The Citified Q&A: Is Doug Oliver the Real Deal?

The polished first-time candidate says he's not just a "pretty PowerPoint guy who wants to run for mayor." Does he have the policy chops to back that up?

Doug Oliver following the first mayoral forum of the 2015 campaign.

Doug Oliver following the first mayoral forum of the 2015 campaign.

[Editor’s Note: Want to meet Doug Oliver and watch Holly Otterbein put him through the paces in person? Join us for Philly mag’s Candidate Conversations event this Monday at 6 p.m. These are one-on-one public interviews with the candidates, as informal as they are informative, and Oliver is up first. RSVP here. To find out more about future events, click here.]

Just a few weeks ago, it seemed like long-shot candidate Doug Oliver was actually a no-shot candidate.

The 40-year-old’s mayoral exploratory committee had only $1,085 in the bank at the end of 2014. He had almost no name recognition and had never held elected office. And his campaign, despite pitching itself as the one for millennials, had just a few hundred followers on Twitter.

Okay, all of that is still true. But a few things have happened recently that suggest that Oliver, a former senior vice president for marketing and corporate communications at Philadelphia Gas Works, might prove to be a more serious candidate than expected: At his campaign kickoff, he was charismatic and competent. He wasn’t bad at the first mayoral forum of the season, either. Oh, and former Gov. Ed Rendell — Ed frickin’ Rendell — is talking him up, calling him “enthusiastic,” “passionate” and “engaging.”

Is Oliver the real deal? To try to find out, Citified sat down with him for more than an hour this week at his campaign headquarters at the Bellevue in Center City. We quizzed him about everything from the city’s stop-and-frisk policy to its troubled pension system to whether, as a PR guy, he has the skills to be mayor.

This is the first part of the Q&A; the other half will run Monday. Citified’s questions have been paraphrased and Oliver’s responses have been edited just a bit for clarity.

Citified: You’ve never held elected office before and you’ve mostly worked in PR. Now you want to run the fifth biggest city in the country. What would you say to voters who are concerned that you’re not qualified to be mayor?

Oliver: First, I’d disagree that my career’s been in public relations. I say my field has been in public service. It has been spent largely connecting people to the things they need most.

…. I’ve never viewed communications as being an auxiliary function of business. I view it as part and parcel of good business. … Say I work for a college or university and my boss comes in and says, “Doug, we made the decision: We’re tripling tuition. Go present that.” I can’t communicate that well. I need to understand the reasons why tuition is being tripled. I need to know who it’s affecting. … If I’m going to present it in a way that makes sense and that people can understand and accept, I need to understand why the decision was made.

… You have to move up the triangle to a part where you’re a partner with the leaders that you work for, because I need to be in the room when the decisions are being made, so I can say, “Wait, have we considered other alternatives?” So my function, from a communications standpoint, has been more strategic communications and not public relations.

Citified: Okay, but does that communications experience make you qualified to be mayor?

Oliver: When you look at the jobs that I have had, they’ve been for social services agencies, the ones that Philadelphians in particular need the most. So my time as press secretary and communications director for the Pennsylvania Department of Public Welfare … was helping parents connect to subsidies to help them afford child care, which is one of the major barriers to unemployment next to transportation. My time at PGW … was all new business development.

… Whether I’m serving as senior vice president of marketing corporate communications [at PGW], which is basically new business development, or I was the press secretary of the mayor of the fifth largest city, sitting literally in the front-row seat of this roller coaster called city government … one thing that has always been there is communication and explaining to people what’s needed. But number two, connecting them to the services that they need most. And then thirdly, business in general. Just a strong business acumen.

… The true role of a mayor is to be a team builder, a vision setter, a strong communicator and a cheerleader. I think that my career and my path and everything I’ve done has trained and developed me for that.

Citified: There is this perception that you’re a communications guy first and foremost, though, who hasn’t necessarily thought deeply about this city.

Oliver: The perception from whom? … It’s people that don’t necessarily know me, and part of my job is to get out in front of them and let them know who I am.

… So if the argument is, “We’d prefer a guy who has elected experience, somebody who has been in public office before,” we have no shortage of examples of that. … So the question is, have the outcomes from people who have 10, 20, 30 years of elected experience created a lifestyle that folks are comfortable with? If so, keep doing what you’ve been doing. Why take the risk? But if you’re dissatisfied, if you want something different, then my question would be, why keep doing the same thing?

