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Doug Oliver’s 8 lessons from #PHL2015: ‘The electorate is not particularly courageous’ (guest column)

When we began this endeavor, we knew it would be an uphill battle.  We knew it wouldn’t be easy and that it would require a lot of hard work, blind faith and the occasional tin ear as not to be distracted by nay-sayers.

From the outset, it wasn’t clear to me exactly what was needed or how it would get done. But I knew big things were possible and I knew that the process of running for mayor was almost as important as the outcome.

So we decided to challenge the idea that only people with millions of dollars, endorsements and political backing should run for mayor. We decided to demonstrate the viability of a younger candidate – even for the top office in a major American city.

We accepted the challenges that were before us and fashioned a high-energy campaign that leveraged the combination of good ideas, professional presentation, high levels of personal interaction and social media savvy.

Having now completed the campaign, I look back with a full appreciation for everything that we were able to accomplish. Although we didn’t receive the most votes, we were still successful in setting an example of what is possible in a City like Philadelphia. We resurrected good old-fashioned retail campaigning. We were able to put our fingerprint on the types of ideas that were discussed by the other candidates. We did our best to re-engage disenfranchised voters and we invited a whole generation of younger voters to participate in local elections.

But perhaps, what makes me most proud is that we were able to accomplish all these things on a shoestring budget of only $43,000. Our campaign spent only $4 per vote, which is lightyears more efficient than any other campaign. So although it was not a recipe for winning the election, it still challenged the traditional notions of how campaigns are run and has offered insight into how future campaigns — mayoral or otherwise — should be run.

Here are a few things that I learned from the process:

  • There’s no reason to be afraid of running for public office if you have strong ideas and a strong work ethic.
  • Money isn’t everything. It doesn’t require millions, but it does require more than $43k.
  • Get thick skin. Many of your close relationships will disappear when it’s time to support you.  However, be encouraged that new, more authentic relationships will emerge.
  • Many people won’t vote their conscience. They’ll vote the odds. Be prepared for the fact that the electorate is not particularly courageous and may not vote for you, despite really wanting you to win.
  • Candidate forums can drain your both your time and your energy if not managed well. Many of the organizers are not Philadelphia voters and they often represent very narrow interests and few, if any, offer boots-on-the-ground support for the candidate that most capably carries their platform.
  • Ride the trains and buses. It’s awkward at first, but people are hungry for an opportunity to engage with those who would lead them. They will tell you exactly what they think if you care enough to ask.
  • Play the long game. Resist the temptation to participate in personality politics. What you gain in the short term is far diminished by what you lose in the long term. Stay focused on policy distinctions.
  • Don’t underestimate how disenfranchised people are from the system. It proved extremely difficult to get people to actually vote.

Despite Philadelphia’s local campaign finance reform efforts, this election showcased how flawed our campaign financing system still is. My hope is that we continue to work to limit the influence of money in local elections, perhaps considering some form of public financing. This would force candidates to put themselves and their ideas out in front of the electorate in a meaningful way. This would be good for democracy and for our city.

I also hope that we will give serious consideration to finding a way to get more Philadelphians engaged in the election process. Twenty percent turnout is abysmal and embarrassing. And I believe it to be one of the biggest reasons there is so much inequity between neighborhoods. It can be fixed, but it has to be important enough to tackle.

Over the next few weeks, I’ll be working to figure out what’s next. Once again, I’m not sure what the future holds, but I know that whatever it is, I will continue to fight for the things that I campaigned on: schools, jobs, fairness and higher levels of voter engagement.  This much is clear, I love my city and will never stop fighting for it.

Stay tuned: The best is yet to come.

Doug Oliver was a PGW executive who ran for mayor in Philadelphia’s 2015 Democratic primary. Jim Kenney ultimately run the primary. Oliver came in fourth behind Pa. Sen. Tony Williams and former Philadelphia  District Attorney Lynne Abraham.

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