Jo Holt Will Work Behind the Scenes as Pima County Democratic Chair

Jo Holt, Pima County Democratic Party Chair
Jo Holt, Pima County Democratic Party Chair
Jo Holt, Pima County Democratic Party Chair
Jo Holt, Pima County Democratic Party Chair

Jo Holt, the Pima County Democratic Party Chair since 2015, will continue to work behind the scenes to elect Democrats — coordinating action between the state party and local legislative districts (LDs) — if she is re-elected on December 15.

Holt redefined the role of the county chair to leave direct voter contact to the LDs. “The nature of the county party’s support is behind the scenes,” she said. “It’s a little quiet.”

She has three priorities for her next term:

  1. Improving communications. This includes notifying precinct committeemen (PCs) about party activities, re-energizing the party website and social media sites, and possibly holding candidate debates. “The website has been a disappointment and we continue to look for something better,” she said.
  2. Working more closely with the coordinated campaign, in which the Democratic National Committee identifies candidates it supports, and the Arizona Democratic Party distributes funds for individual candidates’ staff, advertising, literature and activities. “We have a close working relationship with the state party. They need to know that we’re going to be working with them, not against them, and that we’ll work within the rules,” she said.
  3. Getting the county’s 5 active Legislative Districts working together. “Think of how powerful we could be,” she said. “I have a dream that the County party can facilitate cooperation between each legislative district. It won’t happen with a single meeting, and perhaps we need to start on an obtuse angle. The idea of sitting down together can be a big push, but I don’t want to ask too much. That’s the way that I work.”

She identified the party officers whose campaigns she is supporting:

  • 1st Vice Chair: Luci Messing, who is Chair of the Tanque Verde Valley Democratic Club, and the representative for the Democrats of Greater Tucson to the PCDP Executive Committee.
  • 2nd Vice Chair: Joel Feinman, the Pima County Public Defender and founder of the Pima Liberator website. His role will be to build the Democratic party’s bench by recruiting and training candidates.
  • Treasurer: Mary Matiella, who was a Democratic candidate for Tucson’s 2nd Congressional District in the U.S. House.
  • Corresponding Secretary: Connie DeLarge, who is the Chair of the Pima County African American Caucus. She is the only officer agreed to stay on.
  • Recording secretary: Kim Khoury, who is a precinct committee person in Precinct 241. She was just elected to be a state committee representative for LD9. She will work with Connie DeLarge on messaging and social media updates.
  • New positions: Holt said she will appoint volunteers as “coordinators” or “directors” for specific tasks. For example, Maureen Salz, LD11 Chair, agreed to be in charge of events and to put the word out about them. Sierra Yamanaka, the current PCDP Recording Secretary, will be a liaison with the coordinated campaign to convey changes the county party wants to see.
  • Executive Director. Holt will lead a talent search to replace Heath Butrum, who is stepping down from the role after 3 ½ years. The position pays $45,000 a year plus $30,000 in benefits.

Holt is campaigning with a “Celebrate with Jo” event on Dec. 8 at the On the Border Mexican Cantina and Grill, 5205 E Broadway Blvd., at 6 pm, and two “Chat with the Chair” open houses at the party headquarters at 4639 E 1st St., on Tuesday December 4 from 3-5 pm and on Thursday, December 6 from 6-8 pm.

“We have a good-sized team,” Holt said, and it includes Chesney Richter, Kim Khoury, Luci Messing, Maureen Salz, Evelyn Lathram, Stephanie Hamilton, Sierra Yamanaka, Patrick Burns (current 1st Vice Chair), Darcy Aldrich, and Donna Mabry.

Holt is being challenged for the Chair position by Alison Jones, a Democratic precinct committee person and activist.

Getting active in local politics

Jo Holt lives in Oro Valley and is a retired scientist in molecular biophysics, formerly at the UofA. She conducted basic research and is writing a book on her discoveries about how molecules work.

She got active in politics because of the right-wing attacks on science, which has misdirected basic research funded by the federal government into research for Big Pharma companies to create for-profit drugs. She ran unsuccessfully for state Senate in 2012 and 2014 in the county’s arch-Republican LD11. In between races she served as Democratic chair in LD11, where only 1 in 4 registered voters is a Democrat.

