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Mayoral candidate Doug Oliver (left).

Credit: Courtesy of Mustafa Rashed/Lawrence Lowe

Most Penn students come to Philadelphia from a variety of cities, states and countries, but when they graduate, a vast majority of them will leave to work elsewhere.

Doug Oliver, the Democratic candidate for Philadelphia mayor, wants to change that. In fact, part of his campaign platform is keeping young Philadelphians here.

“When you’re done, you have any option you want. The whole world is an open book to you, but we want to convince you to stay here,” Oliver said of young Philadelphians. “When we look at the biggest issues facing the city — be it education, job creation or pension challenges — the solution to those things is convincing young folks to stay. Along with them, we keep all of their bright ideas.”

When Philadelphians go to the polls on May 19 to pick the Democratic candidate for mayor, Oliver wants the focus to be on young people and new ideas. While Oliver quickly rejects that he is running to be the mayor of young people, he often circles back to the importance of young Philadelphians in solving the city’s economic and educational challenges, especially if Philadelphia wants to compete with other major U.S. cities.

“Growing our tax base for eight to 10 years isn’t good enough,” Oliver said. “It's good enough to have us treading water and stay as the fifth largest city, but it's not enough for us to become the fourth. And if we are going to grow, we need to get young folks to stay.”

The other Democratic candidates for mayor might characterize Oliver as one of the “young folks.” At 40 years old, Oliver is by far the youngest mayoral candidate. The three leading candidates in the race — former District Attorney Lynne Abraham, former City Councilman Jim Kenney and State Sen. Anthony Williams — are all over 56.

“I think my age is an advantage in this mayor's race because we've got a city where the average age is 33 and the city thinks fundamentally differently than it has in decades,” Oliver said. “I think I am uniquely positioned among the existing candidates to at least understand the mindset of a 33-year-old Philadelphian.”

Oliver's age isn't the only thing setting him apart from the other candidates. He is the only major candidate for mayor who has never been an elected representative. The other candidates — Abraham, Kenney and Williams — all have over 10 years of experience as elected officials in Philadelphia or Pennsylvania.

Nonetheless, Oliver does have lengthy experience in Philadelphia and Pennsylvania politics. Before running for mayor, Oliver worked in former Pennsylvania Gov. Ed Rendell’s administration as press secretary for the Department of Public Welfare, served as Mayor Michael Nutter’s press secretary for three years and most recently held the role of senior vice president of Philadelphia Gas Works — the largest municipally owned natural gas utility in the United States. Oliver's current office is only a door away from the office of Edward G. Rendell LLC.

“I’ve been around [politics] long enough to see why it works and to see why it doesn’t work,” Oliver said.

But even with experience, Oliver is an underdog. He has no major endorsements and has trailed heavily in fundraising throughout the campaign. By the end of 2014, Oliver’s exploratory committee raised $1,085, while Williams and Kenney raised $554,106 and $236,355, respectively.

In a poll commissioned by Abraham’s campaign that was released on March 26, Abraham led the pack with 30 percent of the vote, Williams and Kenney trailed with around 14 percent each and Oliver remained under 10 percent.

While Oliver has less name recognition than some of the other candidates, his focus on young people could be a beneficial electoral strategy, especially if they turn out to vote in large numbers. According to the Office of the Philadelphia City Commissioners, over 300,000 of Philadelphia’s 1.1 million registered voters are between 18 and 34 years old. With the median age of Philadelphians being 33, young people could be pivotal in the election.

“I think if there is anybody who is able to understand what the younger generation is looking for, it would be me,” Oliver said. “I don’t look at young people in the city of Philadelphia as interns. I don’t look at them as the next generation of leadership. I look at them as the right now generation of leadership.”

In many ways, Oliver has become part of the new generation of leadership in Philadelphia. With that, he has also brought new ideas.

Oliver was the first mayoral candidate to incorporate his support for PILOTs, or payments in lieu of taxes, into his campaign platform. PILOTs have recently been a controversial issue in Philadelphia politics as people have called for tax-exempt nonprofits — such as Penn — to contribute money to the city in despite being legally exempt from property taxes. A portion of PILOTs contributions would go toward alleviating the Philadelphia School District’s $80 million budget deficit.

Although Oliver is a staunch supporter of PILOTs, he also recognizes that large nonprofits contribute to the city in many beneficial ways, such as through spending, employment and wage taxes.

“I’m not suggesting that I am supporting PILOTs because [institutions like Penn] are not doing anything; I am supporting PILOTs because this city needs more,” Oliver said. “There has to be the ability of our large institutions to come together and say, 'Here’s the problem we have as a school district.'”

“The idea of PILOTs isn’t just a money grab,” Oliver added. “It is grabbing the institutional knowledge at the University of Pennsylvania, the access to resources, their own classrooms, their museums, their buildings, to say, ‘We see the need here in the city of Philadelphia and we are going to do our part as a corporate citizen, if not through taxes, through some sort of payment to the city.’”

As the campaign enters its final stretch, recent boosts in polling and fundraising show Oliver's evolution from an unknown candidate into a fresh and relevant face in Philadelphia's political scene, which is full of familiar faces.

“That’s the beauty of having a new perspective, even in the mayor's race,” Oliver said. “Whether you win or whether you lose, you are changing the conversation.”

While many political pundits might rule out a new face, one of Philadelphia’s most familiar faces seems to believe in Oliver.

“Doug Oliver deserves a look in the race for Mayor,” Ed Rendell tweeted on March 27, though he has not formally endorsed any candidate. “He’s a bright, engaging young man with a lot of good ideas. He just might catch on.”

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