Doug Oliver: New perspective for a new Philly
Mayoral candidate Doug Oliver says his decision to run for mayor wasn’t nearly as political as the other candidates make it. “It is what it should be, which is an endeavor to improve your city. Take your case directly to people, unfiltered, make your case for them and then let them choose,” the candidate said.
Although he admits he is not particularly well known in the Latino community, he believes his job is to demonstrate to people from different communities that he is aware of the things that are important to them.
“Reaching out to them is the first step in trying to demonstrate that ‘I know you exist,’ that I understand what the challenges are. There is so much documentation about the challenges that the Latino community faces and it almost always mirrors some of the same challenges African Americans face,” Oliver said.
In this interview with AL DÍA, Oliver said Philadelphia not only needs a change, it needs a new perspective. “Part of the problem is that everybody in the race has run for office,” he said. “They see the world through a specific lens. And from my perspective, I think a new perspective, not just the younger perspective, but just the new approach to solving the city’s problems... (you need to ) bring someone else that hasn’t run for office.”
What was your process in deciding to become a mayoral candidate?
It is been an ever-evolving process. When I came out of college in 1998 the first job I had was in an ad agency and one of its clients was the John White Jr. for mayor campaign. I was only responsible for printing buttons and flyers and posters, but I couldn’t help but be familiar with what was going on. The 1999 mayor’s race was my first exposure to Philadelphia politics. It was the first time I began paying attention to municipal politics and politics in general. As Mayor Nutter’s press secretary I was in the front seat of the roller coaster. I saw all of the excitement around his election and I was caught up in all that excitement, so I went in there with his sense of optimism and the promise that we would hope the next four years would hold. My experience in the mayor’s office really broadened my focus, my sense of what challenges the city faces as well as the solutions. I’ve seen some tried and failed, I’ve seen some tried and succeed. My career has been at the intersection of business, politics and communication, and I think those are three of the most important skill sets for a mayor to have.
You are the youngest candidate at the race and you’ve never held an elected office. Do you think those factors are friends or foes?
When I jumped in I never thought that I was too young, it wasn’t even a thought. I don’t think the other folks who are running for office … asked themselves whether they have the experience. So I jumped in … just because I knew that I had enough experience before asking anyone. The only two questions that I’ve asked myself are: is this what I really really want, and, do I think I can improve people’s lives? I also think age is a plus because the average age of a Philadelphia resident is 33 years old. We are not a city that is getting younger, we are a city that is already young. I am already seven years older than the average Philadelphia resident, there are 50,000 new people that have only been living in the city since 2007 or 2008 and they haven’t even had an open race where they can cast their vote, and all of them are under the age of 30. We have been competing with other cities — with New York, with D.C.— for young people and we are winning that war. Where I think we drop the ball as a city is that when they finish with their college experience, if we don’t have a job for them then they move on. Even if we do have a job for them, few years later if we don’t have schools for their kids, then they move on.
Do you believe you are known within the Latino community? Do you speak Spanish?
I don’t think particularly well. When I think of Latino leaders I think there are elective officials leaders like former City Councilman Juan Ramos. I knew him because he was a councilman. You have Rommy Díaz, (I know) him because he is a former City Solicitor. In the world that I live in, I have great relationships with Latinos in those communities because that is my worldview. Any time my worldview expands, those relationships become broader, become deeper. If you are going to be in a city like Philadelphia, your paths are going to cross and you better make every relationship authentic. The world of Latino leaders is growing by the day, as it should, and my hope is that no one holds it against me that I didn’t know y’all already. I graduated from Lock Haven University with a degree in Journalism/Mass Communication and a minor in Spanish. Pero si uno no practica el idioma se pierde (but if you don't practice you lose the language).
How do you plan reach out to Latino voters so they don’t feel disenfranchised from the political process?
I want votes from wherever they come from. I don’t think I have to become gay or Spanish to go after gay votes or Spanish votes. I believe in my heart that my job is to demonstrate to people that I am aware of the things that are important to them, short of promising something, because you get in trouble promising stuff before you even know what the full lay of the land is. People know when somebody is authentic, they know when you are sincere in trying to understand who they are and what their challenges are. And they don’t always expect you to fix all of their problems, they expect you to be aware of their problems. For that reason reaching out to them is the first step in trying to demonstrate that ‘I know you exist, I know that you are here, I understand what the challenges are.’ The Latino community is a little easier for me than maybe the Russian community (no disrespect to the Russian community) there is so much documentation about the challenges that the Latino community faces and it almost always mirrors some of the same challenges that African Americans face.
