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April 14, 2015

Candid-dates: 10 personal questions for Doug Oliver

The mayoral hopeful shares his most treasured memory and the item he would save from a fire at his home

Politics Mayoral Race
Doug Oliver Thom Carroll/for PhillyVoice

Mayoral candidate Doug Oliver says he lost a photograph of his father, whom he does not know, when his childhood home was burglarized.

Doug Oliver served as the senior vice president of marketing and communications at Philadelphia Gas Works before tossing his name into the ring for mayor. Oliver has never held elected office, but previously served as the press secretary to Mayor Michael Nutter.

But can Philadelphia fall in love with Oliver — or any of the other six mayoral candidates? 

PhillyVoice sought to find out by conducting an abbreviated version of a romance experiment made famous by a New York Times article published earlier this year. 

The experiment, developed by psychologist Arthur Aron, caused two strangers to fall in love by having them answer 36 questions that gradually grew more intimate. Then, Aron had the couple stare into one another’s eyes for four minutes. 

In the hopes of getting a more intimate portrayal of the people running for the city’s top office, PhillyVoice sent invitations out to the seven mayoral candidates asking if they would sit down with us and answer 10 of Aron's questions. Four responded, including Doug Oliver.

Here’s what Oliver had to say. (Some responses have been edited for brevity. Follow-up questions not part of Aron's experiment are in italics.

PV: What would constitute a perfect day for you?

DO: Believe it or not, sunshine first thing in the morning. It sets my mood. I don’t have to fight through my morning when the sun is there. It's a natural start for me. ... If it’s a perfect morning, I’d be sleeping in until at least 7. If it’s a Saturday, you can go ahead and give me 8. I’ve got a personal alarm that wakes me up. I can’t sleep past 8. But sunny, preferably warm. 

PV: When did you last sing to yourself? To someone else?

DO: I sing to myself in the mornings with my headset on my walk from my house to Fern Rock (Station). So I need to play my "get hyped" music. It’s really the only time that I have alone. ... So if I want to sing, that’s what I’m going to do. In fact, sometimes I wonder if I’m weird. I wonder what other people do to get themselves ready for their day. Singing to myself, reciting lyrics to Eminem’s “Eight Mile,” “Lose Yourself,” — that’s one that I constantly recite on my way to the train station. The lyrics in that song are so motivating for me. ... This may be the only opportunity that you got. That is how I feel every single time.

I sing to other people if they happen to hear me. I don’t do it on purpose. I think the last time I did it — I don’t know the last time I did it. I was in Mexico once and drunk and joined a Mariachi band. They would go around after everybody got drunk and they would serenade people from their windows. But, yeah, that was a long time ago. That was a very long time ago.

PV: Do you have a secret hunch about the way you will die?

DO: No. I never thought about it. I don’t know how it will be. My hope is that it’s quick. If it’s violent, then let it be quick. If it’s peaceful, let it be quick. I don’t want to be seeing it before it comes. Let it be something unexpected. I’ve always wished and prayed that it’s not drowning or burning. Those are two things that don’t just seem like they could happen quick. The three major losses in my life – one was sudden. A young lady I was engaged to back in 2000 (died at) Pier 34 down on Delaware Avenue. She went down there to have a good time and party and the pier collapsed. It hit her in the head. She was knocked unconscious. ... I can look back now and I’m just glad (she didn't drown). I don’t want to imagine somebody trying to fight for their life in the water. I just don’t want to think about it.

But the other two — my grandmother and her older sister — both passed away well into their 90s. For both of them, they were peaceful.

PV: If you could change anything about the way you were raised, what would it be? 

DO: I wouldn’t have minded having a little bit more financial resources, a little bit more money. There are lots of things that I wanted to do as a kid that we just didn’t have the ability to do. Traveling just wasn’t in the itinerary. Being fashionable just wasn’t there. Mind you, some of these things taught (me) valuable life lessons that if I changed it, something would probably be different about me and my personality today. But at Christmastime I always wanted a bike, but it just wasn’t coming. 

I’d like (to know) my dad. I never knew and never met him — and never really cared to. Because as a kid, all you know is what you know. I didn’t have my dad, but then neither did many of my friends. ... But if I could go back, I would like a dad. I had an uncle who kind of filled in, but he wasn’t my dad. He was my cousin’s dad. So he gave me the discipline and he gave me the guidance, which is really what you count on your dad for. But I wanted a dad. If I could go back, I would choose that. 

PV: If you could wake up tomorrow having gained any one quality or ability, what would it be?

DO: There’s a couple. I always wanted to go back to school again to get a J.D. (Juris Doctor degree). I like the linear and logical thinking of attorneys – especially good ones. I always wished I had that skill set. ... On a more practical level, I’d be a mechanic. I’d want to fix my car myself. Then I can move my projects through faster. My heart won’t drop every time I see a check engine light come on. If my transmission goes, I might not like buying a transmission, but I don’t have to worry about labor costs.

