When Jo Beth Hamon first moved to Oklahoma City, she started riding the bus and noticed a lot of problems — it didn’t run on Sundays and she’d often get dropped off in places with no sidewalks. 

“I was like, ‘who does this stuff? Who do I need to start paying attention to?,”’ she said. “So, I started paying attention to city government a lot more.”

Hamon wanted to improve public transportation and infrastructure, as she doesn’t own a car and navigates the city by bike or bus. So she ran and won a seat on the Oklahoma City Council in 2019 representing Ward 6, which includes downtown and surrounding affluent neighborhoods like Mesta Park and Heritage Hills as well lower-income parts of Southwest Oklahoma City with large immigrant communities like Capitol Hill.

Four years later, Hamon is facing backlash for her progressive stances that include slashing police funding and questioning tax incentives for businesses. A pro-business dark money group has funded attack ads against her and a moderate challenger to her reelection bid has emerged. Hamon’s opponent Marek Cornett is a local businesswoman focused on improving economic development and supporting the police department.

Municipal elections are nonpartisan and Hamon and Cornett are both registered Democrats but have very different ideas about the role of a city councilor.

Cornett, the daughter-in-law of former Oklahoma City Mayor Mick Cornett, thinks Hamon has missed the mark.

“She just approaches it from a different mindset, which is very much a speaking truth to power and I think that there is a role for that in the city but I don’t think it’s on the council,” Cornett said. “There is definitely a role for activism within our city, I think it’s an important piece of our city but not on the city council. A city councilmember should be representative and bring the ward and other stakeholders together.”

Cornett was born and raised in Pawnee, and moved to Oklahoma City, working in public relations for a number of years before starting her own firm in 2020 called Alaine Digital. She was appointed to the Oklahoma City Traffic and Transportation Commission in March 2020.

She says she’s running to improve the Ward 6 infrastructure and increase economic development. Cornett said she wants to support the Oklahoma City Police Department while also improving access to mental health and substance abuse services. 

Meanwhile, Hamon has faced backlash for comparing police officers who kill Black people to Oklahoma City bomber Timothy McVeigh in 2020. She’s known for being confrontational with other members of City Council and using her platform to advocate for affordable housing and mental health services. She has fought to improve access to public transportation and ensure that pedestrians and bikers have safer ways of getting around the city.

Hamon, who also works as an education coordinator at the Mental Health Association of Oklahoma, believes her role on the council is not to “go along to get along” but to be an “advocate for the ward and individual people.” 

“These conversations that she has led are truly because of the knowledge that she has institutionally,” said Hannah Royce, a resident of Ward 6 and Hamon supporter. “It’s not a talking point or political rhetoric, this is who JoBeth is to her core. … I am concerned that if she is not our city council person in the future, that we will have less dissent surrounding the obscene budgets that we choose to send to our police department.”

But some other Ward 6 residents are not pleased with Hamon’s approach.

Shannon Rich, Ward 6 resident and President and CEO of the Gaylord Pickens Museum and the Oklahoma Hall of Fame, said she supports Cornett because she believes that while asking tough questions is good, Cornett will do it in a way that doesn’t ostracize herself from other council members.

“I believe based on what I know about our city council is that we don’t have a voice in Ward 6 right now,” Rich said.

Hamon admitted that some of her fellow council members don’t talk to her anymore or return her phone calls about issues facing the city, but that she doesn’t believe she should change just because her colleagues might not like her advocacy.

“I don’t feel like any question I’ve asked or critique that I’ve made is beyond the pale or is personal, but maybe I’m wrong,” Hamon said. “I feel like I’ve been very focused on policy on outcomes and I can’t control how other people react to that at the end of the day.”

A backlash over votes on police funding

Hamon has also clashed with the Oklahoma City Police Department. In January, Hamon and two other council members walked out of the chambers in protest when the police department’s collective bargaining agreement, which included a historic pay increase for officers, was brought for a vote.

