country’s youngest mayor in a city with more than 500,000 people promotes diversity as the key to socioeconomic prosperity.
He’s not a liberal from California. He’s not a Democrat from New York. He’s Oklahoma City-born-and-bred David Holt, whose term as head of municipal government enters its eighth month in December.
“Quite frankly, we’ve been led by white males from northwest Oklahoma City for a long time,” says Holt, a 39-year-old who served two terms in the state Senate as a conservative Republican. “We need to break down walls and get out of our bubbles. Everybody needs to be at the leadership table.”
Holt says he delights in OKC’s nonpartisan election policies “because I would not have been elected if I had been a firebrand ideologue. I got endorsements from Democrats and Republicans alike.”
Holt won with 78.5 percent of the vote, the highest victory for a non-incumbent in OKC mayoral history. As the youngest mayor since 1923, he replaced 14-year veteran Mick Cornett, for whom Holt was chief of staff from 2006 to 2011.
The son of a teacher and a social worker says embracing diversity comes not necessarily from his parents, but his own experiences.
“In Washington, I was often the only person of my race on the subway, which is unusual for many white men,” he says. “I’ve lived in places where I’m the only white male. I lived for seven years in the District of Columbia, which has long been a minority-majority city.
“It’s also the virtue of being younger. My Senate district [in northwest OKC] was already transitioning to what the rest of the city looks like by the time I left. In Oklahoma City as a whole, 60 percent of those under 18 years old are non-white. Because Oklahoma City is still largely segregated racially and economically, I felt as mayor that this is an issue I could get out ahead of.”
Two steps – one symbolic, one strategic – illustrate Holt changing OKC’s leadership dynamic. In his office, he removed (and placed in another room) the photographs of previous mayors, all white men. He replaced them with portraits of 20 OKC children from all walks of life.
“When I talk of diversity, I mean everything – racial, gender, age, geographic,” says Holt, the first member of the Osage tribe to become OKC mayor.
In October, Holt rolled out the first of many appeals to OKC residents about what to do after the Metropolitan Area Projects Plan 3 (known by locals as MAPS 3) is completed in 2020. He wants to know if they want to extend a penny sales tax for a fourth time and, if they do, what they want to improve next.
“I want to keep an open mind and have people offer their ideas,” Holt says. “I know people want to see more of the projects spread around the city and address social issues. We want to see what everyone has to say.
“I have tried to prove that there’s room in American politics for consensus. In Oklahoma City, our success in the past 20 years has been to set aside what divides us. We need to double down on what unites us.
Generation X Steps Up in Oklahoma
OKC Mayor David Holt is part of a movement in transitional leadership.
Oklahoma City’s mayor has a message for people his age.
“It’s time for us to step up as a generation,” 39-year-old David Holt says. “I don’t think all of us have embraced leadership.”
It’s fitting that Holt and Tulsa Mayor G.T. Bynum, 41, have been friends for 15 years. Their cities, among the top 50 in population in the United States, are led by two of the youngest members of Generation X. Their electoral successes have come by appealing to a broad demographic of constituents.
“It’s a transition,” Holt says. “We have two of the youngest mayors in the country among big cities. It’s symbolic of hope – for our cities and our state. We’re thinking dynamically and innovatively.”
In April, Holt succeeded one of his mentors, Mick Cornett, when the latter gave up a secure position to run for governor. Holt, Cornett’s former chief of staff, was elected in a landslide.
“I entered the mayor’s race as both the youngest and the most-experienced candidate,” says Holt, who also worked in the U.S. House as an aide to then-Speaker Dennis Hastert and the White House legislative affairs office under President George W. Bush. “I understand how to fulfill many roles.”
Despite ties to older, conservative Republicans, Holt reads from a different political playbook.
“Different times call for different priorities,” he says. “Mayor Cornett took office [in 2004] in a far less diverse city. Now we’re in a massive shift in terms of diversity. We can’t fall into the trap of running the same model and not change. We can’t go into prevent defense and stop being innovative.”
Under Cornett, Oklahoma City transformed its downtown and adjacent areas through a series of penny sales taxes, the last of which will expire in 2020. Holt says he has no agenda regarding a Metropolitan Area Projects Plan 4, should it get on a ballot and be approved by voters.
“I want to keep an open mind and have people offer their ideas,” says Holt, acknowledging that socioeconomic concerns and a geographic balance of projects throughout Oklahoma City will weigh heavily with many residents.
For instance, he says, a MAPS 4 could focus on renovating existing schools or building new ones … or revitalizing other parts of the city not bordering downtown … or both … or something else.
“You need to assess the needs by asking people to share their dreams,” Holt says. “We need to ask, ‘What do we do to invest in ourselves and our future?’ In Oklahoma City, our success has been to set aside what divides us.”
Holt is confident and open in his role as mayor. He also has a self-deprecating sense of humor that puts people at ease. He’s straightforward in declaring that delivery of core services, quality of life for every resident, education and diversity are his priorities; he’s also adamant that “Kraft macaroni and cheese is the perfect food, especially the way I make it.”
Holt embraces the serious and the offbeat; as a cello-playing youngster, he was also into (and remains a fan of) hip-hop music: “I’m a child of the ‘90s; there’s a lot of Drake playing in my car.”
And as he enters his ninth month in office, Holt says: “I love being mayor. There haven’t been many surprises, except for the total lack of anonymity. It’s jolting to know that everyone knows you.”
With a laugh, he adds, “That means you have to tip well.”