The Doug Oliver Q&A: The Underdog Explains How He’ll Win

" I don’t see myself as a future mayor. I see myself as a current mayor."

Doug Oliver | Photo Credit: Holly Otterbein

Doug Oliver | Photo Credit: Holly Otterbein

[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.]

Doug Oliver is the underdog in the Philadelphia mayoral race. But don’t write him off just yet: He gave an impressive speech at his campaign kickoff and former Gov. Ed Rendell is saying nice things about him.

Still, how can a candidate who had just $1,085 in the bank at the end of last year win a mayor’s race in Philadelphia? We asked him that and more during an interview in Center City that lasted more than an hour. This is the second part of our Q&A with Oliver; you can read the first half here. Citified’s questions have been paraphrased and Oliver’s answers have been edited slightly for clarity.

Citified: How do you feel about teacher seniority?

Oliver: I’m willing to concede that I need to get perhaps a little more educated on it. I don’t like the idea that our kids are subjected to an adult issue, that if there is a teacher who is underperforming …  and I’m not saying that older teachers don’t perform, they may be some of the best … I don’t like the idea that the school district doesn’t have the ability to remove an underperforming teacher simply because of seniority. … I think the school district should have a flexibility of moving teachers where they need to be to provide great outcomes for our kids.

Citified: Do you support or oppose stop-and-frisk?

Oliver: I don’t like the perception of stop-and-frisk. I believe that in some communities stop-and-frisk is used unfairly and I think that those who are in those communities have a right to feel that way and want to see it killed. I’ve also had the privilege of talking with senior leadership at the police department who will tell you that we don’t use it unfairly and this is just but one tool of many to get the job done, keep streets safe, and reduce violent crime. I can’t say I believe what they say when they tell me, but I also believe folks when they say what their experience is in our community.

Stop-and-frisk—I don’t think people are angry at those two words. I think what they’re angry at is the idea that I get treated as a criminal in my community, and I have a problem with that. So the bigger issue isn’t the stop-and-frisk. It’s the mentality …. because you can eliminate stop-and-frisk, but if the cops feel like I can disrespect you, they just disrespect you under a different name.

And so for me a better issue to tackle isn’t the stop-and-frisk. It’s the sensitivity training, so that whether it’s stop-and-frisk or it’s just called, “I think I saw you committing a crime and I want to stop you,” that we have officers that are sensitive to our communities and communities that understand that our officers are there to help. That’s an ongoing issue. I think community policing is the right approach. I think sensitivity training is a piece of it. I do think that having some citizen participation in oversight of the police department is important. Not a whole citizen oversight board because I don’t know that they know any more about the X’s and O’s of policing than I do. But I do believe that they should have a voice at the table, especially as officers … don’t even have to live in the city. … Stop-and-frisk, that seems more like the boat in which the core issue is being floated, which is disrespect of African-American men and Latino men in their communities, and that’s what I think should be addressed.

Citified: So as mayor, you would keep stop-and-frisk but also implement sensitivity training?

Oliver: Either find a way to continue with stop-and-frisk that changes that disrespect that I know communities are feeling, or end stop stop-and-frisk. But again, even if I eliminated stop-and-frisk, on day one if the mindset that “I don’t have to respect African-American [and] Latino young men and women in their neighborhoods” still persists, we haven’t changed a thing. And so I don’t want to be distracted by the term “stop-and-frisk,” when the real issue is respect for people in our communities and African-American, Latino communities all across this city. That’s where I’d spend my time, not distracted by the name.

Citified: While on Council, mayoral candidate Jim Kenney sponsored legislation to require the city to give out bonus checks to retired city workers if Philadelphia’s pension fund met certain performance goals. The bill passed, and news came out recently that such checks will be going out soon, despite the fact that the city’s pension system is under water. Do you support or oppose the legislation?

Oliver: Well, it’s legislation. It’s not proposed legislation.

Citified: But hypothetically.

