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From the Lectern

When Arizona Went Progressive:
The Career and Views of Governor
George W. P. Hunt

David R. Berman

Arizona has had its share of colorful politicians but none more colorful than George W. P. (Wylie Paul) Hunt, a Democrat, and the state’s first governor, whom voters elected to that office seven times. He was deeply involved in most of the important Arizona political battles for over forty years—from the 1890s to the 1930s.

Washington Street in Phoenix, view to east (ca. 1920)
Courtesy The Arizona Republic/AZCentral.com

As a plainspoken battling crusader, Hunt focused on a variety of targets—corporate interests, the Arizona legislature, the courts, Republicans, members of his own political party, politicians from other states (especially California) and the federal government among them. He did not take defeat lightly: Declared the loser in his bid for re–election as governor in 1916, Hunt contested the election, barricaded himself in the governor’s suite, and refused to vacate the premises. He was finally forced out of office by an Arizona Supreme Court ruling on January 27, 1917. Nearly a year later though, the same court, following a voting recount, declared Hunt the winner and he returned to office. (1)

Hunt was not a gifted orator, but he was able to communicate effectively with people on an individual basis. He made ordinary people feel important because they felt that he, the governor, was their good friend, someone they knew and someone who knew them. He cheated a little: 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. Hunt made a political career by developing friendships. He did favors for people, some large, some small. On the large side, he headed what critics considered a “political machine” through which he, as governor, gave his supporters state jobs, especially in the highway department, aka “the house of mystery."

George Hunt was born in Huntsville, Missouri in 1859. This was a small community named after his grandfather, one of the early settlers in the area. This section of the state had been settled by Southerners and many of its citizens, including members of the Hunt family, were slave holders. The Civil War left much of the area in ruins. Hunt was raised in poverty and received very little formal education. He knew what it was to be poor and never forgot his humble origins. As a child he failed a class because he had no text book. Several decades later free texts for school children became a prominent theme in his gubernatorial campaigns and one of his proudest accomplishments as governor.

In 1859, at the age of 18, George ran away from home to seek his fortune in the West. He wound up in Globe, Arizona in 1881where he worked his way up from a variety of low–paying jobs—dishwasher, waiter, mine mucker, and store clerk—to become a moderately successful merchant and banker. Throughout his political career, he referred to his experience as a businessperson as a prime qualification for holding office—in bringing efficiency, economy, and sound management to government. Yet, despite his business standing, his few months as a miner brought his first exposure to mineworkers and prompted a life–long sympathy with their difficulties. Mineworkers, many of whom were union members, helped send him to the territorial legislature where he became a leading figure and spokesman for labor as well as political and economic reform.

In 1910 he became president of the convention that shaped the state’s first and only constitution—a highly popular and Progressive document—and a year later voters elected him the state’s first governor. 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, many of which the corporate elite opposed. 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.”

Governor George P. W. Hunt
Courtesy University of Arizona Libraries

The years 1910–1916, were the most productive in Hunt’s long career and, when it comes to progressivism, constituted what might be called “Arizona’s age of reform.” With Hunt at the helm during this period, Arizona was in the mainstream of the Progressive reform movement that was sweeping the nation. As Hunt saw it, he stood for the people in their struggle with the “corporate beasts,” best represented by the large mining and railroad enterprises owned by absentee capitalists. He sought to stem the power of large corporations. Along with this, he sought to democratize the political system, defend the rights of working people, reform prisons and abolish the death penalty. He saw the penalty as “a relic of barbarism,” a brutal failure as a deterrent to crime and a practice that smacked of class discrimination: “The more I look into it, the more I am convinced that hanging is the penalty of the poor…no man can be hung in Arizona who has plenty of money.” He became a nationally known leader in the prison reform and anti–capital punishment causes.

As a constitution maker and the first governor, Hunt engaged in putting together what he saw as a model state government based on Progressive principles. He felt that Arizona, a pioneer state and one less bound by tradition than many others, was an ideal place to experiment with the latest ideas in government. In building a new state, he wanted Progressivism, in the sense of “modern” or “enlightened” ideas, to undergird every state institution, but especially the penal system which he sought to make both more humane and more scientific in management. He valued Progressive reform ideas such as direct primaries, the initiative, referendum and recall, and legislation that put controls on campaign spending and lobbying as essential to safeguarding the political system from the corporate interests. He wanted the large railroads and mining corporations and the wealthy to pay a greater share of the tax load and lessen the burden being borne by small businesses, ranchers, farmers and the less wealthy. He wanted controls on railroad rates.

Hunt called for an energetic state government, working on behalf of the many rather than the privileged few. He saw the leaders of large corporate enterprises in Arizona and elsewhere as “self–appointed guardians of the public weal who, by reason of great wealth, are too often, and to the everlasting disgrace of our country” able “to dictate the actions of legislators elected and sworn to represent the whole people.” He targeted what he saw as an economic–political system of “greed backed by power” where the privileged were allowed “to seize as much of the profits as its greed dictates.” He was no radical, in the sense of aiming to replace the capitalistic system, but wanted a better distribution of its benefits. He wanted to even things up, “to bring comforts for the homes of the working multitude as it does now in an unequal degree for the homes of the privileged.” Fortunes, he felt, were being made for a privileged few on the backs of working people.

