Sunday, April 12, 2009

H. Guy Hunt: the accidental governor

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The first Republican to occupy the Governor's office in Alabama after a long post-Reconstruction Democratic domination, Harold Guy Hunt was also the first Governor in the state to be removed from office.

Born in 1933 at Holly Pond in Alabama, Hunt served in the U.S. Army during the Korean War. Working as an Amway salesman and farmer, he was ordained as a Primitive Baptist preacher in 1958 and worked part-time in that capacity. Though he did not go to college, Hunt received honorary doctor of law degrees from Troy State University, the University of North Alabama, and Alabama A&M in 1987.

After losing a bid for state senate in 1962, Hunt was elected probate judge of Cullman County in 1964 and held the post for the next 12 years. He supported Ronald Reagan during his presidential aspirations, serving as the state chairman of Reagan's campaign in 1976 and his successful 1980 race. In return, Reagan appointed him state executive director of the Agricultural Stabilization and Conservation Service (a part of the Department of Agriculture) in 1981. Hunt ran for Governor as the Republican candidate in 1978, losing to Democratic candidate and former Republican Fob James, Jr.

Hunt left the agricultural post in 1985 to pursue another gubernatorial campaign in 1986. State politics up to this point had been dominated by the Democratic Party, with the last Republican Governor serving in 1874. Noted segregationist George Wallace, who had served four terms comprising 16 of the prior 24 years, announced he would not run that year. Attorney General Charles Graddick, a conservative and former Republican, faced off against Lieutenant Governor Bill Baxley and won the Democratic nomination by 8,756 votes out of about 900,000 cast.

The narrow victory was contested in federal court after a black couple filed suit, saying Graddick had used his position in the government to minimize the black vote. Shortly before the runoff, Graddick issued an opinion as Attorney General that Republican voters should not be barred from participating in the Democratic runoff, a violation of the 1965 Voting Rights Act. The court found that the move had attracted enough conservative support to sway the result to Graddick over Baxley, whose base relied more on black, liberal, and union voters. Graddick's name was removed from the ballot and the nomination was awarded to Baxley.

Hunt had won the Republican nomination from a pool of less than 33,000 voters. For a time, it seemed that even those supporters might be split by Graddick, who threatened to run as a third party candidate. Instead, Graddick decided to drop out of the race, and Hunt found himself appealing to Graddick's conservative white supporters. He won the election with 56 percent of the vote.

Hunt came into office with the goals of bringing more business into the state and improving education. He established a tax reform commission, as well as several committees to look into improvements in education. However, educational leaders in 14 of the state's poorer counties sued the government, arguing that government funds were not equitably distributed. The court agreed, ordering the state to start remedying the problem.

Hunt also pledged that his administration would be "color blind," but was criticized by some Democrats for appointing only one black person in the 23 cabinet positions. He was further criticizing for his support of flying the Confederate flag from the state Capitol building, a practice Wallace had started in defiance of the civil rights movement. The flag was later removed after a court decision. In 1990, Hunt won re-election over Alabama Education Association leader Paul Hubbert. In that race, Republicans were accused of playing off race fears by circulating photos of Hubbert with black political leaders.

Much of Hunt's second term was consumed by controversy over whether he had violated state ethics laws. The investigation began after Hunt was found to have used a state plane to travel to preaching engagements across the South, where he was paid with cash donations. Hunt wrote a check for the expenses and dismissed the controversy as party politics. He also tried to have the investigation stopped on the argument that the ethics probe compromised the separation of powers in the state government, but the court of appeals ruled the investigation legal in 1992. In December of that year, he was indicted on 12 theft and conspiracy charges and one ethics charge. Only the ethics charge could go forward, as the statute of limitations had run out on the other counts.

Hunt went to trial in April of 1993. The remaining felony charge accused him of diverting $200,000 of a tax-exempt $800,000 inaugural fund to banks near his home for personal use. The items ranged from mortgage payments and cattle feed to a riding lawnmower and marble shower stall. The defense argued that Hunt had used the inaugural fund to legally pay back money advanced for a gubernatorial campaign.

The jury found Hunt guilty; the felony conviction automatically expelled him from office and promoted Lieutenant Governor James E. Folsom, Jr., a Democrat (and, at the time of this article, Lieutenant Governor of the state once again). The judge had instructed the jury that excess campaign funds could not legally be used for personal payments, a statute Republicans argued was not regularly enforced. "For a year and a half now practically the whole emphasis of that office has been to try to find something on me," Hunt said. In May of 1993, he was sentenced to five years of probation, 1,000 hours of community service, and a $211,000 fine.

Hunt unsuccessfully appealed the case. In 1997, the Alabama Board of Pardons and Paroles granted him a pardon on the basis of innocence. However, no judge or district attorney was willing to sign the order. The next year, Hunt sought to end his probation four months early. Instead, a judge extended it by five years because he had only paid about $4,200 off the fine.

One month after the judge's decision, Hunt's attorney produced a check paying off the remaining balance; the money had been collected from donors sympathetic to the ex-Governor. Things moved swiftly after that. One day after his probation was lifted, Hunt was granted a pardon, again on the basis of innocence. The day after that, he qualified to run for the Republican nomination for Governor. Strangely enough, he was challenging Fob James, Jr. The same man who had defeated Hunt in the 1978 gubernatorial election had changed his allegiance back to the Republican Party and been elected in 1994.

Hunt was unable to secure the nomination, and returned to preaching and working on his farm. In 2002, he made another unsuccessful bid for the state senate. He died on January 30 of this year of complications from lung cancer.

Sources: Alabama Department of Archives and History, National Governors Association, Encyclopedia of Alabama, "Wallace's Successor Ushers In Conservative Era" in the New York Times on Jan. 20 1987, "Alabama Governor Found Guilty of Ethics Charge and Is Ousted" in the New York Times on April 23 1993, "Ex-Governor of Alabama Loses Ruling" in the New York Times on April 22 1994, "Alabama Ex-Governor Gets More Probation" in the New York Times on Feb. 15 1998, "Elections 2002 - Around the Nation" in the Columbus Ledger-Enquirer on Nov. 7 2002, The New Politics of the Old South by Charles S. Bullock and Mark J. Rozell, Biographical Directory of the Governors of the United States, 1988-1994 by Marie Marmo Mullaney


Hog Hunting Texas said...

He is so lucky to be the governor everyone is not that much lucky.

Anonymous said...

Nothing was mentioned in this article about the fact that once told he could not use the State airplane to go to paid speaking engagements, in defiance he used the state airplane to fly his luggage while he and and his wife used other transportation. It was said there was nothing in the law about using the airplane for his luggage to these paid speaking or (preaching) engagements. He also argued that he was not paid that the congregations just gave him "love offerings" for his appearance. He defied every rule he could just to rile the Democratic Party.