Guy Hunt, 75
Alabama Governor Led GOP Resurgence
Sunday, February 1, 2009
Guy Hunt, 75, 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 of cancer Jan. 30 at Trinity Medical Center in Birmingham.
The former Amway salesman, farmer and Primitive Baptist preacher was dismissed as a 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 Mr. Hunt's GOP column.
He won reelection 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 Mr. 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 Mr. Hunt's.
Mr. Hunt was a product of rural northern Alabama, growing up on a small farm in Cullman County, marrying at 17 rather than going to college, serving in the Army during the Korean War and returning home to Holly Pond to become a minister in the Primitive Baptist Church in 1958.
He was a Cullman County probate judge in the 1960s and 1970s.
A state leader for Ronald Reagan in the 1976 and 1980 presidential campaigns, he was rewarded when Reagan appointed him state executive director of the Agricultural Stabilization and Conservation Service in 1981. He quit the job in 1985 and ran for governor, winning the office after the Democrats got into an internal fight over one of their candidates.
That created a voter backlash that swept Mr. Hunt into office with 56 percent of the vote. He became the first Republican elected to lead Alabama since 1872.
Barron said many people underestimated Mr. 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.
In his first year in office, Mr. 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 Mr. Hunt celebrated by erecting a billboard in New York that declared the state "Open for Business."
Mr. Hunt's celebration didn't last long, because the Democrat-dominated Alabama Supreme Court dismantled key parts of the "tort reform" package.
Mr. 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 1991, the Associated Press disclosed that Mr. 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 Mr. Hunt's finances.
On April 22, 1993, a jury that included two Baptist ministers convicted Mr. 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 Mr. Hunt a full pardon that restored his right to run for public office. His subsequent runs for governor and state Senate attracted little public support.
Mr. Hunt's wife of 53 years, Helen, died in 2004. He married a longtime family friend, Anne Smith, in 2005. She survives him, along with four children from his first marriage.