MUSKOGEE — Nearly two years ago, John Tyler Hammons became mayor of this eastern Oklahoma city of 40,000. He was 19 years old and one of the youngest mayors in the country. His election thrust Muskogee into the national spotlight. National news networks interviewed Hammons and he even appeared on the national television show "Are You Smarter Than a 5th Grader.” It was a presidential election year and the country was focused on politics. Shortly after his election, Hammons was a delegate at the Republican National Convention, where several national figures asked to be in pictures with him. But despite making Cosmopolitan’s list of politicians "We’d Like to See Shirtless” earlier this year, the fickle national media spotlight has dimmed. "The attention has shifted from high profile media things to real world working experiences as far as what I’ve tried to do as mayor and what I see as our priorities,” Hammons said. The real world is a re-election battle that has had its share of politicking in a community facing a $1.8 million budget shortfall. On Tuesday, Hammons, 21, will face three opponents — each more than twice his age. Opposing Hammons are veteran local businessman John "Bob” Coburn, 58, a cousin of U.S. Sen. Tom Coburn; community volunteer Teresa Garris, 61; and longtime travel agent and law librarian Chris James, 49. If necessary, a runoff election will be May 11.
Spotlight fadesHammons won election on May 13, 2008, promising an era of openness. He was quickly tested. After his election, Hammons accepted a pickup as a prelude to taking a job as a salesman. He returned the pickup and turned down the job when an allegation surfaced that the dealership wasn’t following city code by improperly parking vehicles. Hammons said he wanted to avoid the appearance of any impropriety. Then, there were roadblocks to some of Hammons’ reform ideas. Early last year, Hammons lost a battle for campaign reform when the city council voted down his proposal to disclose contributions of $200 or more. When asked why he voted against it, City Councilman Bob Luttrull responded, "I think it’s just stupid.” Councilman Jim Ritchey said the calls for openness imply those now in office have something to hide. And in December, Hammons had to back off a proposal to alter Muskogee’s city charter and create a strong-mayor form of government.
Opposition risesHammons’ opponents say it’s in part the discord between the mayor and council members that gave rise to their campaigns. "I think the current mayor and city council don’t seem to be on the same page,” James said. "We need a group of people on council and mayor to work together, pulling on the same rope and having the same vision for Muskogee.” Coburn issued a similar criticism. "I think our city council and mayor are heading in about nine different directions and I think there’s an opportunity for some leadership and experience that I’ve had,” he said. "We need to be looking at jobs and opportunity and not fussing about whether the charter is worded right.” All three challengers think more focus should be paid to the economy. "When they were talking about changing our charter ... I didn’t see any reason for change, especially with the economy being the way it is,” Garris said. The local newspaper, the Muskogee Phoenix, has thrown their support behind Coburn: "While the city and council continue to face big issues regarding economic development, a budget shortfall and city beautification, Hammons has not focused on these issues. Instead, he has pushed getting Muskogee a sister city and revising the entire Charter when only a partial revision is in order.” Hammons defends his record, saying it has been a priority to fund development since he took office. "In this election cycle I was the first person to call for permanent funding for economic development through our city use tax and then at all of our mayoral debates since then every candidate has jumped on,” he said. "I’m glad they see the merit to the idea. When I’m re-elected I hope to have their support and make sure that happens.” And if he’s not re-elected? Hammons said he will always keep an eye on politics. That’s a good thing, according to his opponents. "John Tyler (Hammons) is a very intelligent young man and more than likely will have an interesting political career ahead of him,” Coburn said. "He’s very energetic. He’ll do well.” Hammons stepped into the spotlight two years ago, and for that the other candidates thanked him. "That’s a remarkable thing that a man of that age, a young man would be willing to step up to the plate and do this,” Chris James said. "Whoever comes out on this deal, I think Muskogee will be stronger for it.”
John "Bob” Coburn, 58Job: Owner of tuxedo rental shop, mini-storage business, property management. Family: Wife, 2 children, 4 grandchildren. Priorities: Job creation through retail, tourism and industrial development.
Teresa Carol Garris, 61Job: Volunteer. Family: 3 sons, 1 daughter. Priorities: Creating jobs, tourism and bringing business back to downtown.
John Tyler Hammons, 21Job: Incumbent mayor, economics major at University of Oklahoma — Tulsa. Family: Parents, 1 brother. Priorities: Addressing poverty by bringing in better jobs, funding economic development and workforce training.
Chris James, 49Job: Librarian at Muskogee County Law Library, travel consultant. Family: Mother, 2 brothers. Priorities: Business retention and expansion, community beautification and downtown revitalization.