On a frozen Thursday in March, dawn turns the eastern sky a brilliant shade of pink.

Doug Oliver doesn't get to see it.

He's roaming the southbound subway platform at the Erie station, where no light can reach, having come not for a ride, but for votes. He's asking people to make him, a 40-year-old former public-relations executive who has never held public office, the next mayor of Philadelphia.

He works fast, and not just because it's cold.

Every seven minutes, the 40-some people on the platform are whisked away, replaced by another 40 who trickle downstairs for the next rush-hour train. They're security guards, hospital workers, moms with kids, teens on cellphones.

Oliver is determined to meet every one.

"Good morning, sir," Oliver says, introducing himself to an older man. The candidate shakes hands, shares a photo card that outlines his platform - strong schools, stable jobs, fairness - and his social-media contacts, then moves to the next person.

"Who else is running?" demands Joe Murray, 52. "I never heard of you."

Others know him well.

Mayor Nutter hired Oliver as press secretary upon taking office in 2008, as the nation's financial markets veered toward collapse and the city's peril drew relentless local news coverage. Oliver's calm and presence led a colleague to tag him with a nickname: Silk.

He's the grandson of missionaries who taught the Bible in India, the son of a single mother who worked temp jobs to feed him and his brother. He's never met his father.

Growing up in Germantown, Oliver bounced among schools until high school, when he was accepted at the Milton Hershey School, a boarding school for poor children in Hershey, Pa.

At Lock Haven University, he played basketball and studied the Rev. Dr Martin Luther King Jr. His mother's belief in education in his ears, he earned a master's at La Salle University and an MBA from St. Joseph's University.

His middle initial, the "I" in Douglas I. Oliver, stands for Ifanyi, a name from the Igbo people of Nigeria. It means, "With God, all things are possible."

To Oliver, it's a constant reminder that he is called to act: "If any, I."

Oliver offers himself as a new, young candidate for a changing Philadelphia. Pundits say he has little chance, lacking experience, money, and name recognition.

"He's basically a sideshow," said Randall Miller, a St. Joseph's professor who studies city politics. "He's on the same [debate] panels. Out of courtesy, he gets questions. But nobody really pays much attention to him."

Does Oliver believe he will win? "I believe I can win," he answered.

It will depend, he said, on his ability to turn out frustrated and young voters, who emerged in great numbers for President Obama but generally stay out of local elections.

Talking one-on-one to voters, Oliver wins converts. He's tall and good-looking, formally dressed, eager to offer an ear to those who feel unheard.

"If he could spend 10 minutes with every Philadelphian, he'd win," said Ed Rendell, a fan. "He just comes across as a tremendously likable guy."

The former mayor and governor said he's reluctant to endorse a candidate because friends and allies are running, but "if Doug all of a sudden pulled close in the polls, I might be inclined to endorse him."

Nutter, too, isn't endorsing a candidate in the May 19 Democratic primary - the de facto election in heavily Democratic Philadelphia. But he likes Oliver, whom he plucked from a post as spokesman for the Philadelphia Gas Works.

"Doug was at every table, and was in the critical meetings, as we tried to, as a team, make decisions about how to save the city from going into a financial collapse," Nutter said.

Oliver left the mayor's office after less than three years; PGW lured him back with a lucrative offer. In January, he quit as a PGW senior vice president to run for mayor.

It's true, Nutter said in an interview, that Oliver hasn't led an organization or a government agency, but "you have to look at a person in totality."

"The Doug I know is a guy who does not back down from a challenge, who is going to work morning, noon, and night to accomplish the goal," the mayor said.

Terri Oliver-Crabbe was 26 and unprepared for motherhood when her son was born. She bought his clothes from thrift stores.

As a boy, she said, Doug was "a delight - singing, smiling, he brought joy to my life."

When Oliver was about 8, his mother said, she became acutely aware that he had no male figure in his life. She began contacting accomplished black men - strangers to her - and asking them to spend an hour or an afternoon with Doug. She wanted him to see what hard work could achieve.

Future Mayor W. Wilson Goode met with Doug. So did Bernard Watson, then head of the William Penn Foundation. And Tom Skinner, a prominent New York evangelist. "It gave me a sense of what was necessary to expand your horizon," Oliver said.

He said he never consciously felt the absence of a father. Not until he was a father himself, the night he put then-6-year-old Douglas Jr. to bed.

"Who tucked you in?" the boy wanted to know. "Where's your dad?"

"He's not here," Oliver answered.

"Where is he?" the child persisted. "Is he lost?"

"Yes," Oliver told him, "he's lost."

"Well," the boy concluded, "you should find him. He's probably looking for you."

The next day, Oliver began a search for his father. Six years later, that quest continues.

Oliver's now-12-year-old son, who goes by Ifanyi, attends a Christian academy in Glenside. Oliver's campaign focuses on bettering city schools - and finding ways to fund them.

Plan A, he said, is working with the governor to devise a fair-funding formula. Also: payments or services from colleges in lieu of taxes; improved collection of back taxes; extending hours of bars and restaurants to get more money from drink taxes.

"What drives me in this race is empathy for the young men and women in our Philadelphia school system who are right now being prepared for a life of unavoidable poverty," he said. "If I thought there was anybody who would go as hard [on the issue], I would have kept my job and supported someone else."

Oliver approaches a young woman on the subway platform and asks if she's old enough to vote.

"I'm not," she says.

He hands her a card. "Pass that to your mom or your dad," he says.

In the last open Democratic primary, then-ex-Councilman Michael Nutter won 106,805 votes to beat four major rivals. Oliver figures he needs about that number of votes - and this is a place to find them.

Dawn Ramsey, 48, a former teacher, listens to him with narrowed eyes.

"What makes you qualified?" she asks.

Oliver says he was born and raised here, but as a political outsider he's unbeholden to special interests.

"How are you going to strengthen families?" Ramsey demands.

He says it's crucial to view government as a single entity, to not see schools, health, and services as separate issues.

"If you have a Health Department and you don't have nurses in school, that's a problem," he says.

Ramsey misses three trains to grill Oliver.

"I think he's extremely idealistic," she says after he leaves, "but that might be a fresh breath for the city."

For Oliver, the morning is both tiring and exhilarating. He's not afraid to lose, he says. He's afraid of what will happen if he wins and doesn't keep his promises. How will he face people?

He shakes another hand.

"One person at a time," he said. "Only 99,999 to go."


Profiles of the Democratic mayoral candidates.


Lynne M. Abraham


Nelson A. Diaz


James F. Kenney


Doug Oliver


T. Milton Street Sr.

MAY 11

Anthony Hardy Williams


215-854-4906 @JeffGammage