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News / Politics / Clark County Politics

For Holt, ‘relationships are everything’ in county chair race

Relative newcomer stresses importance of having an open mind, giving everyone a voice at the table

By Jake Thomas, Columbian political reporter
Published: October 14, 2018, 6:03am
3 Photos
Eric Holt was among supporters at a rally for striking teachers in September. Support for labor has been a central part of his campaign for Clark County Council chair.
Eric Holt was among supporters at a rally for striking teachers in September. Support for labor has been a central part of his campaign for Clark County Council chair. alisha jucevic/The Columbian files Photo Gallery

Eric Holt was another face in a sea of red.

In the midst of teacher strikes in Clark County, educators clad in red T-shirts flooded Esther Short Park on an afternoon in early September to rally for their demands. Wearing a crisp dress shirt, red tie and pair of running shoes, Holt strode into the crowd.

Holt had risen at 3 a.m. at the homestead in Hockinson that he shares with his wife and three boys to get to his job as a safety and operations manager at a mining company in Portland. After getting home from work, Holt had a few minutes with his wife before it was off to meetings with county officials as well as elected leaders and a labor group as part of his run for Clark County Council chair.

“Relationships are everything,” said Holt. “With everybody. With the people you run against, with the groups that support you, with the groups that oppose you.”

Amid the speeches and cheers at the rally, Holt could pick out familiar faces of supporters and people he’d worked with. Holt once thought he’d never do anything like run for office. But after moving to Clark County in 2010 and getting involved in local Democratic politics, Holt, 45, has steadily won over much of the party’s establishment in his run for chair.

In the August primary, Holt went toe-to-toe with two seasoned politicians vying for council chair and emerged in second place with 24 percent of the vote. In the November general election, Holt will square off with Republican County Councilor Eileen Quiring, who received 38 percent of the vote. The two candidates offer notably different visions of economic development, planning, taxation and other issues.

In Washington’s top-two primary system, the two candidates with the most votes advance to the general election regardless of party affiliation. Incumbent Clark County Council Chair Marc Boldt, no party preference, finished third in the primary.

“This is the year for a Democrat to win in Clark County,” said Holt.

Bill Lunch, professor emeritus of political science at Oregon State University, said that midterm elections tend to be more partisan than presidential elections and that voters will rely heavily on party affiliation when casting their votes. If so, the math could favor Holt. Christy Stanley, another Democratic candidate for chair, finished with 15 percent of the vote in the primary. If Holt can pick up Stanley’s share of the vote and peel off enough of Boldt’s votes, he could edge out Quiring.

But Quiring has a fundraising advantage, having raised $47,196 to Holt’s $32,381. And David Gellatly, chair of the Clark County Republican Party, said he expects Quiring to prevail in what is still a conservative-leaning county.

The road to Clark County

Tattooed on Holt’s knuckles are the words “lock” and “load.” He said he got them in the 1990s as a reference to the movie “Top Gun.” On the right side of his neck is “Till Death,” a tattoo that matches his wife’s. On the other side is the word “Dreamer,” a nickname she gave him.

While living in Salt Lake City and Denver during his 20s and 30s, Holt said, he thought his life would have a different trajectory.

In those days he thought, “I’m just going to be a musician the rest of my life and I have roommates who are tattoo artists,” recalled Holt.

Born in Wisconsin, Holt said that he spent his formative years in St. George, Utah, in the southwestern part of the state. He said his father was a truck driver and his mother was a nurse, and a member of a union. He said both parents were conservative and that he grew up in the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. But Holt said he ended up going in a different direction.

He said he identified with disabled and destitute people ground down by what he sees as a “rigged system.” He said he also started seeing contradictions between Utah’s conservative politics and its relationship with the dominant LDS church. Holt said that the church has a social safety net that comes with requirements to tithe or attend church.

“If you truly are great in your soul you should be helping people, period,” he said.

After turning 21, Holt moved to Denver for four years to play in a band and later settled in Salt Lake City. There, he played in indie and rock bands and lived in warehouses that included big communal areas where he and his friends held shows.

Eventually he got married and he and his wife, Lindsay, had children.

While driving a truck for a living, Holt said, he first visited Clark County in the summer of 2010. He recalled being confused by the street layout but loving everything else about Clark County. He said he put in a request to transfer. Two months later, he moved.

All politics is local

After moving to Clark County, Holt got involved with local politics. Holt said that he was a delegate for U.S. Sen. Bernie Sanders of Vermont for his 2016 bid for president (although Holt ended up not going to the Democratic National Convention).

The same year, he challenged state Sen. Ann Rivers, R-La Center, for her position in the 18th Legislative District. The district has long been a Republican stronghold, but Holt said he jumped into the race because he wanted to give voters a choice. Although Rivers received nearly 64 percent of the vote, Holt said the experience opened his eyes to the importance of local government.

“He has a true desire to serve the public, and he realized the county was better aligned with what he wanted to accomplish,” said Rich Rogers, chair of the Clark County Democrats.

