Meet John Tyler Hammons, the Caesar of Muskogee, Oklahoma.
"Caesar did everything he could for the common man, against the will of the aristocracy, the people in power, the elite, those that were against change," 20-year-old Hammons said, sitting behind the mayor's desk, pointing to a bust of the Roman leader that overlooks his office from its perch on a filing cabinet. "I wanted to run because I wanted to make a difference for the common man. I kind of felt like Julius Caesar charging against the aristocracy."
Most 20-year-olds don't go around comparing themselves to Julius Caesar. But Hammons is not like most 20-year-olds. The idea that someone so young (Hammons was 19 when he was elected in May) could become the leader of a city of almost 40,000 people seems baffling. A 19-year-old could never establish credibility with such a large group of voters, one would assume, until you sit down and talk with the man, who handles himself like a seasoned politician with several degrees, not just a high school diploma.
"We just let him talk -- that's all we did. We went to the mall, to Wal-Mart, to grocery stores and just let him talk to people," said Jordan Stevens, Hammons' campaign manager, who is also the 27-year-old mayor of Oktaha, which has a population of 325 people. "If you hear him speak about anything, really -- how the grass grows -- he's so mature and he's so beyond his 19 or 20 years that people thought, 'This guy isn't a joke. He's really passionate about what he's talking about, he knows what he's talking about, and he's for real.'"
Hammons approached Stevens at a Young Republicans meeting that Stevens hosted early last year and asked the Oktaha mayor what he thought about the idea of Hammons running for mayor.
"I didn't tell him that but ... in the back of my mind, I was like, 'He doesn't have a prayer,'" Stevens said.
Hammons garnered 42 percent of the 4,363 votes cast in an April election that failed to produce a majority winner and therefore required a runoff. His 42 percent would have been impressive in any election, but it was even more impressive considering he was facing five other candidates, including Hershel McBride, a three-term former Muskogee mayor and 21-year City Council veteran. McBride collected just less than 39 percent of the vote.
In the May runoff election, the 19-year-old took home 70 percent of the vote, clobbering McBride, who collected fewer votes in the runoff than in the general election, despite the fact that about 1,000 more people voted the second time around.
"It's kind of like an Obama thing -- [the voters] wanted change, and they got it," McBride said. "That's in the past. I've put it behind me."
McBride wouldn't go into further details about the campaign nor the new mayor, but Stevens said McBride was very vocal during the six weeks between the general election and the runoff.
"Some of the stuff he said after the first election: 'There's no way I'm going to lose to a kid. I don't have to campaign because I'm Hershel McBride.' He was being very condescending," Stevens said. "We're like, 'We got 40 percent [in the first election]!'"
But nobody's taking the wunderkind mayor lightly anymore.
McBride's comparison between Hammons and President Barack Obama is apt: Hammons campaigned strongly on the need for change in government. The same people had been running Muskogee for many years, Hammons said, and there was a sense among residents that their leaders could not be trusted.
"There was this feeling that the city government hid money, hid its actions, hid this or that," he said. "Whether I think that was true -- not so much. The longer I've been [in office] I can tell that wasn't true. But there was this feeling of disconnect from the people."
That feeling of disconnect was warranted, he said. The government wasn't necessarily hiding its actions, but information wasn't accessible either. Hammons said he didn't feel he could approach the mayor, the previous city manager (current City Manager Jeff Buckley was hired only three months before Hammons took office) or the City Councilors. Changing that disconnect was high on Hammons' list of priorities, and it was easy for him to accomplish.
"I'm 20 years old, I'm not intimidating, I'm not a big guy, I don't think I have a very stern look, I'm pretty happy-go-lucky," he said. "If you can't approach me, you've got no courage at all."
Hammons stressed throughout his campaign that his door was always open, his phone number was available to all, and he would listen to any concerns and any ideas his constituents had to offer. That openness won him the votes of many Muskogee residents and the endorsement of the firefighters union, the police department and the rest of the city's employees.
"I'll be the first to admit that I don't have all the answers. ... I don't even really have all the questions," Hammons said. "I don't have this attitude of 'Been there, done that,' because, let's face it, I haven't been there and I haven't done that.
"I need the wisdom of my community to come forth and say, 'Okay, this is what has worked in the past, here's what we liked and what we didn't like.' And I've really relied on that."
Hammons' campaign promise to change the way city government operated clearly resonated with voters. But Obama was not the only 2008 presidential candidate whose campaign resembled Hammons'. The youngster also staunchly called for campaign-finance reform, a staple of Republican John McCain's platform.
"City law does not require [disclosure of campaign contributions]," Hammons said. "If you took in $1 million and didn't want to tell anybody who it came from, you don't have to."