Citified: Not everyone who runs for office for the first time comes in with the perception that they haven’t thought deeply about the city or its problems, though. How do you see the state of the city right now?

Oliver: I love this city. I’m born and raised in this city. I’ve served my city in any number of different capacities professionally, but I look at my city and I’ve seen it evolve in front of my eyes. … I was actually in government during the worst economic crisis that this country ever had. I had to think about the challenges that face the city. I didn’t have a choice. It was my job.

… So my decision to run for mayor was partially because I love my city and I think it needs a different perspective. I think it needs a fresh set of eyes. I think it needs people who don’t come from the traditional path to take a look at it. I think there needs to be younger people looking at it. I think there’s new ideas that could be explored.

…So much of some of the criticism that Mayor Nutter has received — fair or not — has been about the delivery of his message. … For example, when people were debating whether or not the gas company should be sold, what I heard more than anything else was, “Well, we weren’t told X, Y or Z.” And whether that’s true or not, there was a perception that we weren’t told X, Y or Z. That’s a communication issue. I’d like to get past that. Down to the substance of the issues and say, “Okay, so how do we solve our pension challenge?” Let’s get over the distractions and get down to the issues at hand.

Citified: So you think Philadelphia government has a communications problem?

Oliver: I do.

Citified: And that’s why you think you’re the right guy for the job?

Oliver: Yeah, partially. … I think communication is a huge skill set for a mayor to have. To dismiss it as being, “oh, the pretty PowerPoint guy who wants to run for mayor” would be a mistake. The other thing I would say is those who suggest those things aren’t young Philadelphians. I don’t hear that from them. I don’t hear that from people who want the best for our city. What I hear it from is traditional politicians who have known it one way and have continued to run things that way and they look and say, “Oh, he’s different.” Well, there’s no questions I’m different so I’m not debating that. … It is primarily that I think my approach is better for the people of Philadelphia.

Citified: You say you have fresh eyes and that’s what the city needs right now, but I’ve heard a lot of your ideas before, from reducing business taxes to raising more money for schools. What innovative idea do you have that will change the city?

Oliver: The answers for the challenges that face the city may have been proposed already, so I’m not suggesting that the right answer has to be something that nobody said. But perhaps if it’s pitched in a different way, perhaps if it’s pitched to different people … I think the ability to communicate these things to whoever are the folks that are there, can take an old idea and make the thing work.

For example, when we talk about charters and public schools, we needlessly divide ourselves. … People say, “Are you charter or are you public or are you district?” And people go to their corners and they fight, fight, fight, but I don’t think that’s the right argument. I think the question is, “Is it working?” I don’t think that the [Philadelphia Federation of Teachers], that the school district of Philadelphia has a problem with those charter schools that are educating our kids. They have a real problem with the charter schools that are not educating our kids being painted as charter schools that are educating our kids.

But if you change the dynamic and instead of cutting it this way, you cut it this way, and you say, “Who’s in favor of functioning schools in every neighborhood?” almost everybody gets on the same side. Because if that’s the case, then we all agree that underperforming schools, be they charter or be they district schools, can’t be allowed to continue. That’s an easier argument to make, rather than saying, you know, the red-herring argument of charter versus district. I’ve seen the seven-step platform policy that [the] PFT would like the next mayor to embrace. I look at those things and I don’t see a challenge. When I talk to charter schools and say, “What do you think about underperforming charter schools?” I don’t see them arguing about it. So there’s different ways of drawing the battle lines so that most of Philadelphians are on one side. That’s something that I’m good at. And that’s the approach, the different set of eyes for looking at what has been age-old debate of charter versus district…

Citified: Let’s talk about policy, starting with schools. Do you think there should be more or fewer charter schools in Philadelphia? Or should we stick with the number we’ve got?

Oliver: So I first come in with a basic understanding that there are people who really, really like the options that charter schools give them, and I also recognize that there are lots of people who don’t get into those charter schools and they’re left in the underfunded system that has not done a good job of educating them for many different reasons, including parental involvement and other things like that.

Is this the right time to just bring them on? I’d say if they are high-performing charter schools, meaning they have a track record of being high-performing and we know that their expansion would give both options to parents, and be money well spent even though it comes at a slight cost to the school district. … I think that the worst charter schools are those that drain this money from the public school system and then don’t educate kids. That’s the low-hanging fruit. … I haven’t reviewed those applications … but I would say if you don’t have a track record, then we can’t let you in at this moment because we’re still trying to figure this thing out.

