New Gwinnett commissioner is outnumbered but undaunted

Gwinnett County commissioner Mathew Holtkamp speaks to police officers from different precincts during the Compstat meeting at the Gwinnett County Police Department headquarters on Thursday, March 9, 2023.
Miguel Martinez /

Credit: Miguel Martinez

Credit: Miguel Martinez

Gwinnett County commissioner Mathew Holtkamp speaks to police officers from different precincts during the Compstat meeting at the Gwinnett County Police Department headquarters on Thursday, March 9, 2023. Miguel Martinez /

Most people would not envy the position that Gwinnett’s newest county commissioner is in.

Matthew Holtkamp won an election that attracted controversy over the role the Republican-dominated Legislature took in redistricting over the objections of the mostly Democratic local delegation, generating accusations of racism. The new map created a district that was more conservative and whiter than the rest of the county, paving the way for the ouster of Gwinnett’s first-ever Black commissioner.

In the process, Holtkamp became the only member of the five-person board who is not a Democrat and person of color.

He cast the lone vote against the county budget in his first meeting, saying his constituents wanted property tax relief, but offered no ideas for how to achieve it. To some, it was an ominous harbinger of partisan conflict.

The gerrymandering of Holtkamp’s seat, at the expense of incumbent Marlene Fosque, was particularly galling since Republicans controlled the majority of the board since the 1980s. In two years of Democratic control, they wasted no time in revamping county priorities, such as taking down a Confederate statue from Lawrenceville Square, forming citizen commissions for sustainability and police, changing the appointment process for government-related boards and earmarking more money for homelessness.

But in his first three months, Holtkamp has rarely opposed the majority. And he says being the only Republican is not as demoralizing as it may seem.

“The four other commissioners were very open and welcoming,” he said after the annual three-day planning retreat. “We’re all working together for the greater good.”

His newly-drawn district spans Gwinnett County’s conservative-leaning northern third, including Buford, Sugar Hill and half of Suwanee. Democrats criticized the Republicans who drew it as sore losers reacting to the 2020 election that made the county commission uniformly Democratic. They also pointed out the northern district is whiter than the rest of Gwinnett, the most diverse county in the Southeast.

“You cannot separate the racial undertone from the conversation we have about redistricting,” said Brenda López Romero, chair of the Gwinnett Democrats.

Holtkamp said no one has raised racial concerns to him directly.

“I have so many successful friends of all different races and religions, and I’m just excited to make sure that they’re all part of this conversation,” he said.

Much of the commission’s work is nonpartisan, he said, but conservatives in the northern district now have a voice on the board.

“Having me on this board is actually beneficial to the entire county,” he said. “Even if you’re a Democrat, you should be thankful that I’m here because if we really, truly want a diverse board, it has to be diverse in party as well.”

Holtkamp’s pro-business brand of conservatism is rooted in his upbringing in rural Iowa, where everyone he knew were Republicans. Now 56, he is one of seven siblings in a Catholic family and remains devout.

The day he moved out for vocational college, he said, the bank repossessed his family’s farm during the 1980s farm crisis. Talking about it, he still chokes up.

The only person not from Iowa he met in college was a young man from Lilburn. Iowa was in a state of economic depression and Holtkamp asked his friend if there were jobs in Georgia. His friend replied that there were “help wanted” signs everywhere.

Holtkamp landed in Gwinnett County just as the population was beginning to explode. He saw the famous, now-scrapped water towers off Interstate 85 that read “Success lives here” and “Gwinnett is great.” He said he arrived with $19 to his name — a dollar for every year of his life.

“I just thought I’d found the promised land,” Holtkamp said.

He began working as a heating, ventilation and air conditioning technician but had always dreamed of starting his own business, so he attended night classes at Emory University for aspiring entrepreneurs.

In the early 1990s, he attended an archdiocese-sponsored singles’ dance, where he met his now-wife, Suzanne. She was looking for people to help her organize a religious retreat. Holtkamp acted on his crush.

“He’s a connector,” Suzanne Holtkamp said. “He loves talking to people and he’s always been that way. He was very instrumental in getting people to come to that retreat.”

They married in 1995 and started their own HVAC company in their Buford-area basement. Matthew Holtkamp handles the technical and customer relations aspects, while Suzanne, who has a background in advertising, handles the business and marketing aspects.

An operations manager now runs Holtkamp Heating & Air on a daily basis.

The Holtkamps also have two daughters, now in their 20s.

Matthew Holtkamp joined the Gwinnett Tech Foundation board, which raises money for scholarships, and the Gwinnett Chamber of Commerce, where he met Buford pest control business owner Sammy Baker.

Holtkamp hadn’t been involved in politics, but Baker correctly guessed he was a Republican and asked for his help. Baker took over the Gwinnett GOP in 2021 with a greater focus on diversity and placed Holtkamp on his slate in an at-large position. The following year, Baker convinced Holtkamp to run for the county commission.

Baker praised the previous incumbent, Fosque, but said Holtkamp could use his business experience to push for lower taxes.

Holtkamp’s main priority has been staffing the police department at a time of high vacancy rates. He pushed commissioners earlier this year to bring back pensions for public safety employees, but backed off after learning the current direct contribution retirement plans generated higher returns for many. He said working through the issue was a good learning experience.

“I’m going to keep pressing forward, asking questions, and get our retention numbers up,” he said.

Fosque defended her record, including efforts to recruit and retain law enforcement officers.

“It was a surprise to me that he would run against me, but that’s spilled milk for now,” she said.