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Mayoral candidate Doug Oliver counting on his youth, voters' desire for change

Doug Oliver has little name recognition and less money. What he has is energy. He's using all of it to run for mayor of Philadelphia, up with the sunrise to shake hands with rush-hour transit riders, closing the day in darkness at a dinner or campaign event.

Doug Oliver has little name recognition and less money.

What he has is energy.

He's using all of it to run for mayor of Philadelphia, up with the sunrise to shake hands with rush-hour transit riders, closing the day in darkness at a dinner or campaign event.

He seems determined to meet every voter in the city - one at a time, if that's what it takes.

On a recent Friday night, when the cold made it appear all of Philadelphia had crowded into a warm restaurant or hurried home to a comfortable couch, Oliver headed to a drab conference room on North Broad Street to meet a group of minority building contractors.

Eight people showed up.

The candidate spoke as though they were the entire electorate, describing his upbringing as the eldest child of a poor mother in Germantown, voicing his concern for the city's future as the father of a 12-year-old son, professing his determination to take Philadelphia in a new and more vigorous direction.

"My drawback is that I'm young. My advantage is that I'm young," Oliver said. "I've got two months, two and a half months, to convince the city to give a young guy who's never held office before a shot."

At 40, he's 16 years younger than the next-youngest candidate running in the Democratic primary, the de facto mayoral election in heavily Democratic Philadelphia.

What weighs against Oliver's chances for victory? Practically everything.

Besides having never been elected to office, he lacks organizational backing and has no record of major public achievement. His exploratory committee had $1,085 in the bank at the end of 2014.

On the other hand, no one doubts Oliver is bright, engaged, and energetic, an effective communicator who dresses as though stepping from the pages of GQ. He most recently worked as a communications executive at the Philadelphia Gas Works, but probably is best known as the former spokesman for Mayor Nutter.

He has gained celebrity backing from former Eagles linebacker Jeremiah Trotter, who tweeted, "This guy is the change we need for Philly," and from The Wire actor Tray Chaney.

"He's very attractive, not for 2015, but for down the road. And maybe that's what this is," said Randall Miller, a St. Joseph's University professor who studies city politics. "His reason for getting in is, basically, 'We've got a bunch of doddering old fools running around.' He doesn't say it, but that's what's implied."

Oliver's chances in the May 19 election, Miller said, are roughly zero - unless the top candidates badly, unexpectedly falter.

Oliver believes his odds are as good as those of any candidate. If a poll were taken today, he said, "the No. 1 vote-getter would be Mr. and Mrs. Undecided."

On that recent frozen Friday, a handful of contractors and their allies met at the School District Building. Everybody wanted to hear what Oliver had to say, particularly on the topic of schools.

"We need to put someone in there that's going to deal with education," said Jarrell Bentley, a 22-year-old home-health aide. "People have felt so left out of the whole process they've given up."

Fix the schools, several said, and you fix the city - young couples won't leave for the suburbs when their children turn 5. They'll stay, helping build the tax base and strengthen neighborhoods.

Oliver told the group he knows the troubles that plague schools. And he wanted to hear their ideas for repairs.

"I like his approach," said Michael Hickson, a residential-housing contractor. "Ask what the community needs and then go from there."

Growing up with his mother and younger brother, Oliver told the group, he bounced from school to school. He eventually left Philadelphia to attend the Milton Hershey School, a boarding school for poor children in Hershey, Pa.

He earned a bachelor's degree in journalism and mass communication from Lock Haven University, a master's in communication from La Salle University, and an executive MBA from St. Joseph's University.

So he understands the power and promise of education, he said.

It's plain the schools need more money, Oliver told the contractors. And though he's not in favor of increasing taxes or selling public assets to raise money, "I am for an education system that works."

Since entering the race last month, he's portrayed himself as the only candidate who knows a tweet is not the sound made by a bird, the one Democrat who understands the thinking of the millennials who are changing Philadelphia.

To win, Oliver said in an interview, he needs to increase the number of people who turn out to vote.

"I have to find a way to reenergize Philadelphia voters," he said. "The good news is, I don't believe they are lethargic or lazy. I believe they have chosen to voice their frustration with government by not voting."

He needs over-65 voters who want to pass control and leadership to a younger generation. And 45- to 55-year-olds ready for something new. And the growing body of 44-and-under Philadelphians who form a potentially election-altering voting bloc, he said.

The problem with trying to corner the youth vote is that young people generally don't vote.

About 250,000 of the city's 1.1 million registered voters are 18 to 30, according to research by the nonprofit Young Involved Philadelphia. In 2011, when Nutter ran for reelection with no serious opposition, only 7.8 percent of those voters cast ballots.

"I don't have a 20-year record of public service," Oliver said. "Nor do I have 20 years of baggage. Because I'm not a politician, and I have no interest in being a politician as a career track, I'm far more comfortable making the tough decisions for the future of our city."