Among the six candidates for mayor, Hammons was the only one who disclosed his campaign contributions. When asked why he revealed his contributors, he said simply, "That's the appropriate thing to do," as if the statement was as self-evident as the color of his skin. He is now working with the city attorney to draft legislation to require disclosure of all contributions greater than $200.
Learning Equals Earning
Hammons' campaign almost stopped before it started. Stevens -- his eventual campaign manager -- wasn't the only person who thought Hammons had no shot at getting elected. His mother and father, his friends, even his grandmother, who had always been on Hammons' side, told him he should return to Norman to complete his freshman year at the University of Oklahoma instead of wasting his time on a mayoral campaign. Hammons abandoned the idea of running for mayor and set his sights back on his education. (Hammons transferred to Northeastern State University in Tahlequah after he was elected mayor.)
"Then I go to see my mentor in life, a guy named Jack Harrison, who I just call 'coach'," Hammons said, explaining that Harrison was his government teacher in high school and his basketball coach before Hammons quit the sport because "talent became a requirement."
"I said 'Hello,' and he pointed at me and said, 'You're running for mayor or we're not friends anymore.'"
Harrison had heard through the grapevine that Hammons was considering a mayoral run, but even before hearing the rumor, Harrison had come up with the idea on his own. He said he'd had many students during the years who were into politics, but not like Hammons: "He lived it. It was in his blood."
In addition to serving as student body president, Hammons was head of Muskogee High School's Young Republicans group and its Young Democrats group, because both groups asked him to run for their top posts. Hammons, a registered Republican, said he saw no conflict of interest in heading up both groups, as finding good solutions requires working across the aisle.
"Nobody's got a monopoly on good ideas," he said.
That type of thinking, as well as the political climate in Muskogee, helped make clear to Harrison that Hammons would be a good candidate for mayor.
"I felt like it was a great time for him to run because we had an incumbent mayor who did not seek re-election, and McBride is my age -- he's old news," Harrison said. "Timing is everything in politics."
The teacher was confident his ambitious, goal-oriented former student had the wherewithal to be a good mayor, but convincing Hammons to run wasn't easy. Hammons said he sat down with Harrison for three hours before the teacher finally convinced him that "a nobody" could win the city's highest post.
"Coach just looks at me and says, 'You don't understand. I'm 72 years old, and my generation's time is up. You guys are here to replace my generation in leadership, and you have to step up,'" Hammons recalled.
In the end, it was Harrison's encouragement and his insistence that Hammons could win that convinced him he had a shot, even though, like Stevens, Harrison didn't really think Hammons would win.
"I had an inkling [that he could win], but if I'd been a betting man, I'd have bet against him," Harrison said, though he stressed that Hammons had nothing to lose. "I told him, 'If you don't get three votes, you've won, because it would be a great experience.'"
Hammons got 3,703 votes in the runoff election and carried all 17 precincts as well as the absentee ballots -- a feat that had never been accomplished in Muskogee. As a well-known, respected member of the community, Harrison took some credit for helping establish Hammons' credibility with voters by talking him up publicly at every opportunity. But it was Hammons' personality, his intelligence and his message of change that pushed him to the top.
"I don't know that [the voters] were discontented [with city government] as much as they were revived when he came along," Harrison said. "They'd kind of been lulled into sleep by the same old, same old, and he woke everybody up. A 19-year-old running for mayor will wake you up."
In addition to Stevens and Harrison, who was Hammons' campaign chairman, the campaign team included a treasurer, an information technology director, a spiritual adviser and other volunteer staff, who Hammons said were invaluable to his efforts. Local newspaper the Muskogee Phoenix endorsed McBride before the general election and the runoff, but even that paper recognized the professionalism of Hammons' campaign and compared his efforts to a U.S. Senate run, Hammons said.
Bridging the Gap
Convincing Muskogee voters that Hammons could do the job was only half the battle. Once he reached office, there was a whole host of new people to whom he needed to prove himself.
"He was accepted by some [city councilors] and not by others," City Councilor David Jones said. "I had some questions because of his youth, but I don't now. He's done a good job...He's a very interesting, excited, knowledgeable individual."
Hammons' first City Council meetings didn't help his standing with some of the councilors, Jones said, because Hammons wasn't familiar with the proper procedures for running a meeting. Hammons admitted he had only attended City Council meetings in the past when he was receiving awards in recognition of his character while attending Muskogee High School. Jones said Hammons is a fast learner, though, and he has won over most of the council members.
"Some of the council members still question his motives and why he's going certain directions, but I think his intentions are real good," Jones said.
When running for mayor, Hammons stressed the need for change, but Jones said Hammons wasn't clear about what exactly needed to be changed. Since joining the council, though, Hammons has made a difference.
