Driving Change in Oklahoma City
“Most political candidates write off half the population. I wanted to be a mayor for everyone, I embrace that wholeheartedly. One of the four planks of my candidacy was including the diversity of our city into our decision-making process – something that had never been talked about. That word ‘diversity’ had never been used by mayors before,” affirms David Holt, who, in 2014, was named a “rising star” by Chuck Todd, a veteran political reporter and media icon, and was named OKC FRIDAY’s 2017 OKCityan of the Year. It seemed a fait accompli that he would eventually serve as mayor of his hometown, Oklahoma City (OKC), so no one was surprised when he announced that he would indeed be a candidate in 2018. By securing 78.5% of the vote, he became the youngest mayor elected in OKC since 1923, and the youngest mayor of a U.S. city with a population over 500,000.
Although he’s a Republican, OKC is unique in that they have a nonpartisan form of government, and Holt has broad appeal, which stems from his past experiences as an attorney, businessman, political staffer, and state senator. His political experiences are vast, and he has been able to make an impact in both Washington, D.C., and OKC.
It was in Washington that he cut his teeth in politics. Holt served as an aide to Dennis Hastert when he was the speaker of the U.S. House of Representatives, and then served in the Office of Legislative Affairs under President George W. Bush. After a successful stint in the White House, he returned home to Oklahoma in 2004 to be the state’s coordinator for the Bush re-election campaign. After working for U.S. Senator Jim Inhofe and then-Lieutenant Governor Mary Fallin of Oklahoma, he was appointed chief of staff to then-OKC Mayor Mick Cornett. He was subsequently elected to the state Senate in 2010, and served until he was elected mayor in 2018.
When working as Cornett’s chief of staff, Holt’s passion for community, politics, and business all intersected – he found himself in the middle of OKC’s attempts to lure an NBA team to their city. The mayor’s office was at the epicenter of the efforts, leading the successful lobbying, which paved the way for OKC to get the Seattle SuperSonics (thus becoming the Oklahoma City Thunder) – and change the face of OKC in 2008. The relocation was made possible due to the city serving as a temporary home for the New Orleans Hornets when Hurricane Katrina forced the team to relocate for the 2005-2006 and 2006-2007 seasons. This was viewed as an audition for OKC, and Holt chronicled every step of their journey in a book, Big League City: Oklahoma City’s Rise to the NBA, to offer an insider’s perspective on how a unified effort of city officials, investors, and community leaders transformed OKC into a vibrant city on the rise. The book has since become part of the curriculum in OKC high schools. “Oklahoma City was founded in a day on April 22, 1889, in a land run, and I don’t know if I would say that there has been another positive development in the city’s history since then as significant as the arrival of the National Basketball Association,” he adds. “Having a professional sports team is the closest thing that America has to bestowing a blue ribbon on its top-tier cities.”
On March 11, 2020, the Oklahoma City Thunder had a profound impact on the world. That evening, their game against the Utah Jazz was called off just minutes before tip-off after a Jazz player tested positive for the coronavirus, and the NBA said the season would go on hiatus indefinitely. “It was at this point that everyone realized COVID-19 was going to impact our lives in a very dramatic way. Even though Oklahoma City was in the news, we didn’t have our first confirmed case until March 15, and it was on that day, within hours, that I called for a state of emergency and began taking steps to mitigate the virus,” Holt recalls. “I can’t imagine that a city moved any faster than ours, but it wasn’t because we were smarter than others. We had the benefit of seeing what was going on at the time in Italy and New York City and Seattle, and we knew we had to act quickly to protect the people of Oklahoma City. On March 17, I closed down bars and restaurants, and will probably go down as one of the only mayors in the U.S. to close bars at 5 p.m. on St. Patrick’s Day – a crazy coincidence that all of that came to a head at that specific moment, as we prioritized the health and wellness of the people of Oklahoma City above all.”
Focused on communicating directly and being transparent with the people of OKC, he understands that people get complacent over time, but he has stressed mask-wearing and urged everyone to work together. In fact, this mindset of togetherness and inclusion, even from a distance, has set Holt apart from his predecessors. As the first Native-American mayor of OKC, he’s embraced and highlighted the diversity of the population; for example, he has instituted Indigenous Peoples’ Day, honored and celebrated the LGBTQ community, and welcomed immigrants. Regarding the long-term evolution of OKC, he says that the population was getting more diverse, but leadership in decision-making roles was not changing. “60% of people under 18 are non-white, and that will probably shock some people. We need to bring people in, be inclusive, and create a shared vision for the city that includes everyone, and not wait for that to become some sort of powder keg,” explains Holt, who, on his first day in office, removed all the photos of former mayors from the mayor’s conference room. “It was a room full of old white guys, and I respectfully moved them down the hall and replaced them with 20 pictures of Oklahoma City kids that were demographically representative of Oklahoma City’s population,” he says, adding that he wants to change the direction of the city’s government and bring more voices to boards and commissions.
While Holt is dedicated to his job, it’s his relationship with his wife and kids that brings him the most joy. “I find great fulfillment in serving, but I know that in the blink of an eye, I’ll be a has-been and that if I live long enough, no one will come to my funeral,” he jokes.
Writer: Matt Anthes
Photographers & Videographers: Leia & Shane Smethurst
Editor: Eiko Watanabe
Special thanks to EPK Media (@myepk & @epkmedia - epkmedia.com)