Hunt sought to give people greater control over their jobs as well as their government and valued labor unions as a way of achieving this end. He also saw unions as a way to build a middle class and establish an economic and political force to countervail the influence of large corporations.

He wanted justice in industry and stood with workers in their struggles against mine owners and managers. He came to the defense of Hispanic workers in a strike in Clifton, Arizona in 1915–1916, though some critics condemned him as a traitor to his class for doing so.

While often sounding harsh, George Hunt did not view the interests of capital and labor as irreconcilable. In his view, capital and labor could work together. At the same time, he put much of the blame for the failure for this to happen on the shoulders of the capitalists. He felt employers had an obligation to provide a safe working environment and wages that were high enough to “guarantee proper food, shelter and education” for the worker’s family. As he saw it, “the man who wears out his body and mind with nothing to show for his sacrifice but a bare living is right in thinking that conditions are an outrage on humanity.”

Throughout his career, Hunt fought conservatives in his own party in the primaries, where he usually won, and in the legislature where he often lost. For most of his years as governor, Hunt was frustrated by legislative rejection of his policies and by what he saw as legislative interference with his executive prerogatives. Like many Progressives of the period, Hunt had a deep distrust of state legislatures. He feared that in the absence of intense public pressure, legislators were bound to fall under the influence of special interests. In an attempt to improve the legislative process and bring it more out in the open, he called for a reduction in the number of legislative seats and the establishment of a one–house legislature but failed in this effort. Legislators seemed generally to take great pleasure in annoying the governor.

Hunt in many ways was typical of the middle class Progressive reformers of the period who, unlike the radicals, did not want to mobilize the working class into a movement aimed at fundamentally restructuring the capitalist system but hoped to eliminate class conflict by changing the behavior of both the working class and business elite, especially the latter, toward the pursuit of the public interest rather than selfish interests. He sought a golden mean somewhere between socialism and rugged individualism.

He did differ, though, from most Progressives in the extent to which he was aligned with and supported by a left–leaning labor movement. To some extent Hunt also differed from other Progressives by intermingling a western or pioneer outlook with the Progressive ethos—one well reflected in the declaration of one of his fellow reformers: “Arizona is what we make it!” Like the pioneers settling the West, the Hunt reformers felt they had the opportunity to start from scratch, to create some type of paradise on earth. Initially at least they were optimistic that this could be done, that they could control the future, and indeed, show the way for the rest of the country (something they felt they had done in making the state constitution in 1910).

The Hunt–led reform drive created a backlash: on the surface much of the complaint had to do with Hunt’s policies regarding capital punishment and prison reform, but underlying it was opposition to Hunt’s efforts to increase corporate taxation and to defend and promote the cause of organized labor. His courageous stand in defense of striking miners in 1915 was especially important in galvanizing the corporations into action to remove him from power, something they temporarily did in 1916 (he was declared the winner only after a court decision in 1917.)

Hunt vows to remain in Governorship (Arizona Republic, December 31, 1916)
Courtesy The Arizona Republic/AZCentral.com

Hunt had his moments as an opportunist and as someone who would straddle issues, hoping to gain by taking both sides or not clearly taking a position. He was something of a political chameleon who adapted quickly to his surroundings. Still, on a variety of important issues, he was cause–driven, oblivious of the political consequences of the stands he took or willing to risk political loss by taking them. His push for prison reform and stand against capital punishment are prime examples. It is fair to think of him as idealistic and courageous, someone who earnestly wanted to do good and, indeed, he accomplished much to be admired. In less flattering terms, we are looking at a career politician, a perpetual candidate for governor, who, through well–calculated strategies and, with the help of a political machine he put together, enjoyed a high rate of electoral success.

Governor Hunt knitting
Courtesy The Arizona State Historical Society

George Hunt’s personal characteristics often resembled what scholars have classified as an active–negative political leader, one who is very active in pursuing an agenda and is eager to return to office but generally does not enjoy the work. He sees himself in a hostile environment waging a battle against powerful and determined foes. Such politicians are not out for fun. They are crusaders who view issues as choices between right and wrong, good and bad, and see those who oppose them as dangerous people who have to be beaten. Rather than seeking compromise with their opponents, they work to wrest power from them, often showing considerable skill as tacticians, and once this is done, implement a broad agenda.

Hunt had moments of triumph and heroism, but the ending was far from ideal—he wound up being someone who did not know when to stop seeking office or to how to bring himself to do so. His last efforts to secure election resulted in humiliating losses. Hunt did not accomplish all that he sought and later generations of Arizona politicians have carried the state in a different direction. Yet his concern with the political and economic power of the wealthy and large business enterprises, democratic values, the rights of workers, income inequality, and fair treatment in the criminal justice system continue to find expression in contemporary political debate.

Governor Hunt died unexpectedly at his home on Christmas Eve, 1934. He is buried with other family members in a small white pyramid at the top a hill within Papago Park.

(1) The initially declared winner, Republican Thomas Campbell, avoided a confrontation by setting up an office at home out of which he planned to run the state. Both Hunt and Campbell took the oath of office and for several weeks the state had two people acting as though they were governor.

Hunt's Tomb in Papago Park, Phoenix
Photo by R. Jacob

©David R. Berman, 2018