Last year, 70 percent of Muskogee’s voters cast their ballots for a 19-year-old to be their mayor. Hammons shares his powerful story of support, which crosses generations.
By Amy Stephena
John Tyler Hammons’ interest in politics began three years ago, while a junior at Muskogee High School. Vice Principal Madison Tomlinson summoned Hammons to the office – had Hammons done something wrong?
Tomlinson handed him an article about an 18-year-old who had been elected mayor in Michigan.
“That’s going to be you,” he said.
“You’re crazy!” Hammons thought. “I don’t know anything about running a city.”
Following that brief conversation, Hammons found himself reading the newspaper and following state and national trends. During his freshman year at the University of Oklahoma, he first voiced thoughts of running for mayor.
“My roommate said ‘Don’t do it! You’re crazy!” Hammons said. “Mom and Dad told me the same thing. My grandmother said, ‘You’re too young. You’re still in school. Now isn’t the time!’”
For further advice, Hammons turned to his friend and mentor, 76-year-old Jack Harrison. The former basketball coach pointed at him and said, “You’re running for mayor or we’re not friends anymore.”
After sharing his family’s protests, Hammons’ coach told him, “Look, my generation’s time is up. We’re on the way out and we need new, young leaders. The country can’t wait ‘til we’re gone to start training, so you have to run now.”
“All right, Coach. If you believe in me, I’ll run.”
Hammons says he’ll always cherish that moment because it catapulted him into his campaign. Shortly afterward, he formed an army of volunteers who met weekly to strategize. Of course, the biggest consideration was how to prevail in spite of his youth.
“I knew if I could talk to people and get to know them, I could change their minds,” Hammons said.
He also relied heavily upon his good friend, Shaun Blankenship, who was stationed with the Navy in San Diego and in training to be a chancellor. After hearing Hammons’ election plan and the values he was bringing to the platform, Blankenship agreed to become the campaign’s spiritual advisor.
“Shaun prayed before every committee meeting,” Hammons said, “and he was the person I could call and say, ‘Hey, buddy, it was a tough day on the campaign trail. Pray for me.’ I’d say prayer was a powerful tool in my campaign.”
When the polls opened on May 13, 2008, Coach Harrison was one of the first voters in line. Hammons knew that no matter which of the six candidates was elected, he at least had two votes: his own and that of his coach. In the end, he entered a runoff election against previous three-term Mayor Herschel McBride – and won by a landslide.
“By and large, I attribute my support to the under-30s and the over-60s,” Hammons said. “The younger generation because they are obviously close to my age, but incredibly, the older generation seems to support me even more. I think they’ve lived in Muskogee so long that they’re ready for a change – and they believe in me to do that.”
But the middle generation…
“Those my parents’ age aren’t as extreme in their support of me,” Hammons said, unapologetically. “People will always criticize – it’s the nature of the game. Mostly, I’ve learned to smile and move on, but I have to determine what I think is right and correct. Like the plaque on my desk says, ‘My integrity is not negotiable.’ That’s a great cushion to lay my head on at night.”
Hammons gleaned this and other sage advice from his political role model, former New York City Mayor Rudy Giuliani. Although Hammons was only in seventh grade when the 9/11 tragedies occurred, he remembers how people looked to Giuliani for strength and leadership.
“I want to be like that,” Hammons said. “He tried to do the best for his community, even when he made mistakes.”
On Hammons’ 20th birthday, he had the honor of meeting Giuliani. They shook hands and Giuliani offered this advice, “Never do anything out of fear. Don’t vote yes simply because you’re afraid of what might happen if you don’t.”
Since taking office, Hammons has faced both success and opposition to his political initiatives. His proposal that all campaigners must disclose the source of campaign funding was defeated 6-to-3 by the council.
“I believe they were unwise in that decision,” Hammons said. “It’s the right and democratic thing to do; I fought for it but didn’t win.”
His educational initiative, the Mayor’s Reading Challenge, was well received, although not in the way that was expected. Muskogee adults were challenged to read all the classics on the high school English list for his “Are You As Well Read As A High Schooler?” effort. Although a few adults did complete the challenge, the overwhelming response came from parents.
“They aren’t reading the high school classics, but they are taking time to read to their children. My reading poster is in every elementary school, and there is clearly success here, so I’ll be issuing another literacy challenge.”
Healthcare is another of Hammons’ platforms, which he hopes will become “the big legacy” for his term. Voters already approved two measures necessary to establish a countywide enhanced 911 telephone system. In cooperation with the County Health Department, Hammons’ Muskogee Wellness Initiative established health goals, which included improving food in public schools, reduction of tobacco use, and the establishment of incentives for business employees to join fitness clubs.
Last October, Hammons partnered with Oklahoma Senator Earl Garrison to establish the Green Country Alternative Energy Expo, urging citizens to “think green.” City employees are already looking for sustainable fuel options, including the conversion of the department’s fleet vehicles to electric or natural gas.
“Some vehicles, like fire trucks, can’t be done,” Hammons said. “But we can convert trash trucks and others that return to a central location at night where they can be plugged in,” Hammons said.”
A fourth generation Muskogee resident, Hammons feels he is offering the city initiatives that are current and relevant to today’s trends, and he feels honored to be making history. Already, he has achieved several political firsts: He won his campaign by the largest margin in Muskogee’s history, and is one of America’s youngest mayors. He was the youngest Oklahoma at-large delegate to the 2008 Republican National Convention, and had the honor of attending the inaugural address of Barack Obama.
“It was very cold, and millions of people were there,” Hammons said. “But how amazing to witness history! Remember, President Bush had been in office since I was in the sixth grade. To my memory, he’d always been president. What a great showcase for the United States to see such a huge change in power happen that easily and naturally. It was a peaceful transition of power – a great testament to the strength of democracy.”
Despite his highly publicized entry into politics, Hammons attests that he’s still a regular person – he has a girlfriend, goes to movies, and eats at restaurants.
“I have hopes and desires to meet the public image,” said Hammons, “but when I take off my tie, I’m a twenty-year-old.”
It’s been over a year since Hammons’ landmark election. Recently, Vice Principal Tomlinson made a visit to his former student. “I told you so,” he said, handing the mayor a copy of the Michigan article from three years back. Hammons took pride in that moment. He appreciates the encouragement he received, and urges other Muskogee citizens to support the youth of their community.
“I recently spoke at a Youth Leadership event,” Hammons said. “The audience was full of parents, so I tossed my prepared remarks and said, ‘Bless your young people, support them, love them, and encourage them. They need a chance.’”
Hammons is now in the second year of his term and approaching his 21st birthday. He’s enrolled at Northeastern University in Tahlequah, pursuing an economics degree.
His ten-year goal?
“I’ll be almost thirty-one? Hopefully, I’ll be living in Muskogee among my citizens, and looking toward the governorship.”
If Coach Jack Harrison has anything to do with it, it’s likely that Hammons will continue making headlines into his 30s.
“Being Mayor has been a blessing to me, my family, and hopefully to the families of Muskogee,” said Hammons. “As Coach Harrison once said, ‘Train your children for the next generation, because they will rule the world.’”