The Mayoral Election’s Other Big Winner? Doug Oliver.
In five or 10 years, we may look back at the past three months as the seminal moment in Doug Oliver’s political career. Or maybe not. It all depends on what his next move, or moves, will be. Will Oliver stay on the political track? Or choose the private sector, where he’s likely to have plenty of options?
Oliver’s run — whether it proves seminal or ephemeral — was fun while it lasted. He gave the campaign a badly need jolt of charisma and optimism. His campaign supplied more than a few inspired moments: releasing a fake poll to mess with the press; asking kids at a forum if they considered the police friends or foes; his out-of-the-box TV ad, to name a few examples.
True, he earned just 4.25 percent of the vote. But that was more than Nelson Diaz, and a lot more than Milton Street. It seems likely that Oliver was the #2 choice for a lot of Jim Kenney voters as well, including Jim Kenney himself. Tuesday’s big winner joked at his polling place “I was thinking about Doug Oliver but I voted for myself.”
So despite his fourth-place finish, Oliver is Ed Rendell’s darling and a rising star with a bright political future (if he wants it). Oh, and he did it with a war chest of just $43,000.
Citified sat down with the candidate at his modest post-election party in Germantown, about an hour after the primary was called for Kenney.
Citified: How are you feeling right now?
Oliver: I’m proud. I feel good. I’m proud of what we’ve accomplished. I feel fulfilled. I feel encouraged. I feel supported. If only had a dollar for every person who said, “If not now, in four years.” And I tried to convince as many as I could that we don’t have to wait four years.
Citified: Now that the election is over, a lot of people want to know what’s next for you. So, what’s next?
Oliver: With no money, no endorsements, and no political support, you’re jumping in with two feet. And you can’t give yourself another option. Because at some point along the way, you’re going to wish you took the other option. And so it was important for me to leave my job at PGW, it was important for me not to hedge, because the hedge would be the very thing that kept me from pushing 100 percent full speed ahead. So, at no point along the line did I consider leaving the race, nor did I consider negotiating for something else down the line for someone who is perceived to be up front. I think that would have contaminated the work. At this point, I don’t know what’s next.
Citified: How about a clue? Do you want to be in politics or do you think about going back to the business sector?
If there’s a role in city government I can fill that would exercise my skill sets in the most effective ways, that’s something I would consider. If there is an opportunity to run for mayor again in four years, or in eight, that’s something I would consider. If there’s a corporate opportunity that allows me to earn some money, but at the same time, and as importantly, continue to engage me with communities and neighborhoods across the city, that’s something I would consider. And I have no idea what other things are out there that I haven’t considered. So I’ll wake up tomorrow morning and I’ll be on the phone and have conversations. I’ll clear old voice mail messages I haven’t gotten to, and I’ll see what’s next.
Citified: What’s one issue which you didn’t have much knowledge about prior to the campaign, which you would like to pursue more now?
Oliver: When I came into this, I was thinking education and jobs. Broadly. Now I’m thinking education and jobs for everyone, including ex-offenders. If 10 people talked to me about jobs, 6-and-a-half to 7 of them were people who had felonies and said they can’t find a job. Suddenly you realize that we’ll never have a safe city, a crime-free city if we don’t find a way to let people to move past the mistakes they’ve made.
Citified: You were on quite a roll for awhile, “winning” the debates in the eyes of most watchers and garnering praise. Do you think you actually put a scare in the other candidates?
Oliver: Maybe. I’ll tell you what. From the beginning of this campaign, I have never felt outgunned — not intellectually, not policy-wise, not authentic — I have never felt outgunned until today. And the only thing that made me feel outgunned today was seeing and accepting the pure power of money. Walking around from polling station to polling station, seeing people who you know from your neighborhood wearing a t-shirt that’s not yours. And then wanting to ask them and having them look back at you with almost embarrassed eyes. … You drive around and you say, I don’t need money. All I need is good ideas. We said that for a long time. I don’t doubt that — I believe that’s still true. But the truth is, you need some lawn signs. You need some posters, billboards, ads — infrastructure for your message. Having a message is a lot, it’s just not everything.
Citified: How did it feel to have Ed Rendell come out publicly and support you, one step short of endorsing you — by tweeting about you, calling you an “attractive candidate” and basically saying that you presented yourself the best in the campaign?
Oliver: He did not come out and endorse me, but he gave me insight in to how a campaign should be run. I don’t care if he didn’t say another word to me. He invested in me as much if not more than anybody else in this process, short of [campaign manager] Mustafa Rashed. This here political machine isn’t new; it wasn’t invented last night. It has been here for decades and centuries. So when somebody steps outside of the machine of politics to give some advice to a young gunner, you gotta accept it humbly.
Citified: What was your largest frustration or biggest obstacle on the campaign trail?
Oliver: This is just honest talk that I feel like I’ve earned the right to say: the media is frustrating. I’ve been a press secretary for the largest state agency; I’ve been a press secretary for the fifth largest city in the country; I’ve been a spokesman for the largest municipality on gas utility in the country; I’ve developed relationships with reporters over the last 15 years and I felt that they were authentic. And I thought that over the course of an mayor’s race, I would not have to establish credibility with people that I made successful over the last 15 years. There are reporters that would not have careers, if not for the access and insight I provided them. I had people say to me, “Well you helped me write a story five years ago, so that must be all that you do for a living.” And that’s the same as saying you were in the fourth grade once, so you must be a fourth grader.
Citified: You felt your work experience was overlooked.
Oliver: Because as the senior vice president at Gas Works — as somebody who is the sole person responsible for the business development of the largest municipal gas company in the country, to have all of my work experience minimized to a PR guy when the facts don’t support that, when they’re unwilling to acknowledge the work that you’ve done, that was frustrating.
Citified: If you could change one aspect of your campaign in retrospect, what would it be?
Oliver: If I could do it all over again, I would try to raise money without going to special interests. So maybe start the campaign six months earlier. I guarantee that if we did it again, based on what we’ve done today, it would be different. One of the things that Ed Rendell said to me, which might say it best, was, “If Doug Oliver had 10 minutes with every Philadelphian, he would win.” And the truth is, all I got to was 50,000 people.