Oliver: I think it’s harmful. The pension fund is the cliff that the city is moving towards—the cliff that Detroit ignored and we don’t want to go there. And not having been a part of the conversation when the bill passed or was promoted, I do believe that … from what I can tell, and I’m reading the paper about it as a lot of folks are … but it appears as though there was this very debate that what happens in a situation where the pension is underfunded and instead of reinvesting money back into that pension to bring it to health, we’re writing bonus checks?

That question was asked and answered. And the bill went through anyway. That’s a problem because it shows shortsightedness. I know who that appeals to. It appeals to pensioners … many of whom are voters, and so it is a nice way of giving a fig leaf to a group that you want to support you. That it came at the expense of everyone else is problematic and even if it wasn’t a problem in the short term, the decisions that we as elected officials will need to make will have to not just be for today. That’s one of the issues that I was trying to raise earlier — that you have to make decisions that may not pay dividends for years and years to come.

Citified: You’re open to the idea of selling city assets to help plug the pension gap. But if Mayor Nutter’s plan to sell PGW and put the proceeds into the pension system had gone through, that still wouldn’t have completely shored up the pension fund. What else would you do to address the problem? Would you try to reduce worker benefits? Would you seek to raise revenue some other way?

Oliver: All of the above. … People say, “The pension fund is underfunded by $5 billion and Mayor Nutter was going to dump in $500 million. If he got everything he wanted and this went in, that’s a drop in the bucket. So don’t do it.” My simple response, and didn’t mean to be disrespectful with it, is: Then what’s your $500 million answer? Because it moves you $500 million closer to a solution, so I think it’s a great first step in the absence of anything else.

That said, we do have to change our pensions and health care. It is the reason why Gov. Rendell can dump roughly $1 billion in the schools, and now have most of that money be eaten by the pension and health care costs and not even make it to the classroom.

Citified: Are you in favor of moving to a 401(k) plan?

Oliver: It doesn’t necessarily have to be a 401(k). … I’d like to talk to an actual actuary. I’d like to talk to them. Tell me what happens if we go down this road in an area like Philadelphia, where unemployment is at 6 percent, meaning 100,000 people don’t have jobs. Tell me what happens if we go plan B, plan C. There’s people that study this. I would like to hear what they have to say about the different models. I don’t have any answers for all of those things, but I do believe that those answers exist. I do believe a fundamental part of it is not holding onto city assets while we’re driving faster and faster toward our cliff. At least put some brakes on, and the city assets may be the equivalent of brakes in this case.

The solution may be that new employees coming into the pension system — if it remains a pension system — [have] a different mix. That’s if it remains a pension system. Maybe that has to change. I don’t know if that has to change. Finding ways, if we pay those taxes, to pay that pension down. There’s all sorts of models and maybe it’s a hybrid of all of them, but we can’t just say, “We don’t like any of these options, and so therefore we’re just going to fall off the cliff.”

That’s a decision that folks may be willing to make, but that does not work for any of the new Philadelphians, including my son who’s 12, including 1-year-olds who, 15 years from now or 16 years from now, are figuring out how they’re going to school after going through the Philadelphia public school system. It doesn’t work for anybody who’s coming out of college now, who haven’t had kids yet and may decide to leave our city. We have to start looking forward at a new generation of Philadelphian and saying, what decisions do we have to make so that our city exists as we envision it in perpetuity?

Citified: But for new city employees, are you saying you want to move from a defined benefit plan to a defined contribution plan?

Oliver: No. I’m saying I’m not being specific about what I want. Purposely. What I’m saying is that when we all sit down at the table, what we’re painting a picture of is the cliff. That’s where we are going. If we do what we continue to do, we fall off. Here’s some ideas.

Citified: So you’re open to a defined contribution plan?

Oliver: I’m open to a defined contribution. I’m open to switching over to a 401(k) model as opposed to a pension model. I’m okay with considering raising taxes, so long as we know where that goes. I’m okay with removing tax breaks that we currently give, abatements in particular—reducing them from 10 years to five to free up some money over here. There’s all sorts of ways. Here’s a radical view … say you sold all four—PGW, water [department], airport, Parking Authority. If we could have gotten $1.8 billion for PGW—and I don’t know if that’s what we’d get at this point — but say you can get up to $3 billion for the sale of those four and you dump all $3 [billion] into your $5 billion dollar underfunded pension. How much money do you now free up? You certainly free up enough to pay for your schools, period.

