years later was the state’s first governor removed from office for a criminal conviction, died Friday in Birmingham. He was 75.

Family spokesman Mark McDaniel said Hunt died at Trinity Medical Center at 2:55 p.m.

Hunt was diagnosed with lung cancer in June 2004 and had part of his right lung removed at the Mayo Clinic in Jacksonville, Fla. The cancer returned in late 2005, and Hunt continued to receive treatment off and on for the rest of his life.

The former governor was frail when he had gall bladder surgery in late November and was never able to recover.

The former Amway salesman, farmer and Primitive Baptist preacher got dismissed as a country bumpkin by some when he entered the governor’s race in 1986. But he pulled a spectacular upset when internal feuding split the Democratic Party, sending a majority of voters into Hunt’s GOP column.

He won re-election in 1990, but halfway through his second term, he was convicted of violating the state ethics law for misusing 1987 inaugural funds and removed from office. He later received a pardon but could never restart his political career.

Being governor allowed Hunt to appoint hundreds of Republicans to state boards and commission and fill vacancies in state and county offices with Republicans. By the time he left office, the Republican Party had started winning other statewide offices and Alabama had become a two-party state after more than a century of Democratic dominance.

“That was the beginning of the power of the Republican Party in Alabama, and Democrats did it to themselves,” said Democrat Lowell Barron, an influential state senator and a frequent political ally of Hunt’s.

Republican Attorney General Troy King said Hunt’s party-building role is often overlooked now that Alabama is a two-party state. “He was a pioneer of the Republican Party,” King said.

Hunt was a product of rural north Alabama, growing up on a small farm in Cullman County, marrying at 17 rather than going to college, serving in the U.S. Army during the Korean War, and returning home to Holly Pond to become a minister in the Primitive Baptist Church in 1958.

Unlike many Republican officeholders in Alabama today who started out as Democratic politicians, Hunt started out as a Republican when he made his first unsuccessful race for the state Senate in 1962.

He returned to the ballot in 1964 as a candidate for Cullman County probate judge. When Republican Barry Goldwater swept Alabama in the presidential race, Hunt rode his coattails into public office. He won re-election in 1970 without anyone’s coattails.

In 1978, he made his first race for governor, piling up big campaign debts that nearly cost him his farm.

Hunt, who had been a state leader for Ronald Reagan in the 1976 and 1980 presidential campaigns, got rewarded when Reagan appointed him the state executive director of the Agricultural Stabilization and Conservation Service in 1981. He quit the job in 1985 and ran for governor.

Hunt won a three-man Republican primary that drew few voters in 1986 and was looking at another losing campaign when the Democratic Party got into an internal fight over whether Attorney General Charlie Graddick led the Democratic runoff by encouraging Republicans to vote illegally in the Democratic runoff. A Democratic Party committee gave the party’s nomination to the second-place finisher, Lt. Gov. Bill Baxley.

Graddick heatedly denounced the Democratic leadership and Baxley, with Hunt the beneficiary.

Baxley portrayed Hunt as a country sort without credentials to be governor, but the handpicking by Democrats created a voter backlash that swept Hunt into office with 56 percent of the vote. He became the first Republican elected to lead Alabama since 1872.

“He was absolutely what you would call ‘an accidental governor.’ He was put into office by the perception the Democratic Party was taking away the vote of the people,” said Margaret Armbrester, co-editor of the book “Alabama Governors.”

Barron said many people underestimated Hunt after his election because of his laid-back, country manner, but he worked quickly to develop good relations with Democrats who dominated the Legislature.

“He talked slow, but he didn’t think slow,” Barron said Friday.

In his first year in office, Hunt got the Legislature to enact laws capping big punitive damage verdicts by juries that were earning Alabama a reputation as “tort hell.” The laws drew national attention, and Hunt celebrated by erecting a billboard in New York that declared Alabama “Open for Business.”

Hunt’s celebration didn’t last long because the Democrat-dominated Alabama Supreme Court dismantled key parts of the “tort reform” package.

Hunt took a hands-on approach to recruiting new industry to Alabama and, in his first year in office, was named one of the nation’s top governors by U.S. News & World Report.

In 1989, he organized the Alabama Reunion, a statewide series of celebrations honoring Alabama’s history and culture. Hunt participated in many of the events and built voter enthusiasm for a re-election bid.

“He enjoyed meeting people and being the ceremonial head of government,” said William Stewart, a political scientist at the University of Alabama.

In his first term, he also kicked off a program to reduce Alabama’s infant mortality rate, which was one of the highest in the country. Educational programs and increased health care for poor pregnant women soon had an impact.

In seeking re-election in 1990, Hunt faced Paul Hubbert, executive secretary of the Alabama Education Association and a powerful political figure for more than 20 years.

Some Democrats ridiculed Hunt by distributing bumper stickers that read “Goober, Gomer and Guy.” Hunt said he was delighted to be in the fine company of the dimwitted country cousins from “The Andy Griffith Show.”

Emory Folmar, who led the Alabama Republican Party during much of Hunt’s tenure, said the slam backfired on Democrats so badly that he started wearing one of the shabby brown hats like George Lindsey wore in his Goober role.

“We turned it completely around. We had fun with it,” Folmar recalled.

Hunt won with 52 percent of the vote.

In 1991, The Associated Press disclosed that Hunt was flying on state airplanes to preaching engagements where he accepted donations. The Alabama Ethics Commission referred the case to the state attorney general, who began a broader investigation into Hunt’s finances.

On April 22, 1993, a jury that included two Baptist ministers convicted Hunt of violating the state ethics law by making personal use of $200,000 donated to a tax-exempt fund for his 1987 inauguration. He was placed on five years’ probation, fined $211,000 and automatically removed from office, succeeded by then-Lt. Gov. Jim Folsom.

In 1998, the state parole board gave Hunt a full pardon that restored his right to run for public office. He made another poorly funded race for governor that year, finishing third in the Republican primary with 8 percent of the vote.

In 2002, he attempted another comeback by seeking a state Senate seat covering his home in Cullman County, but he lost to the Democratic incumbent.

Hunt’s wife of 53 years, former First Lady Helen Hunt, died on Nov. 22, 2004, after battling pulmonary fibrosis. Hunt married longtime family friend Anne Smith of Adamsville in October 2005.

During his 1998 campaign, Hunt was asked how he wanted to be remembered.

“The thing that would thrill me the most is if every fourth-grade student in this state who reads Alabama history someday will have the understanding that this is an honest governor who ran an honest administration and would not knowingly violate the letter or the spirit of the law,” he said. “That’s what’s important to me.”

Armbrester, a retired history professor at University of Alabama at Birmingham, said the history books will always record Hunt’s two firsts: Alabama’s first GOP governor since Reconstruction and the first removed from office for a criminal conviction.

That saddens her, she said, because “on the whole he lived an honorable life.”

For her, Hunt’s legacy should be: “He served his country in the military. He was a good family man. He appeared to have worked hard all his life. He served the state, for the most part, to the best of his ability. He did accomplish some important things.”

Survivors, in addition to his wife, Anne, include: his son, Keith Hunt; and three daughters, Pam Hunt, Sherrie Williams and Lynn Harris.