Since then, Holt remained active in local Democratic politics and in 2018 completed a business degree from Western Governors University, an online university. The degree helped him get his current job as a safety and operations manager at Gilmour & Company. Around that time, he also started getting a pair of star tattoos on his cheeks removed that have since faded. He shrugs off how voters might perceive his tattoos.

In May, he announced he was running for council chair.

“I’ve got a business degree; I know how to run things; I know how to collaborate with people; I know how to make things work,” said Holt. “This is something I can do.”

Among the groups that have endorsed Holt include Our Revolution, a progressive political organization that emerged from Sanders’s presidential bid. He has endorsements from other local Democratic organizations, and from multiple local elected officials. Holt also proudly points to a $1,000 donation he received from David Nierenberg, a prominent local Republican political donor.

State Rep. Monica Stonier, D-Vancouver, said she got to know Holt after his first run for office and was impressed with how quickly he became acquainted with the county’s mix of urban and rural needs. She also said he can find common ground with people with different perspectives.

State Rep. Sharon Wylie, D-Vancouver, said she was impressed with how Holt quickly grasped policy. As the council’s spokesperson, she said the chair needs to serve as a bridge to different parts of the county and its diverse interests, which she said Holt could do.

“In the chair position, there needs to be a strong communicator,” said Clark County Treasurer Doug Lasher, a Democrat. “I think Eric has that ability to communicate that vision for where the county wants to go.”

Union support

After moving to Clark County, Holt said, he was represented by a union, which he said meant better pay.

“As a former teamster and union member it’s important that we lift up our teachers and our unions because when they get good pay, the rest of the community rises,” said Holt.

Local unions support Holt. He’s received endorsements from the Washington Education Association, as well as several local labor unions. He also received the endorsement from the Southwest Washington Labor Council, which covers more than 40 affiliated locals.

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Shannon Walker, the council’s president, said that her group endorsed Holt for his support of a state-accredited apprenticeship program and for replacing the Interstate 5 Bridge. Noting that her group’s members include Republicans, she praised Holt for being accessible and inclusive.

“He’s going to be representing everyone,” she said.

County issues

As far as county issues go, Holt said he favors lifting the county’s ban on recreational marijuana. When it comes to planning, he favors “growing up before growing out,” which means denser development and walkable communities. He said he favors having some smaller rural lot sizes that he said could become productive small farms.

On two other county issues, Holt might be poised to buck the emerging consensus. Earlier this year, the county assembled a commission to consider what to do with the county’s outdated and aging jail. The commission may recommend a bond to pay for upgrades.

Holt said he agrees that the jail is inefficient but that the county should have a better plan in place before replacing it. He said the county should continue to provide better mental health and substance abuse services to lower the jail’s population. He also said that the county should increase its bond rating before taking out a multi-million-dollar bond to replace the jail.

Financial reporting

• Eileen Quiring

Total contributions: $43,839.26 ($3,357.30 in in-kind donations).

Largest contributions: $2,000 each from developer David Barnett and Creekside Contracting.

Notable contributions: Building Industry Group ($1,000), Camas investor Ken Fisher ($1,000), state Rep. Liz Pike ($250), former County Councilor Tom Mielke ($145).

• Eric Holt

Total contributions: $28,896 ($3,485 in in-kind donations).

Largest contribution: $1,547.21 from Washington State Democrats.

Notable contributions: Republican political donor David Nierenberg ($1,000), Clark County finance manager Adriana Prata ($1,000), Vancouver Port Commissioner Don Orange ($100), Clark County Treasurer Doug Lasher ($550).

The county has an Aa1 rating, a step below the top rating of AAA. Holt said that to get a better bond rating, the county will need to increase wages. To do that, he said, there should be more focus on developing the Discovery Corridor, an area north of Vancouver next to the highway and ports. He also said the county should do more to attract high-paying tech jobs.

“Why aren’t we running fiber-optic (cable) up and down Clark County?” he said.

Railroad development

The county is currently in the midst of implementing a change to the state’s land-use laws that allow for industrial development adjacent to the Chelatchie Prairie Railroad. Quiring, Holt’s opponent, has embraced it as a way to bring good jobs to Clark County.

But Holt is skeptical. He said that he expects the jobs it would create to be relatively low-paying, around $20 an hour at the most. He said he doesn’t expect Clark County residents commuting to Oregon for six-figure jobs to go work in the new industrial development near the rail line.

“We have lots and lots and lots of very low-paying jobs in Clark County,” said Holt.

Regardless, Holt still met with Eric Temple, whose company has a lease to operate the rail line, for a tour of the area where the development will occur. He said that he’ll also meet with the Clark County Association of Realtors, even though they endorsed his opponent.

“I think it’s completely fair to go in and honestly give everyone a voice at the table even if I completely disagree with them,” said Holt. “I’m a person that can have my mind changed.”

Columbian political reporter