Has Doug Oliver Been Underestimated?

The ultra long-shot mayoral impressed at his campaign launch.

Doug Oliver | Photo Credit: Holly Otterbein

Doug Oliver | Photo Credit: Holly Otterbein

Doug Oliver has been cast by Philadelphia’s political class as a longer-shot mayoral candidate than, gulp, ex-convict Milton Street.

And for good reason: Oliver has never held elected office. He has minimal name recognition. His mayoral exploratory committee had a paltry $1,085 in the bank at the end of 2014 (and no, we didn’t forget to type a zero or three).

At his campaign kickoff Saturday in the city’s Germantown neighborhood, Oliver sought to flip the script and portray his paucity of experience, political connections and money in a positive light.

He made a pretty good case in a rousing and charming speech.

Oliver is 40, making him the youngest candidate in the race by far (the others are 56, 57, 67 and 74). He pointed out that there are more than 350,000 registered voters under the age of 35 in Philadelphia. In an underwhelming mayoral field like this one, Oliver just might have a shot at winning some of those votes, if he beefs up his campaign.

“The demographics of our city is getting younger and younger,” he said. “Yet our leadership doesn’t reflect that. … This has to change.”

He tossed out a few pieces of oratorical candy for millennials, asking the crowd, “Why can’t Uber X work in Philly?” and “Why can’t Philadelphia stay open past 2 a.m.?”

He also pitched himself as the only real outsider in the race. Now, he’s not exactly a foreigner to the city’s political system: Oliver was Mayor Nutter’s former press secretary and, after that, the senior vice president for marketing and corporate communications at Philadelphia Gas Works. But that’s nothing compared to his opponents, who have served for years as lawmakers, judges and District Attorney.

“The change that Philadelphia needs is real, it’s urgent, and we cannot rely on the old guard or the political establishment to make that change,” he said. “If they haven’t created the change by now, it’s either because they’re unwilling or they don’t know how.”

Like the other candidates, Oliver’s campaign launch speech was short on specifics.

He said he would “identify new, dedicated funding sources for our schools that seek to avoid raising taxes,” but didn’t say how. He said he would “fight to change our tax structure over time so that the city can attract more jobs,” but offered no details. (When Citified asked him to elaborate after the speech, Oliver said he wanted to shift the burden away from the wage and business taxes and onto property taxes to the extent that is possible. His rationale is that the former can move across City Line Avenue and the latter can’t.)

He lamented that an estimated 300,000 Philadelphians have some kind of criminal record, which makes it difficult for them to find jobs and often results in “unavoidable poverty.” But, again, he offered no real proposal to change that.

Still, he delivered a speech that eloquently laid out Philadelphia’s problems and promise: its entrenched political class, its troubled schools, its sluggish economy, its slow, yet heartening progress in recent years, and, yes, even its beer gardens. Frankly, it was one of the best talks we’ve heard at a mayoral campaign kickoff this season.

At this point in the race, though, Oliver would have to do a loooot of fundraising in a short amount of time to even become a second-tier candidate. That will be extraordinarily challenging, given his lack of institutional support.

But Oliver is charismatic and adept at delivering a populist message, and that’s more than can be said for a lot of the field. At minimum, this election might not be the last we see of him.