Crime. Education. Jobs.
This election cycle, those issues have, not surprisingly, commanded campaign websites, literature and any number of forums and debates.
The topic of leadership, whether a candidate has the chops to run a big city, has come up less often.
Long-shot Democratic candidate and former Philadelphia Gas Works executive Doug Oliver has heard it since Day One, maybe even before.
The most levied criticism: he’s never held public office.
Oliver’s response: So what?
Pennsylvania Gov. Tom Wolf didn’t before being elected, he’s argued. Ditto for New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg.
“They brought massive experience. Well, I bring massive experience,” said Oliver, 40.
In particular, executive experience – the type he thinks a good mayor should have.
Before becoming PGW’s senior vice president of marketing and communications, Oliver was Mayor Nutter’s press secretary. He’s done the same job for the state Department of Public Welfare.
“In every single case, I’ve been entrusted with the relationships of the organization, the senior most person responsible for managing the relationships. If politics is not about the relationships, I don’t know what is,” he said.
Oliver also prides himself on being able to talk to anyone, whether they’re a community resident or a corporate CEO.
He grew up poor in the hardscrabble streets of southwest Germantown, but has an executive MBA.
“You don’t have to explain to me balance sheets and income statements. You don’t have to explain to me the importance of investing in neighborhoods and the roles that neighborhoods play in development,” said Oliver.
People who have worked with Oliver say he’s used that personal touch and business sense to develop strong relationships and hold on to them, a skill critical to getting things done as mayor.
Exhibit A: Nutter’s relationship – especially, as of late – with City Council.
“I’ve never heard a bad word said about him in any of the jobs that he had during that time. That speaks volumes to the relationships that he’s been able to develop,” said attorney Steve Albertini, who’s known Oliver for two decades and done consulting work for PGW.
The same can’t be said for fellow Democratic candidate T. Milton Street, whose past has dogged him at times.
Street served one term as a state representative in 1978. He then served one term as a state senator in 1980.
He hasn’t held public office since and served 26 months in federal prison for tax evasion.
Philadelphia Inquirer columnist Tom Ferrick, perhaps Street’s biggest critic, thinks that makes the 73 year-old a poor candidate for mayor.
“I’m not denying his intelligence, I’m just questioning what he did with it in his life,” said Ferrick.
Street supporters, though, don’t think his run-ins with the law necessarily undermine his ability to lead.
Some say it’s made him stronger.
“In the United States, a lot of great leaders have been in prison. You take a look at Malcolm X. He came from being a thief and a gambler and a drug addict to being one of the most influential leaders in the black community in this century,” said community activist Malik Aziz.
Street has recognized, at times humorously, that he has some knowledge gaps when it comes to city government. But, he argues a mayor isn’t supposed to know everything, and that he’d surround himself with experts – “the best minds” – whether he was tackling the city’s beleaguered Department of Licenses and Inspections or its underfunded pension fund.
“An administration will be no stronger or weaker or successful than its workforce,” Street told the crowd at a debate earlier this month. “
As for whether he can be trusted to oversee a big city budget, Street has, at times, been uncharacteristically succinct.
Asked at a debate earlier this month at WHYY, he simply replied “yes.”
Did he want to elaborate?
Voters will have to decide if that’s enough for them on May 19. When Street ran for mayor in 2011, he took home 24 percent of the vote in the Democratic primary.
Former city solicitor Nelson Diaz, who, like Street and Oliver sit at the back of this year’s six candidate-field, would love to bring in those kind of votes this time around.
While there have been questions about how truthful he’s been when talking about some his accomplishments, little has surfaced that digs at his leadership skills.
Diaz’s leadership resume goes all the way back to his high school days.
Specifically, to when was he was a 15 year-old in Harlem, then a hotbed of gang activity. Through his church, Diaz helped gang members get off the streets.
“We would go with former gang members and we would essentially talk to them about the importance of changing their lives, becoming more responsible. The fact that if they continued that way we might all wind up as many of them did – dead, HIV or drugs,” said Diaz.
The work may have been a bit risky. It was certainly formative.
Now 67, Diaz said if it’s the right thing to do, he’s always willing to pitch in, even when it means working with people he doesn’t see eye-to-eye with and vice-versa.
“[Former Republican Mayor] Frank Rizzo. I was the only guy he ever put on his advisory committee even though I wasn’t a Frank Rizzo fan,” he said.
When he was counsel to the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, he hired a woman who had sued the agency – a lot.
“She was my deputy and that helps you develop credibility with the civil rights community because here you’re bringing someone in who is their ally,” said Diaz.
He says it’s all a big part of what makes him a good leader.
His trademark passion too.
“I don’t sit around and wait for things to happen, I make things happen.”
Longtime friend Judge Sandra Moss has seen that in action.
While the two were colleagues at Common Pleas Court in Philadelphia, Moss wanted to create a complex litigation center to handle disability claims connected to things like asbestos and pharmaceuticals.
It had never been done before.
“He could have very easily looked at me and said, you know, did you have a glass at wine at lunch and he didn’t. He sat there and listened and said I want it in writing,’” said Diaz.
Not long afterwards, he was making calls to get the center approved. The center still stands today.
Also running in this year’s Democratic primary are: former City Councilman Jim Kenney, state Sen. Anthony Williams and former District Attorney Lynne Abraham.
Internal polls indicate that Kenney is leading the pack, with Williams right behind.