Gov. George W.P. Hunt's 156th birthday

Wednesday, October 28, 2015

Nov. 1 marks the birthday of one of Arizona’s most colorful politicians: George W.P. Hunt.

In 1911, Arizona voters chose Hunt, a Democrat, as the state's first governor. He went on to win election to that office six more times – in 1914, 1916, 1922, 1924, 1926 and 1930.  

Hunt was not an inspiring orator. He was, however, an effective communicator. He spoke the language of the common person and went out of his way to talk with virtually everyone – and not only at election time. He made ordinary people feel important because they felt he, the governor, was their good friend, someone they knew and someone who knew them.  

To facilitate this relationship he kept notes on whomever he talked to when he visited a particular town and consulted the notes just before he returned to the town so that he could call people by their first name and renew the conversation. His personal touch went far in the small-town and frontier society Arizona was at the time.

Hunt, though, was no softy. Initially declared the loser in his bid for re-election as governor in 1916, he barricaded himself in the governor’s office and refused to vacate the premises until ordered to do so by the Arizona Supreme Court. For a time, Arizona had two individuals – Hunt and Tom Campbell – claiming to be governor. 

Hunt was born in 1859 in Huntsville, Missouri, a small rural community named after his grandfather, one of the early settlers in the area. His family experienced hard times and Hunt, growing up in poverty, received very little formal education. He knew what it meant to be poor and to be the only child in a classroom to go without a textbook because his family could not afford one. Later, as governor, one of his proudest achievements was getting free textbooks for children.

The future governor left home at the age of 18 to seek his fortune in the West. After wandering around he settled in the isolated mining camp of Globe, Arizona, in 1881. In Globe he worked his way up from a variety of low-paying jobs to become the president of a merchandizing and banking firm. Entering politics, he became a leader in the territorial legislature and president of the convention that shaped the state’s first and only constitution.

In between the years he served as governor, Hunt received appointments from President Woodrow Wilson as a federal labor mediator and Ambassador to Siam.

Coming to the governor’s office in 1912 with the backing of a coalition of workers, farmers, and small business people, he ushered through a host of reforms. He worked for the triumph of what he called “militant Progressive Democracy.” This meant, in part, “that this country, its institutions, its resources and its rewards for industry belong to the people whose labor makes them possible.”

It also involved “the faithful application” of the principal of “equal rights to all and special privileges to none.”

Hunt agreed with one of his allies in the Legislature who declared: “Arizona is what we make it!” He sought to stem the power of large corporations, democratize the political system, defend the rights of working people, make prisons more humane and abolish the death penalty.

Starting in the 1920s, he worked to protect Arizona's interests in the Colorado River. Throughout his career, he had a special concern for the down and out. He found the “forgotten man” long before Franklin Roosevelt.

He also believed that only the people living in Arizona had the right to make decisions affecting their lives. They were not to be governed or pushed around by out-of-state investors, people from other states (especially California), or the federal government.

Hunt was a man of contradictions. He was a moderately wealthy businessman but he also called for increased corporate taxation and regulation, supported labor unions, and sought a better distribution of income. Though he qualified as a Progressive reformer, he also qualified, in the eyes of many, as the boss of a political machine built around giving out state jobs, especially in the state highway department.

While a crusader he also was a practical politician.

Hunt died unexpectedly at his home in Phoenix at the age of 75 on Christmas Eve 1934.

He is entombed in a white pyramid at the top of a hill in Papago Park.


Arizona Capitol Museum presents:

'A Most Colorful Character: George W.P. Hunt," Arizona's Seven-Term Governor'

Oct. 30, Noon to 2 p.m.

Arizona State Capitol Museum

1700 W. Washington Street, Phoenix

Free public event


David Berman

Morrison Institute blogs are intended to further public discourse regarding key and timely issues via diverse voices, expertise and experiences – including, when appropriate, in pro-and-con format. Blogs do not represent any official position of Morrison Institute for Public Policy or Arizona State University.