WASHINGTON — Cincinnati Democrats wasted no time with Eric Holder.
“Do you at least have any interest in being president of the United States?” City Councilman Wendell Young asked him Friday — the first question to the former US attorney general as a who’s who of Democrats in the Cincinnati area sat in a cramped law office conference room.
After his standard caveats — he says it’s something he needs to talk about with his family and won’t actually decide on until early 2019 — a confident Holder leaned in.
“Am I interested it?” he asked. “Yeah, I’m interested!”
Holder, the nation’s top law enforcement official for six years under former President Barack Obama, has been publicly ruminating about a presidential run for months. His standard stump speech is littered with criticism of the Republicans in power. And with the Democratic field to take on President Donald Trump in 2020 wide open, Holder — along with former Vice President Joe Biden — could credibly claim the closest ties to the last Democratic president, a potent rallying point for a party in search of a standard-bearer.
Holder, who has traveled the country as head of the National Democratic Redistricting Committee and raised money for Democrats in about a dozen states, has been up front about a potential presidential run, and his busy schedule has Democrats taking notice — especially when his travels take him to states key to a presidential election.
Holder’s travels have taken him to Arizona, Indiana and Ohio for state Democratic Party dinners, as well as Florida, Minnesota, Wisconsin, New Hampshire, Texas, Pennsylvania, Florida and Georgia for events and meetings with local activists. Holder’s meetings generally focus on combating gerrymandering, his cause célèbre since leaving the Obama administration, but his events are often peppered with politics and — invariably — comments about his future.
Few Democrats want to draw the scrutiny that will come with being out in front of the 2020 race, and Holder is no different. While he often acknowledges his aspirations when he gets asked about 2020, he also says he is more focused on what he thinks a presidential candidate needs than on his own future.
“(We need) somebody who has the vision for the job, somebody who has got the necessary experience, somebody who has the capacity, physical as well as mental,” Holder told CNN during a trip to New Hampshire in June. “Somebody who also has the ability to inspire people, to make people believe government can be the force for good and make people believe in this thing we call America. (They) have to be able to move people, to bring up together in ways this President has clearly not done.”
Over the last two months, though, Holder has appeared to move closer to running. And on Thursday in Columbus, Ohio, the former attorney general bluntly told CNN that he thinks he has what it takes.
“I think that I am OK when it comes to those five criteria where I set up,” Holder said with a confidence that friends and former colleagues says is a trademark. “But there is a personal component to it as well. People say it, but it really is true. It is a familial thing: I have kids; I have got a wife who is going to help be a part of this decision. That is for next year.”
The question Democrats are now asking: Is Holder the best person to take on Trump?
In early states Holder has visited, like New Hampshire and Ohio, Democrats have been impressed with his fundraising ability (his redistricting organization has raised $29 million since it was founded in 2017), his charisma in small events and the staff he has assembled around him.
“There are certainly a significant number of folks that would like to see him run,” New Hampshire Democratic Party Chair Ray Buckley said after his June visit. “It will be a tough decision by the 24, 36 of them because how do you differentiate yourself from the crowd? What we learned from Trump is that you really have to stand out or you risk not being recognized.”
Rob Richardson, the Democratic candidate for Ohio treasurer, said Holder is “laying the groundwork” and, most notably, not knocking down speculation.
“He hasn’t said no,” Richardson said. “That usually is the clearest indication.”
Holder’s run would undoubtedly be unique — no US attorney general has gone on to be President — and the former Obama official knows he would likely face a field of possibly two dozen other Democrats competing to take on Trump
“I wouldn’t be involved or do something simply to make a statement,” he said. “I would only decide to get involved if I thought I could win.”
And it was clear on Thursday during a criminal justice reform roundtable that Holder sees that any path to victory goes directly through his record and ties to the Obama administration.
“I am very proud of the work I have done in the Obama administration, and I think that will galvanize a lot of support, were I to make that decision,” Holder said. “And I think it is the work that I did in the Obama administration (that) will hopefully give me a platform to support candidates.”
The Obama ties
Obama and Holder speak regularly about the redistricting committee, an effort that the former President has championed since leaving the White House, aides to both men say.
Whether Obama has advised Holder to run for President is another question — and something Holder wouldn’t disclose.
“Let’s just say that my conversations with the President are my conversations with the President,” he said. “We have talked.”
Although the two are personally close and Democrats who meet Holder invariably compare the two, their styles are markedly different. Where Obama became well known for sweeping rhetoric, Holder’s appearances are more muted, wonky and a far cry from the fiery rhetoric and brash partisanship that has played out in Washington. Obama also burst onto the scene with little history but some electoral victories, while Holder has spent most of his life as a government official who, especially while working under Obama, incensed Republicans.
Holder, who has a constant self-confidence about him, seems to relish the fact that his mere presence annoys some on the right and admitted that a hypothetical run would send some on the right spinning. And it seems likely that he hopes he could provoke Trump as he did House Republicans.
During his two days in Ohio, Holder accused Trump of not moving the country forward, rolling back priorities solely because they had an association with the Obama administration and using his campaign to bring out latent “misogyny, homophobia, racism.”
“Let’s be frank about this. There is a racial component to this,” he said of Trump. “A lot of the issues that Trump presented as economic issues were actually economic issues with a racial core.”
Holder often does far more listening than speaking at events, including one where he gathered with Ohio gubernatorial candidate Richard Cordray, lieutenant governor candidate Betty Sutton and a dozen African-American activists to discuss criminal justice reform. And his answers generally focus more on policy than politics.
But his wonkiness at times makes way for a playfulness about Trump and a 2020 run.
“Two guys from Queens,” Holder said earlier this year, setting up a rhetorical race against Trump. “That would be interesting. New Yorkers know how to talk to other New Yorkers.”
And when a member of the Hamilton County Young Democrats asked Holder about motivating young people, he joked about his age — he’s 67 years old — and what motivated Obama supporters.
“You should be the most concerned, because the reality is I am in the end of the third quarter of this thing we call life,” he said to laughs, before reminiscing about “magical” 2008, when Obama and his “beautiful” family was seen as “hip” and “cool” before they won the White House.
After the event, as he made his way to raise money for yet another Democratic hopeful, Holder — bravado fully apparent — joked that he was just as cool, if not cooler, than his close friend.
“I am definitely cool, and I am definitely hip and I am from New York City,” he said to laughs from his aides. “So I check all those boxes.”