If in addition to that, you reduce the tax of abatement by X amount of years …  or eliminate it altogether,  you’re probably putting, and now I’m guessing …  you free up maybe $18 [million] to $20 million more that you can throw at your school district. At some point, this is the long game. … We’re not going to feel the benefits of what we’re doing as the current generation of leaders, but what we’re saying is were making an investment so that these eighth graders, by the time their coming out and looking for jobs, that they have them. That there’s more money going to city services for people who need them to most. Right now we spend every $2 out of $5 on pension and health care, $2 out of every $5 are going to that cliff. And it’s said that in just a few years, it’s going to be $3 out of $5 …

Citified: You’re throwing out  a lot of ideas. Don’t voters deserve to know what your priorities are — for instance, whether you’re more likely to raise property taxes to shore up the pension fund or switch to a 401(k) plan?

Oliver: I think the answer is all of the above. All of the above. Say for example … I said, you know what, I was all for selling city assets, and that’s what I want to do. And then you go and sit down with Council President Clarke, and he says, “I don’t like any of those ideas. I like raising property taxes and that’s what I want to do.” Then you talk to all of the other Council members and you look around and you say, okay, well, how much time am I going to invest in my plan when the City Council decides that they are going to go this way? My end game wasn’t my idea. My end game was solving the pension problem. So if I now have to tweak some things to make his plan work, then that’s exactly what I’m going to do. So I can tell you that these are my priorities, but I will shift my priorities because my fundamental priority, make no mistake about this, is schools. Educating our kids. How we get there, I care less about then that we get there.

Citified: You’ve said you want to shift the tax burden away from wage and business taxes and onto property taxes. To what extent can you realistically do that in four years, and are there are other tax changes you’d like to make?

Oliver: What really sold me on the idea is that in Philadelphia, we really do tax the things that can get up and leave and we’ve shown how well that works. When people do get frustrated with the wage tax, they just go. They plant their businesses elsewhere or their businesses just don’t come here in the first place. So I think we see the result of our uncompetitive tax mix. I don’t believe that we have to be the lowest-taxed city, but I do think that we have to be more competitive. I don’t think that we have to go from zero to 60 in four years, but I do think that we have to gradually get ourselves there. … The number of unemployed people we have in the city of Philadelphia will be the limiting factor on how quickly we can do it.

Citified: You were in the Nutter administration. Can you give us an honest assessment of his time in office?

Oliver: I think Mayor Nutter’s done a good job. I think that he was navigating our canoe through a tidal wave, and I’m not upset that my shoestrings are wet. Do I like wet shoestrings? No. But many other cities found themselves in way worse conditions than we were coming through 2008 to 2011-ish. For that reason alone I think he did a good job, and I couldn’t imagine anybody else who was running for mayor in 2007 doing as good a job, and that’s my honest take on it.

I think he reestablished trust in government that it can be operated ethically. I think that’s fantastic. … So, there were times when I worked for him where I 100 percent agreed with the decisions he made. There were times when I disagreed. And there were, quite frankly, times when I was glad that my name wasn’t on the door because it just was not clear which way to go. And I think its easy to lead when all the facts say, “Do this.” What really tests your leadership skills is when you don’t have all of the facts, yet you have the obligation to make the decision and you have to stand tall and make it. So I respect him for the time that he served and I respect John Street and Mayor Rendell, Mayor Street, Mayor Goode, Mayor Green, all of these folk.

Citified: Who are your advisors? Who do you talk to about running for mayor?