She was elected PCDP chair in November 2015 after the resignation of former Chair Cheryl Cage in September. “The party was torn apart, there were major areas of conflict,” Holt said. “I did what I could to bring the party together. It was all about active listening to concerns and fears.”

She cites the election of Ann Kirkpatrick to Congress as a major success for the PCDP. “Flipping Congress is the most effective way we can push back at the Trump administration,” she said. The county party offered frank assessments to the numerous Democratic candidates for Congress and supported the Democratic Coordinated Campaign. “We are a support structure,” Holt said. “We’re not doing rallies.” The county hired the 50 or so young people who came from across the US to be campaign organizers in the Tucson area.

Another accomplishment was creating a south Tucson office at 12th and Drexel. “I started lobbying the state party for the Southside office in September 2017,” she said. “It is critical that we keep it open all year round. It will have a major focus in the next two years.” She said the office set a statewide record for the number of staff shifts worked.

Inspiring Latinos to vote

“Voting is cultural and social, and there can be a culture of not voting. It takes time to change a culture but it’s quite doable,” she said. A key to turning out Latino voters is building trust, she said.

“We have a great opportunity to be part of a community and help them — to do something non-political, but to clearly have T-shirts saying that we are the Democratic party. It can be building a house or cleaning up a park. When we become more of a part of the community, that helps build trust. It’s the only time we go out and don’t ask for anything — we’re not asking them to donate, or to register or to vote. We’re coming to help.”

These community action projects are one of four areas of focus by the county party on the 5 LDs (#2, 3, 9, 10, 11 and 14).

  1. Neighborhood voter outreach – which is supporting PCs canvassing at voter doors.
  2. Advocacy – which includes training, encouraging Democrats to write letters to the editor and registering for the Legislature’s “request to speak” system.
  3. Voter registration and education.
  4. Community action projects.

Work going forward

Engaging Millennials. Holt said the best way to get Millennials involved with the party is to hire them. “These young people not coming out and voting. Why aren’t they totally engaged instead of having old farts doing all the voting? They’re not voting for us because we’re a partisan organization, and it doesn’t work to tell them they need get out and vote,” she said.

“They can’t afford to be volunteers, so let’s take a different approach and pay them. As with the Hispanics, we need to build trust. We need to be there in their community, with them running and owning Democratic organizations,” she said. “If I had the money I would hire UofA and Pima Community College students to man the front desk. This way they become part of the Democratic Party and see what we’re doing.”

The run-down headquarters building. The 66-year old HQ building at 4639 E 1st St. is dilapidated. The PCDP owns the 4,322-square-foot cinder block building. The party bought it in 2002 for $173,000. Today the mortgage is nearly paid off and the party has $200,000 in equity in the building.

“We could sell it,” she said. “People want a headquarters in a house with a porch, something homey and friendly. We have huge arguments about what to do with the building. We have $200,000 in equity and we’ve got to use the money in a thoughtful, planned careful way.”

Nucleus club. Holt will work with Carmen Prezelski and the Nucleus Club to create more exciting programs. The club meets on the second Thursday of the month at 5:30 pm at the Viscount Suite Hotel. “We have distinct ideas to put together a series of particular talks, bringing in outside speakers. This all has to be done in the background, quietly, because feathers get ruffled very easily.”

Fundraising. The PCDP funds itself and with Holt as Chair, the party raises $270,000 to $300,000 per year for its own activities. The two key fundraisers are the annual Udall Dinner & Spirit of Arizona Awards held in May and a new Inauguration Luncheon for the Tucson Mayor and City Council at Tucson Community Center after the general election on November 5, 2019.

In addition, the party designates Catalina Democrats who donate $1000 to county party, “and I’m one of them,” she said. “We need to get people to commit to donating a small amount regularly. We believe are some places where we can save money and do things more efficiently.”

Building consensus

In conclusion, Holt said, “There’s no way you’ll keep everybody happy, there is always criticism,” she said. “Some people think that a leader is supposed to get in front of the 38 people on the Executive Committee and say, ‘this is the way I want things to be.’ But I do just the opposite. I see my role as a facilitator to get the committee to come to consensus. The worst thing I could do is come in with my own preconceived notions, but I keep them to myself. An active form of listening has worked very effectively.”