If elected, how do you plan to keep Philadelphia a welcoming and diverse city?
When we think in business in general most people think tax reform, attract big businesses to bring lots of jobs, and that is important, and we will focus on that. But we will also think about small business, we think about commercial corridors because that is where most of them are. They are all over the place, but they are not on your major thoroughfares, you have to go into the neighborhoods. That is where you get some of the best food, and some of the best cultural artifacts and other things. I recently read an article that talked about how the overwhelming majority of those businesses are immigrant-owned, not necessarily Latino … but Russian-American, Asian, Indian, and that they represent the overwhelming majority of small businesses. All of this time I’ve always known that small business is the spine of our communities and the spine of our business community, and collectively some of the biggest employers in the state — if you put them all under one category. But I didn’t necessarily knew how much of that was undergirded by immigrant owned businesses. I do believe if that is true, then the government’s role is to stay out of the way and make it as easy as possible for those businesses to come and start. Ease some of the bureaucratic rules, when I say ease, at least streamline. Government has to make language more accessible and make the services themselves more accessible recognizing that more of these businesses will pop-up and more people will be employed. We can make better jobs by making our commercial corridors well-lit, safe environments with a variety of businesses. Government can help with those kinds of things. Encouraging the entrepreneurial spirit that immigrants come here with and using that to encourage growth and, therefore, jobs. Immigrants make our city unique — it is almost getting New York-like — and I think that is one of the exciting parts of our city. I think is why the DNC is coming, I think is why the World Meeting of Families is coming. This environment in its cultural richness is part of why people want to be here.
Education may well be the issue that gets Philadelphia’s next mayor elected. What is your proposal for education?
I want to see a quality school in every neighborhood across the city. Too often we get divided by the debate about a charter school versus a district public school. We are divided and I think needlessly so. People say “are you a charter school guy? or are you a public school guy?” and I say “no, I am a functioning school guy.” I want a school that adequately prepares all of our kids across the whole city for productive lives. If that means that is a charter school who is doing it I am OK with that, if is a district school I am OK with that. But more plainly put, I don’t care whether is a charter school that’s failing kids or a public school that’s failing kids, you cannot be a school absorbing financial and human resources and not educate our kids.
I would expand schools that are working but only into neighborhoods where there is a poor performing school, and if that is a charter school with a waiting list and they want to expand, I would first look to see “have you been successful with the kids in your care,” and if so, I don’t mind the expansion but you have to expand here.
And if you are an underperforming school just like any job, I want your plan of corrective action, and you don’t get five years to do it because when we give you five years to correct your plan of action you will have a sixth grader reading like a first grader and that is unacceptable to me.
Sometimes it is a money problem, sometimes is a management of the money problem, I think is a little bit of both. One of the first things I would like to do is what we call a forensic audit, not just a “where is the money going,” I want to see proof that the money went where we said it was going and I want to see outcomes. I call it the poor man’s approach, the budgeting, I want to see that forensic audit and I don’t want the political ones that come out of the City Controller's office. I want somebody who’s never done business in Philadelphia and doesn’t want to do business in the city of Philadelphia to come in this one time and tell me where is all this money going, what’s working, what’s not working and where we might identify places where we can spend money better.
Regardless of whether you get elected or not, are you planning to stay in politics in the long run?
I think I will always be involved in trying to improve people’s lives no matter where I am or what seat I am in. You don’t have to be in the top seat to lead, you can lead from where you are. I think my whole life has been built around trying to make folks successful, whether I was at the Department of Public Welfare trying to connect Pennsylvanians to social services; whether I was in child care information services. Whether I was in the mayor’s office trying to explain very complicated government to folks, and just trying to make it plain. Or whether I am taking my son to the boy scouts. All of these things are political in my mind because they raise the collective conscience of the people around me. I’ve always viewed my personal profession as “I’ll do well if I am making people successful.” And you can’t live in a city like Philadelphia, as diverse as Philadelphia, and try to find success by yourself because we are all in the same boat. At the end of the day if I am mayor, I’ll do it from the mayor’s office. If I am not, I’ll do it from wherever I am.