Oliver: That’s probably the toughest question you’ve asked. I found some of my advisors to be some of the phoniest people I’ve ever met. Some people that I’ve trusted for years and years and years … the idea that I could run for mayor and had the audacity to do so has taken some people that I trusted, respected, and in some cases I care for like a member of my own family, and have been some of the most disingenuous and phony … quite frankly, the hits that I get from reporters or the peanut gallery and the folks in the stands that throw rocks at the man in the arena, none have hurt more than my advisors. I have fewer now than I had before.

Citified: I’m guessing you’re not going to name names?

Oliver: No, no. I take my cues now from those who have said, “So what? We’re with you. We don’t care that you’re the underdog.” … Everybody didn’t go, but many did. I’d guess 70 percent of relationships that I thought were solid have proved to be fleeting.

… As part of this process, I have sat down with Mayor Nutter, I have sat down with Mayor Street, and I have sat down with Mayor Rendell. I have sat down with Wilson Goode, I have sat down with Darrell Clarke, I have sat down with union leaders and former elected officials and former City Council people. Not because I agree with everything they say, but because I value their input and their true experience. I’ve sat down with former candidates, those who’ve won and those who’ve lost. So I have sat down with Sam Katz. I have sat down with George Burrell. … My advisors are plenty and plentiful, but they’re not necessarily friends. Again, I’ve learned as much from the people that have abandoned me as I have from the ones who have supported me. So for that reason I’ve already got the better end of this deal, of running for mayor.

Citified: Sometimes people run for office not to necessarily gain that particular office at that time, but to gain name recognition and then run again in the future. Is that what you’re doing?

Oliver: No. I am not a career politician. I have no future ambition for any other political office than the one that I seek now. And I’m even willing to say that this opportunity that I see to run for mayor now is largely based on where the city of Philadelphia is right now. I can’t say I’d even run for mayor again in four years or eight years. … I don’t want to be a governor, I don’t want to be a senator, I don’t want to be a City Councilperson. I don’t want to be a block captain. I’m running for mayor because I think I can serve the city well and I think I can serve the city better than anybody else who is running for mayor. And if it doesn’t work now, then I’ll figure out what’s next on May 20th, when I wake up on May 20th. But until then, this is the only job I have.

Citified: You’re the underdog in the race and you have very little money, according to the most recent campaign finance reports. What is your path to victory?

Oliver: Our path to victory is younger folks getting engaged and frustrated folks wanting something different. Both groups are very, very large groups, so while we don’t have a geographical base, we do have an ideological base. There are 1.1 million registered voters, roughly, in the city of Philadelphia. But we do know that that number hasn’t been scrubbed either by people that died or people that moved or people that have just chosen not to vote for anyone for any number of different reasons. So we believe that there’s significantly less — maybe more to the tune of 800,000.

But we also know that we’ve got more than 325,000 voters between the ages of 25 and 45. Another 70,000 if you include 18 to 25. That is a significant number, and 50,000 of them, we know, at least weren’t here seven years ago. So Philadelphia is a city that’s getting younger. It’s too late. Somewhere along the line, Philadelphia became young. The average age is 33, which means I’m already 7 years [older than] the average Philadelphian. … So if we look at the mix of candidates that are in the race right now, I think there’s a natural appeal for younger people. And for good reason, because I tend to think the way they do.

I don’t see young Philadelphians as future leaders of the city. I see them as current leaders of the city of Philadelphia. I don’t see myself as a future mayor. I see myself as a current mayor. My attitude, my approach I think speaks to the younger experience, and if but a portion of young Philadelphia pays attention to this mayor’s race and votes, then I like my shots. Just off of the simple mathematics of it. Then there’s the added appeal of people who are outside of the 44 range. Like what about 45? I’ve got a lot in common with them. We’re all young professionals. … What about 75-year-olds like my grandmother who would say, “Listen, pass the torch. Can we try something new?” And there are a lot of people who feel that way. And we think that in the final analysis in the approach we’re going after — that very, very robust, largest voting bloc in the city, along with my natural area the Northwest part of the city, with or without the political support from that area — puts me in a very, very good standing, particularly when conventionalism says you need about 100,000 votes to win and sometimes less.