The local Fraternal Order of Police has endorsed Cornett, because of her “commitment to public safety and desire to work alongside us” to make Oklahoma City safer, the groups president, Mark Nelson, said in a statement.

“Councilor Hamon never reached out to the OKC FOP for an endorsement,” the statement said. “We’ve held her accountable for her votes and public comments against law enforcement. We support candidates who understand the importance of investing in public safety. In contrast, Marek Cornett proactively contacted the OKC FOP, and we’ve had an open and productive dialogue.”

Hamon said she stands by her past statements about police and wants systemic change in how Oklahoma City approaches policing.

“The data does say that our police department is very deadly and there’s not a lot of accountability for people that abuse their power,” she said. 

According to the police reform group Campaign Zero, Oklahoma City police have killed 63 people since 2013. In 2020, Campaign Zero found that the department had the second highest rate of police killings in the nation based on population. Oklahoma City police have disputed that claim, but an independent Frontier analysis confirmed the group’s figures. The U.S Department of Justice is also currently investigating Oklahoma City and its police department for how they handle mental health calls.

While both candidates believe policing needs reform, they differ on their approaches.

Hamon wants to see funding taken away from the police department and invested into mental health services and preventative programs. Cornett believes in funding crisis response teams and mental health services, but not at the expense of the police department’s budget. 

Resolute in her belief that the police funding is overinflated, Hamon has voted against passing the city’s past three budgets, even though they included money for some of her other top priorities. 

“That’s the tough thing about any sort of like, all-or-nothing vote,” she said. “I feel like in those times, I’ve always said my piece and been pretty clear about the specific reason that I’m voting ‘no’ is not because I want to vote down the transit budget or the parks budget, but that they continue to be deprioritized and not invested in.”

Taking on the police budget from the city council bench has not been a successful strategy politically in Oklahoma in recent years. In 2020, Norman City Council voted to cut the proposed increase to its police budget, leading to an immediate backlash from some residents. 

There was an unsuccessful recall petition to remove then-Norman Mayor Brea Clark and other council members from office that failed on a legal technicality. Clark, who helped lead the effort to reject the police budget increase, later lost to a candidate that ran on boosting law enforcement funding. 

A pro-business dark money group enters the race

Cornett believes in getting more jobs, and more business into Ward 6 through investment and support of bond packages with economic development incentives.

“I want people to have businesses here, I want people here and I want to have a denser environment,” she said. “And that requires investment in economic development.”

Hamon said that she is not against economic development but wants to see the city supporting current businesses and nonprofits instead of giving economic incentives to big corporations who don’t need them.

Meanwhile, an outside, pro-business group with secret funders is spending tens of thousands of dollars campaigning against Hamon. 

Catalyst Oklahoma, Inc. is a 501 c(4) nonprofit that does not have to disclose its donors and can spend unlimited amounts of money on a race. 

According to campaign filings, Catalyst paid $37,000 to a Republican consulting firm based in Kansas City to produce digital ads attacking Hamon on her past votes and statements about police. 

Comparatively, Cornett has spent a little over $67,000 since the start of her campaign.

“It’s kind of wild and disappointing in so many ways,” Hamon said. “So many people tout how Oklahoma City is nonpartisan and our council is nonpartisan. But I think these attacks and this amount of money being spent kind of speaks to that’s not really the case — that even if we might not vote on traditionally binary red or blue, Republican or Democrat issues, that there are ideological camps that people tend to fall in.”

Catalyst is separate from Cornett’s campaign and the law forbids any communication between the two about the race, a point she has emphasized on social media and in public comments.

In 2014, the group spent $1.6 million on robocalls supporting Mick Cornett’s mayoral campaign, The Oklahoman reported in 2017. The former Oklahoma City mayor told The Oklahoman earlier this week he has no role or connection to the group.

According to campaign finance reports released on Tuesday, Cornett holds a significant fundraising advantage, having raised over $118,000. Her backers include the Oklahoma City Chamber of Commerce’s PAC and business owners campaign records show.  Hamon has raised over $58,000, including support from some unions and local activists.

The election is Feb. 14.