By David R. Berman

Arizona has had its share of colorful politicians but none more so than Democrat George W. P. Hunt, our state’s first governor, who 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.

Hunt was a plainspoken, battling crusader who focused on a variety of targets—the 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, he barricaded himself in the governor’s suite and refused to vacate the premises.

Hunt was not a gifted speaker but he was able to communicate effectively with people on an individual basis.  He made a political career by developing friendships.  He made ordinary people feel important because they felt he, the governor, was their good friend, someone they knew and someone who knew them.  He cheated a little by keeping 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.  While a crusader, he was also a practical politician.  He headed a “political machine” through which he gave his supporters state jobs, especially in the highway department.

Hunt was born in 1859 in Huntsville, Missouri, a small community named after his grandfather.  At the age of 18, he ran away from home seeking 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 to become a successful merchant and banker.  Entering politics, he became a leader in the territorial legislature and president of the 1910 convention that created the state constitution.  He died unexpectedly at his home on Christmas Eve, 1934.

With Hunt at the helm from 1910 to 1916, Arizona was in the mainstream of the Progressive reform movement that was sweeping the nation.  As he saw it, he stood for the people in their grand struggle with the “corporate beasts” best represented by the large mining and railroad enterprises owned by absentee capitalists.  Thus 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 to make them more humane, and to abolish the death penalty.

Hunt engaged in putting together what he saw as 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.  He wanted Progressivism, in the sense of “modern” or “enlightened” ideas, to undergird every state institution.  He saw progressive reform ideas such as direct primaries, the initiative, referendum, and recall, and legislation that put controls on campaign spending as essential to safeguarding the political system from the corporate interests.

Hunt wanted 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 the large railroads and mining corporations and the wealthy to pay a greater share of the tax load and lessen the burden borne by small businesses, ranchers, farmers, and the less wealthy.

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.

This article is a preview of a presentation David Berman will make at the Twelfth Annual Western History Symposium to be held at the Prescott Centennial Center on August 1st. The Symposium is co-sponsored by the Sharlot Hall Museum and the Prescott Corral of Westerners International and is open to the public free of charge.  For more details, call the museum at 445-3122 or visit the sponsors’ websites at www.sharlot.org and www.prescottcorral.org.

“Days Past” is a collaborative project of the Sharlot Hall Museum and the Prescott Corral of Westerners International (www.prescottcorral.org). This and other Days Past articles are also available at www.sharlot.org/library-archives/days-past. The public is encouraged to submit ideas for articles to dayspastprescott@gmail.com. Please contact SHM Library & Archives reference desk at 928-445-3122 Ext. 14, or via email at dayspastprescott@gmail.com for information.