George W. P. Hunt: Arizona’s political heavy-weight through its first three decades

Don Harris//February 27, 2011

George W. P. Hunt: Arizona’s political heavy-weight through its first three decades

Don Harris//February 27, 2011

— Arizona State Archives, #97-6947
— Arizona State Archives, #97-6947
When George Wylie Paul Hunt plunked his 300 pounds into the Arizona governor’s chair, he was a hard man to remove, even when it looked as if the voters had tossed him out.

Hunt was Arizona’s first governor. He also was its third, fifth and seventh, serving a total of seven two-year terms, a feat unlikely to be matched.

Born in Huntsville, Mo., (a town named after his grandfather) on Nov. 1, 1859, Hunt left his family in 1878, turning up in Globe, which he considered home for much of his life. His marriage to Helen Duett Ellison produced one child, a daughter, Virginia.

His political career, which had a Nixon-like arc of disappointments followed by comebacks, started badly back in Territorial days when he lost the 1890 election for county recorder of Gila County.

Undaunted by his early loss, Hunt won terms in both houses of the Arizona Territorial Legislature, where he sponsored legislation banning gambling and requiring children from the ages of 8 to 14 to attend schools at least 12 weeks a year.

In 1910, Hunt served as president of the convention that wrote Arizona’s Constitution, supporting such issues as initiative, referendum and recall. Later in his career he pushed legislation to restrict child labor and lobbying and supported creation of workers’ compensation, old age pensions and women’s suffrage. Considered a populist by many, Hunt opposed capital punishment and supported organized labor, stances that would hinder his political chances today.

Another possible impediment were he running in today’s image-conscious environment: Despite his immense weight, Hunt stood just 5-foot-9.

But his roundness, combined with a drooping handlebar mustache, gained him the affectionate nickname “the Old Walrus.” In September 1911, he announced his candidacy for governor of the soon-to-be state. Hunt, a Democrat, defeated his Republican opponent and was sworn in as the state’s first governor on Feb. 14, 1912.

Re-elected in 1914, Hunt struggled through a second term, vexed by a predicament that has flared throughout the state’s history: conflict and violence along the Arizona-Mexico border, triggered back then by the Mexican Revolution.

Hunt considered deploying the Arizona National Guard to protect American lives, but deferred to the federal government, allowing U.S. Army troops to handle the situation.

In his 1916 bid for re-election to a third term, he looked to be a victim of the border unrest, as the preliminary returns showed Republican Thomas Campbell beating Hunt by 30 votes.

Both men took the oath of office, and Hunt refused to leave until Jan. 27, 1917, when the Arizona Supreme Court ruled in favor of Campbell. Hunt continued his legal battle, though, and the Supreme Court reversed itself in December 1917, declaring Hunt the winner by 43 votes. He began his third term on Christmas Day 1917.

Hunt chose not to run for re-election in 1918, opening the way for Campbell to be elected, finally. By 1920, Hunt was said to be interested in running for the U.S. Senate seat held by Mark Smith. Political maneuvering on behalf of Smith, the story goes, resulted in President Woodrow Wilson’s appointing Hunt U.S. minister to Siam.

A year later, Hunt was replaced, and he was back in Arizona.

A major issue in the early 1920s was ratification of the Colorado River Compact, which appropriated water rights to seven states. Hunt opposed ratification, contending the compact gave California an unfair share of Colorado River water.

But in 1922, representatives of the seven states, including W. S. Norviel of Arizona, worked out their differences, and the compact was signed by U.S. Secretary of Commerce Herbert Hoover.

That same year, Hunt won his fourth term as governor.

He was re-elected in 1924 and 1926, capping six consecutive years in office.

Swept out of office by a Republican landslide in 1928, Hunt lost to John C. Phillips, a lawyer. But like most Republicans, Phillips, caught in the woeful grip of the Great Depression in 1930, was defeated by none other than Hunt, who captured his seventh and last term as governor. Still with his eye on the Governor’s Office, Hunt failed to win Democratic primaries in 1932 and 1934.

On Dec. 24, 1934, Hunt died of heart failure in his Phoenix home at the age of 75. His body lay in state in the Capitol rotunda on the Great Seal of the State of Arizona that he helped design, and he was interred in a white pyramid that sits atop a hill in Papago Park.

Brief Bio

• Born: 11/1/1859
• Elected Governor:?2/14/1912
• Re-elected: 1914, 1916, 1922, 1924,1926 & 1930
• Died: 12/24/1934