Doug Oliver

Mayoral candidate Doug Oliver says a perfect day involves sunshine and restoring a classic car. (Thom Carroll /

PV: What is your most treasured memory?

DO:  I would say my mom and I — she kicked me out of the car. I must have been 8. I was a bit of a momma’s boy, perhaps. She told me to get out of the car and walk down the street. ... I just remember not wanting to get out of the car, not wanting to do anything without my mom right there. She was like, "Get out of the car, walk down South Street until you get to Third. I’m going to drive down, go over and I’ll come back and meet you at Third Street."

But she wanted me to just walk down the street and it was the scariest thing ever. Just because I was by myself for that three-block stretch. I just couldn’t wait to get to Third Street. There was no doubt in my mind that my mom was going to be there. I was more concerned — was I going to be there? There was all these people and no one bothered me. The truth is, by the time I got down to Third Street, I was free and clear. I could walk anywhere in the neighborhood that I wanted. ... My mom got me comfortable with that kind of stuff by sort of dropping me from the nest and letting me figure things out on my own — but always being there to catch me. 

PV: How do you feel about your relationship with your mother?

DO: She was mom and dad. I don’t know how she did the things she did with me. It was just two of us — me and my younger brother. He’s 10 years younger, so he’s 31. I don’t know how she did it. 

I remember her telling me once that her biggest dream for me was if she would see me at the age of 21 and that she wanted me to make $50,000 a year. When she said that, I was a child. So, in my mind, it was like, how do I get to 50? That was just always the goal. I never thought, should it be higher? I never wondered why. I just knew if I could get to 50, that means I’ve done so much better than my mom ever did. That just became the goal – 21 and 50 grand. That was it. 

Even on the day when I first hit $50,000 annual salary – probably much later in my life than I’m willing to admit – but I remember feeling a sense of pride. I did it and I couldn’t wait to tell my mom, "Hey, by the way, you’re paid off."

PV: Complete this sentence: “I wish I had someone with whom I could share … ?”

DO: Dreams in their infancy. My pastor once said that the eagle can’t share his dreams with pigeons. And it’s not because they’re not both birds. But they have a different perspective on life. You have to be careful when presenting your ideas to people before they’re fully flushed out. Because people will look at them and say, "That’s dumb. You didn’t think about this."

So, I wish that I had someone with whom I could share an undeveloped thought in a safe environment, where it doesn’t get chopped up just because it’s not thoroughly vetted. Because that’s where ideas begin. I’m sure long before the iPhone got here, somebody was thinking ... wouldn’t it be cool if you could put your music, your phone contacts and your apps and everything you wanted to do ... all on your phone. And someone was like, "Get out of here. Beat it." That’s the wrong room. I want the guy who got kicked out of that room. I’d like to talk to him about anything.

PV: When did you last cry in front of another person? By yourself?

DO: About two weeks ago. ... I needed to let out frustration. I’ve always, in my adult life, been in very forward-facing, always-on types of positions where you never really fully get to have your own opinion, because you’re representing someone else’s. That can be tremendously frustrating. When you add on top of that the machismo that just comes along with being a guy — you’re never supposed to cry — and then you add on just the weight of being African-American and a lot of the challenges that you see in your own communities, you can’t hold all of that in all of the time. And so it’s not so much that something happens and it makes me cry. But sometimes I will go ahead and consciously decide that it is OK now for you to let this go.

Actually, I can tell you the exact last time I cried, because it’s not usually (that) something happens and then I cry. But in this instance, I was watching “Selma,” and I cried like a baby when they were crossing the Edmund Pettis Bridge. It wasn’t that I didn’t hear the story a thousand times — and this is my fault, it’s the educational system’s fault, I’ll even blame my momma for this — nobody told me that it took three times to get across the bridge. It was always just the victory lap when they crossed the bridge and what they achieved by it. But for me, the journey is where the message was. 

PV: Your house, containing everything you own, catches fire. After saving your loved ones and pets, you have time to safely make one final dash to save any one item. What would it be? Why?

DO: I would try and grab my computer. There’s just a few too many pictures in there. I wouldn’t want to lose that. And, if not that, a photo album. I would want the things that can’t be replaced.

The only reason I think of those things is when I was 8, something similar happened. It wasn’t a fire, but it was a thief, who came in and took everything. The only thing that I regret that was taken — there was a little fire box that my mom had. It looked like a safe, but it wasn’t. It was just a fire box. There was an honest man’s lock on it, but, presumably, it had a lock, so there must be something valuable in there. They didn’t try to figure it out, they just took it. The only thing that was in there was a picture of my dad. Now, the very thing that probably — in this day and age — that would have allowed me to find him, was taken at age 8. Insurance isn’t going to cover that. There’s no way to duplicate that. So, pictures, either digital or hard copy. I’d go back in to save pictures.