… So I think we got to figure out what we’re doing here in Philadelphia and figure out how to pitch our case in Harrisburg in a way that doesn’t blame them, that doesn’t blame our teachers, that doesn’t blame parents 100 percent. At the end of the day, we all have a role to play in educating our kids. My skill set is finding a way to pitch that … Because until now, going to Harrisburg five years in a row and at best getting the ability to tax yourself into oblivion, making yourself less and less competitive on different fronts, isn’t the way. There’s got to be another way of doing it.

Citified: Every Democrat running for mayor wants a “full and fair” education funding formula from the state, though.

Oliver: Well, I concede that we’ll all push for it.

Citified: What you really have control over as mayor, though, is local education funding. At your campaign kickoff, you said you would “identify new, dedicated funding sources for our schools that seek to avoid raising taxes.” You didn’t provide specifics then. Do you have them now?

Oliver: I’ll tell you what I’m thinking. I have no problem with that. But I will say that I go into this with the sense that these are ideas. I don’t go in saying, “This is what I’m going to do,” because the mayor doesn’t have control over local taxes. He has a relationship with City Council and collectively they’ll figure out what the solution is. These are just some ideas for things that we can do, all of which would work from my perspective.

So, one, PILOTs [“payments in lieu of taxes”]. We’ve got eds and meds that typically don’t pay taxes and they will argue that, “We bring such economic benefit to the city that we shouldn’t have to. We’re non-profit after all.” But I also look at those — and I agree, they do bring a wealth of resources to the city simply because they’re here — but I also think that the city of Philadelphia provides them with a lot of benefits that make them so successful at what they do. I believe that a student picks University of Pennsylvania because of the academic rigor and the value, the brand of the name “Penn,” but I also think that they like that it’s easy to get here, that there’s an airport right there, that there’s nightlife, that there’s sports teams, that there’s parks, and there’s arts and culture and there’s other things that have nothing to do with Penn.

… So while I look at some of these schools and I see schools expanding into neighborhoods like developers rather than like non-profits, I think there’s an argument to be made that payments in lieu of taxes, or taxes, whatever we prefer, could generate a partnership between … our very robust post-secondary education system and our very neglected elementary, middle and high school system.

Citified: Would you look at other ways of raising local funds? The school district is facing a $80 million budget deficit next fiscal year. When the city last collected PILOTs under Gov. Rendell, it only raised $9 million annually.

Oliver: What would those institutions pay in taxes? … I’m no tax expert, but I think you would just do an analysis of what would be paid in taxes you would do an analysis of what the need is at the school district, you would appeal to their sense of educating the whole and try and figure out a mix that doesn’t handicap them from doing things that they do. I don’t want to hurt our colleges and universities.

I don’t wake up in the morning wanting to handicap anybody, but to appeal to a greater sense of good. These are students they can ultimately attend their school. Why wouldn’t they like that? At some point, I think that they’d even be willing to have a conversation so long as the person having the conversation doesn’t come in thinking, “I’m going to pillage our colleges and universities.”

Citified: Do you know how much PILOTs, or collecting taxes from nonprofits, would raise?

Oliver: I do not. But the idea is one that I think has merit … I’ve got the resources of an upstart campaign, so we don’t have the ability to do all of these analyses, but at some point we will. And there are plenty of people who could do it right now and say, “Hey, if we were to go this route, this is what it would have to look like,” or say, “Hey Doug, doing it this route only gets you halfway there.” But that’s halfway there. Now we only have a half to think about and we haven’t raised taxes for the most vulnerable in the city of Philadelphia, many of whom are fixed incomes and can’t take another dime of tax. So that’s one option.

Another option would be to look at selling city assets. Not because I’m in favor of selling city assets. I like having assets. … But taking a look at some of these non-essential — that’s a bad term — non-core government services that could theoretically be provided to Philadelphians at a lower cost … that would infuse one-time cash that can be turned into an annuity that can then be used over a much longer period of time … I’d be a fan of. So in layman’s terms, I don’t want to sell something for $5 one time … and I spend $5 on my operating cost, and now that $5 is gone and so is the asset. But I would take that $5, pay down our pension funds so that we have less money to spend on pensions every single year, every year, and we can use whatever was freed up to pay for something.

