PHILADELPHIA – In their hit song ‘Can’t Stop,’ the Red Hot Chili Peppers claimed that music was the “great communicator.” Clearly, they have never met former Democratic candidate for mayor Doug Oliver.
Oliver, 40, – the former senior vice president for marketing and corporate communications at Philadelphia Gas Works and one-time spokesman for Philadelphia mayor Michael Nutter – was hailed by Philadelphia Magazine as “far and away the best orator in the [2015 mayoral] race,” which included seasoned politicians such as former District Attorney Lynne Abraham, state Senator Anthony Hardy Williams and of course former councilman turned Democratic nominee for mayor Jim Kenney.
At Lock Haven University, Oliver earned his undergraduate degree in journalism.
On top of that he has added a masters in communications from La Salle University and an executive masters in business administration at St. Joseph’s University.
“I’ve always been in the public facing communications roles for the organizations I’ve been involved in but I’ve always had a different approach to communications,” said Oliver. “That it’s not the pretty PowerPoint people but that your communications folks should be in the room when you’re developing policy because let’s say you want to triple tuition. I can’t put a pretty face on that. The question is, why are we tripling tuition. And if I know the questions that are going to be asked then perhaps we can come up with different answers and then I’ll present those.”
Oliver seemed to use his knowledge of the media game as an advantage during the campaign so that he could remain one step ahead of the next question he’d face.
“Most of the time, people’s questions weren’t answered. And then I answered,” Oliver said. “That was enough to get people to say, ‘hey who’s that? Because he answered my question.’ Even if they didn’t like the answer, they knew that they had gotten a direct response.”
In 2004, Oliver joined PGW as the director of communications. The job originally consisted of public relations and press release management. After a while, he said the position evolved into more of an outreach to the community and eventually city council.
This is where he would meet mayor Michael Nutter who served as a councilman at the time.
Although both his position at PGW and his prior role with the Pennsylvania Department of Public Welfare in Harrisburg were government-related, Oliver hadn’t really dabbled in politics.
When Nutter was elected mayor in 2007, he picked up the phone and offered Oliver a somewhat life-altering position. He became the spokesman for the mayor of Philadelphia.
Last September, Oliver turned 40 years old. This was a turning point that provided a moment of clarity.
“I realized that if I lived until 80, that I would have lived a full life,” Oliver said. “And that would mean that I’m at the halfway mark.”
Oliver illustrated the notion that we all must come to understand one day. We can only keep telling ourselves that we are preparing for true adulthood until a certain point. One day, everyone must wake up and realize that they are fully-grown and they cannot stand idly by as time ticks away.
“So, I looked around at the folks who were running and I thought, ‘I don’t see anybody who I think is so head-and-shoulders above me that I should just go support them,’” Oliver said.
In January, Oliver left his job and set out on the campaign trail. He spent numerous hours of many days in public spaces such as subway stations trying to get his name out and speak to the voters about his ideas.
The DO2015 campaign was Oliver’s exploratory committee that launched a decent social media strategy. He targeted young voters that may be apathetic to run-of-the-mill politics.
Many pundits said that banking on the millennial vote would not work out well. The polls solidified that argument. But voter turnout overall was quite poor, with 70 percent of registered Democrats not even showing up to the polls.
Oliver also faced criticism from the press when entering the race.
“I reject a little bit the idea that a communicator shouldn’t be running for mayor,” Oliver said.
“People said, ‘What makes you think that as a PR person, you should be running for mayor?'” Oliver said. “And it sort of assumes that PR people do not have a handle on policy or PR people do not have a hand in developing it. And I think that’s misleading.”
And even though this ‘PR person’ didn’t take home the nomination, his campaign chair Mustafa Rashed explains that Oliver accomplished plenty and could set a precedent for future candidates.
“We knew from the beginning it was going to be an uphill climb. But we also knew that getting the majority of the votes is just one way to have a winning campaign,” Rashed said. “I thought Doug did a tremendous job and the city was served well by having new ideas and a new voice in the discussion. The more young, smart and capable candidates that run for public office the better.”
For Oliver’s next step in life, it’s still pending.
“I’ll look at corporate, where I came from. I’ll look at boards. I’ll look at non-profits. I’ll look at doing things that get people engaged,” Oliver said.
“But one way or another, I’m going to be serving my city.”