Guy Hunt dies

Published 10:15 pm Friday, January 30, 2009

MONTGOMERY — Guy Hunt, who in 1987 became Alabama’s first Republican governor since Reconstruction, died Friday in Birmingham. He was 75.

Six years after his election he became the state’s first chief executive removed from office for a criminal conviction.

Family spokesman Mark McDaniel said Hunt died at Trinity Medical Center. 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.

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

Dr. Cecil Williamson, president of the Dallas County Republican Party, said he will remember Hunt as a “faithful preacher.”

“I was sad to hear about that, and I certainly send all the sympathy to his family,” Williamson said. “I was certainly delighted when he was elected our first Republican governor since Reconstruction. I think that he will be remembered as a Christian man.”

The former Amway salesman, farmer and Primitive Baptist preacher was 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 was re-elected in 1990, but halfway through his second term, he was convicted of violating the state ethics law for misusing 1987 inaugural funds and was kicked out of office. He later was pardoned but could never restart his political career.

Being governor allowed Hunt to appoint hundreds of Republicans to state boards, commissions and other offices. By the time he left, 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 frequently Hunt’s political ally.

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 Democrats, Hunt began in the GOP when he made his first unsuccessful race for the state Senate in 1962.

When Republican Barry Goldwater swept Alabama in the presidential race, Hunt rode his coattails and became a probate judge and was re-elected in 1970.

After an unsuccessful run for governor in 1978, he again sought the office in 1985 and won a three-man Republican primary that drew few voters in 1986 and was looking at another losing campaign in the general election. Then the Democratic Party started fighting over whether Attorney General Charlie Graddick led the Democratic runoff by encouraging Republicans to vote illegally. A Democratic committee gave the party’s nomination to the second-place finisher, Lt. Gov. Bill Baxley.

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 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 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.

Terry Abbott, who was Hunt’s press secretary, said a key to his success was not owing allegiance to special interest groups because most of them wrote him off in 1986.

“Guy Hunt came into office as his own man, ready to do what needed to be done, with no special interest entanglements,” Abbott said Friday.

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.” The strategy backfired and Hunt won with 52 percent of the vote.

In 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.

But in 1998, the state parole board gave Hunt a full pardon. Afterward, he unsuccessfully ran for office twice, including governor that year, when he 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.

Hunt’s wife of 53 years, former First Lady Helen Hunt, died in 2004. He married longtime family friend Anne Smith of Adamsville in October 2005.

Besides his wife, survivors include his son, Keith Hunt; and three daughters, Pam Hunt, Sherrie Williams and Lynn Harris.