Citified: When you talk about selling assets, are you talking about selling Philadelphia Gas Works?

Oliver: I don’t want to single out the Gas Works because they’re just one of many. You’ve got the Gas Works, you’ve got the Parking Authority, you’ve got the airport.

Citified: But in the past, you’ve said you want to sell PGW.

Oliver: No, I was in favor of that sale.

Citified: So you were in favor of Mayor Nutter’s specific proposal to sell PGW to UIL Holdings only?

Oliver: I was asked when that was on the table. Now it has been asked and it has been answered. It may be that that never comes up again and there certainly seems to be no appetite in City Council to do that again.

Citified: As mayor, would you push for Council to consider a sale again though?

Oliver: No, I wouldn’t push for it to come up again. What I’m going to push for is to find some funding source for our school district. And if not the Gas Works, then what? And I’ll listen because people will tell you what their ideas are.

… Theoretically it could be taxing eds and meds or payments in lieu of taxes. It could be any combination. It can be things that I have not even considered. But there are people out there with ideas, very brilliant people with ideas and so long as there is no pride of ownership … put your idea on the table and know that there is an administration willing to listen to it.

… So no, I’m not going in there to push for the sale of the Gas Works. Number one, it’s been asked, it’s been answered. It’s been a very painful experience for everybody who was involved in it, and I don’t necessarily want to pick at a scab. But I would go and say, “Hey guys, if we’re not putting that on the table, what do we want to put on the table?”

Citified: So you’re open to the idea of selling the airport?

Oliver: I’m open to the sale of any asset where the service or product can be delivered at equal or lower cost, that would also generate one-time resources significant enough that when applied to the pension fund would free up enough money to do something with. And this is an idea that’s been vetted, but hasn’t happened.

… There is nobody in the Chamber of Commerce that would say that I am wrong on this. However, where I might depart with the Chamber of Commerce is what to do with the money. They would say, “Take that money now, reduce business taxes by X percent because you make us more competitive. We bring more jobs, we expand the tax base, and expanding the tax base helps us pay for schools.” Agreed … or we could take that money and dump it directly into schools.

Citified: Is that what you would prefer to do?

Oliver: I think I’m leaning towards that. But what I really prefer is that the state do what they’re supposed to do. So it’s not really a, I do this or I do that. What I’m saying is, we’ve got to walk and chew gum. We’ve got to push across all fronts, but I’ll do it with an eye first towards the kids. If I don’t get the money from Harrisburg … at some point you have to say, listen, “I don’t want to do these things. But I will do these things because my focus is not on owning assets. My focus is on educating our children…”

Citified: You haven’t mentioned raising taxes to fund schools. Is that off the table?

Oliver: No, it’s not off the table. If we have to raise taxes, then we’ll raise taxes. But we’ve always defaulted to raising taxes and it seems like the easy way out.

For example, and this is the analogy I use, if I go on a business trip and I have a suitcase … and that suitcase, for the purpose of analogy, is the [city] budget, and I stuff it with wristwatches, cuff links, collar stays, belts and socks … and when it’s time to put my suit in, I say, “Uh, there’s no room,” [I] have to buy a new suitcase, everyone would say that’s absurd. Put your suit in and your shoes in first, then put as many neckties and belts as you feel like it. But that’s the way that you would pack that suitcase.

I feel like the school district is always packed into the budget suitcase last. And for that reason … elected officials come and they say, “We don’t have enough money. We must raise taxes to pay for schools.” Am I willing to pay more money to fund schools? Yes. And I’ll bet you can take the lowest-income mother in this city and say, “Would you be willing to pay more taxes so your kids could learn?” [and] the answer will always be yes. But what I am afraid of is that … because people know that’s something [people are] willing to pay more for, it becomes a debate.

I’d like to pack our school district in the budget first. Then we can have a conversation [about] whether we want to raise taxes for leaf collection or for some of the other things that we need to do because you might get another answer. The city may then say, “No, we’re not raising taxes. We’re willing to make that sacrifice.” Taxing can’t be your first option. And for that reason, it makes us less competitive. And for that reason, I’d like to see a solution for the school district that doesn’t require the raising of taxes. But if we’ve done everything else and we have to, then … again, I don’t take anything off the table before I get there.

Read part two of our Q&A with Oliver here, and be sure to RSVP for our live candidate conversation with Oliver Monday night.