"In the past, it looked like most of the council approved everything once it once it got to them because the city manager had blessed it and the department heads had looked at it, and when it got to the council, it would pretty much get the 'Yes' stamp," Jones said. "Now everything is reviewed and discussed at some length, and it's seldom that everybody votes 'Yes.'"
He credited Hammons with encouraging discussion and inquiring about the other council members' opinions, and he said council meetings now feature "heavily debated topics."
Hammons agreed with Jones that he had a steep learning curve when he took over as mayor, and Hammons has relied heavily on City Manager Greg Buckley to help him get acclimated to the new position. Hammons added that there have been some "unique" challenges for Buckley in getting the new mayor up to speed. Hammons pointed out that, like many of the people he deals with on a daily basis, Buckley has a daughter who is older than the mayor.
"The first big thing I had to deal with when I became mayor was to deal with the budget...I went to a meeting to talk about the budget and [Buckley] said 'We're going to have a tight budget this year,'" Hammons recalled. "Of course, you know, [to] my generation, 'tight' is like, 'Aw man, we got a good budget. This is going to be a great budget!'
"[Buckley] goes, 'No, you don't understand -- a fiscally conservative budget.'
"Oh, that's the generation gap thing," Hammons responded.
As the 11th-largest city in Oklahoma (and the subject of the 1969 Merle Haggard song "Okie from Muskogee"), Muskogee is well-known to most Sooners. But outside the state, many people first heard of Muskogee after Hammons was elected and gained national, and even international, recognition. He appeared on many nationally televised news programs, The Tonight Show with Jay Leno and Fox TV's game show Are You Smarter than a 5th Grader? Hammons left the game show with $25,000 after he failed to come up with the name of the first American woman in outer space, Sally Ride. Jones, however, said Hammons has represented Muskogee well in his television appearances and has given the city a good name.
"He's gotten us a lot of positive publicity on a national basis that we wouldn't have gotten with anyone else [as mayor]," Jones said. "He represents Muskogee well ... so instead of people back North and back East thinking, 'These country people back in Oklahoma,' they realize we're sophisticated just like people everywhere else."
Hammons has had many opportunities to get his and Muskogee's name out there, and the offers keep coming in. He was offered a reality TV show of his own, which he turned down, citing his need for privacy, and several book offers have been sent his way. Hammons plans to write a book this year, though the topic has not been finalized. He said he would like to write a children's book one day, and he is considering a semi-autobiographical tale about a boy who wants to be mayor.
Writing a children's book would fit well with Hammons' agenda for the City of Muskogee, which includes a campaign that invites people of all ages to expand their minds through literature. In a nod to the Fox game show, the Mayor's Reading Challenge asks, "Are you as well-read as a high schooler?" Posters picturing Hammons reading "The Giver" by Lois Lowry hang on the walls in local libraries and in virtually every classroom in the city, encouraging people to read a selection of more than 20 books most high schoolers are required to read before graduation. In May, the challenge will conclude with a "novel tea" for community members to discuss the books. Hammons also often goes to elementary schools to read to students, and the kids respond with great enthusiasm.
"The kids love seeing the mayor that reads," he said. "The younger kids are like, 'Oh my God, this is the mayor, and there he is in the poster, and he wants me to read, so I should read.' I'm getting a lot of good feelings from that."
Hammons isn't satisfied with just exercising Muskogee residents' minds, though. He's also asking his constituents to improve their bodies through the Muskogee Wellness Initiative. A tracking poll is being used to determine if residents are eating better, exercising more and staying tobacco-free, and Hammons is working to set up a nonprofit to receive funding to further the initiative this year.
In the face of the nationwide economic downturn and credit crunch, Hammons is also trying to make it easier for Muskogee residents to become homeowners. A newly established committee is looking into incentives that could be offered to encourage home ownership in hard economic times.
"Clearly we can't pass a $1 billion dollar economic stimulus package," he said. "But we can maybe give tax breaks or make it easer to get a permit."
The Long and Winding Road
After commuting to Tahlequah for school and spending time in the mayor's office each weekday as well as mentoring students at Muskogee High School 10 hours a week, Hammons doesn't have much time for friends, dates and video games, his three favorite pastimes. Nonetheless, he loves his job and said he can't imagine doing anything else right now, though he hasn't decided if he'll seek re-election in 2010.
He plans to complete his pre-law education at Northeastern State University, get a law degree and maybe become Muskogee's district attorney. And in the long-term, he wouldn't mind being governor of Oklahoma one day. But some people are setting their sights even higher for Hammons.
"Let's just say this: I'm going to stick with him," Stevens said. "If he keeps his nose clean and does what he says he's going to do, he could go all the way to Washington."
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