Just about everyone who meets Republican mayoral candidate David Oh likes him. The former nearly-three-term At-Large City Councilmember is both affable and accessible. He laughs easily, shows love for his family and hometown, and makes fun of his height. The son of Philadelphia’s first pastor of a Korean church is an Army veteran, former Assistant District Attorney, very Philly Republican — but still not up to City Hall’s top job.
At a recent town hall in South Philadelphia, Oh stood before a crowd (if you can call about 25 people a crowd) and declared himself anti-gun, pro-immigrant, and anti-stop-and-frisk, a position that puts him to the left of his Democratic rival, Cherelle Parker. He’s also pro-choice, pro-public school, and believes low-income homeowners should pay less in taxes.
If the Trump faction of his party were paying attention, they’d consider their candidate for mayor quite the RINO (Republican in Name Only). Oh would be fine with that. On City Council, he spoke out against Trump’s policies, continuing a proud tradition of liberal Republican leaders in Philadelphia (Arlen Specter, Sam Katz, Thacher Longstreth).
“Maybe I need to do more, like, research.” — David Oh
While Parker went largely MIA post-primary, David Oh’s been out among us. He’s popped up on AM talk radio, CNN, and social media livestreams; showed up to the Italian Market Festival, a birthday party for Norris Square, and Azerbaijan Independence Day. You can see Oh along major byways on billboards that read, “Leadership You Can Believe In,” and, at least in my Dem-dominated neighborhood, on campaign signs in way more windows than Parker.
With his resume, name recognition, overall likability, and political leanings, David Oh should be the most viable Republican nominee for Mayor in at least a generation, someone who is not likely to win (Philly Democrats outnumber Republicans 7-to-1), but who could at least bring some heft to the race. Except … there’s a problem.
The problem is … David Oh.
David Oh on City Council
The words “you can believe in” in Oh’s slogan are surely not meant to be ironic. But they do draw attention to one of Oh’s first and continuing big blunders. From 2003 to 2011, when he first ran, ran again, and then ran and won a seat in City Council, Oh did so by posing as a former Green Beret. Oh was in the Army. He was not a Green Beret. In 2011, this, er, mistruth, came to light in the Daily News, and became a thing. Oh apologized. And yet, it’s remained a thing. At least as recently as last spring, he was still saying that because he wore a beret that was the color green while in the Army, he is a Green Beret. (To be clear, only soldiers who pass the near-impossible test to become a Green Beret are Green Berets. Oh took the test once, failed, and did not take it again.)
All this makes it kinda hard to “believe in” the guy from the get-go. Still, Oh won a seat on Council in 2011, and stayed for 11 years before resigning to run for Mayor.
On Council, Oh championed causes close to him. He created a tax credit for businesses that employ veterans, promoted the arts, and worked to curb illegal truck parking and illegal dumping. He launched a sweeping investigation into the City’s Department of Human Services (DHS) — after a social worker visited his home when he accidentally broke his son’s collarbone while practicing martial arts.
Oh earned a bit of a reputation on Council for making proposals that went nowhere: auditing the Philadelphia Parking Authority, eliminating the soda tax, restricting Covid restrictions. Shortly before he resigned to run for mayor, he proposed a bill to create “minimum force training” for PPD. Council rejected the bill … because Philadelphia City Council does not have authority to make changes to the Philadelphia Police Department, something he should have known.
Sure, some politics are about performance. Better politics are about making actual progress.
When Oh had the floor
Which brings us to that recent town hall in South Philly, a community discussion on gun violence. To his credit, Oh showed up. Parker, who only recently agreed to debate Oh, canceled at the last minute. The floor was all Oh’s. For some of the time, he stayed on topic.
First Oh said that as mayor, he could not influence gun laws because the state regulates firearms and ammunition. Later, he’d 180: As mayor, he would go to Harrisburg and Washington, after all, to try to influence state and federal legislatures on gun relations. He seemed to be thinking aloud.
In the meantime, Oh talked about the prevalence of ghost guns, social media-fueled violence, the lack of safe public spaces for young people, and how “the forgotten demographic of the people who most hate guns — African American women” — are now the fastest growing demographic of gun owners. He spoke of a family member, a Penn student, murdered while mailing a letter, and how his grandparents forgave the killers and started a fund to help them turn their lives around. “Murder starts in the heart,” he said.
Oh talked about getting more cops on the streets and into the communities, another position Parker agrees with. (Both candidates call public safety their highest priority.)
Then, there were the tangents. He wants Philadelphia to be the new L.A. or New York City. Musical artists, actors, leave town, never come back, and, “they say they hate this city,” he said. (Ignore that, please, Questlove, Quinta Brunson, Leslie Odom, Jr., Black Thought, Jill Scott, Bradley Cooper, and Kevin Hart. We love you and know you love us.)
Oh brought up Council’s rejection of his proposal to get SEPTA to use a South Korean manufacturer of sliding glass doors. He floated an idea about creating a library system that allows cardholders who return books on time, over years, to check out more valuable or covetable items, such as a musical instrument, science kit, or computer. He then — like, say, my WASP uncle who is definitely not racist — acted out a scene between two African American-sounding kids, where one asks the other where he got that electric guitar.
A St. Rita’s rep read a question from the audience: “What other city has made progress in reducing gun violence?”
Oh recalled seeing “something” on Google. “The city that comes to mind is not in the U.S.,” he recollected, “I think it’s a city in Latin America. It might have been Brazil.” Wherever it was, they eliminated gun violence there, he remembered.
“How?!” a few people shouted, “How did they do it?”
Consistent “policy,” Oh replied. “There’s an expression: ‘It’s not the severity of the punishment, it’s the certainty of the punishment.’”
Also, “They got a new mayor.”
And, “Maybe I need to do more, like, research.”
Not quite mayoral
When it comes to gun violence, Philadelphians are desperate for solutions. We want leadership, competent leadership, eloquent leadership, thoughtful and effective leadership in City Hall, someone who has the answers — not someone who’s just now considering looking into them.
Plus, Oh had the assignment in advance, and it was about the most salient aspect of his top priority, crime. The candidate to lead the sixth largest city in the U.S. also had seven empty months since he resigned from Council, 11 years on Council, a few more years as an assistant D.A., and a lifetime of living in a high-crime neighborhood — where there was a mass shooting over July Fourth weekend. And yet, he’s just now realizing gun violence solutions are something he should … research?
“The conditions under which Oh is running are untenable. There’s nothing in the atmosphere that would make winning a race like this possible.” — former Republican mayoral candidate Sam Katz
Instead, Oh made like the kid who didn’t do his homework but raised his hand to answer the teacher’s question anyway, figuring if he says enough words, maybe no one will realize he was playing video games last night instead of doing his social studies.
The whole thing didn’t feel … mayorly.
All rooting for Oh
Outside the event, a rosary-toting guy smoking a cigarette proudly described Oh as “the conservative one for mayor.” Inside, among a handful of Catholic parishioners, two scruffy guys in the audience wore “David Oh for Mayor” t-shirts. To paraphrase supermodel Tyra Banks, the folks in this crowd “were all rooting” for the petite man in the baggy suit. These voters, as much as anyone, deserved to hear from a candidate who appeared to be trying, not one who seemed to be … spitballing.
Philly hasn’t elected a Republican mayor since 1944. In 1999, two-time Mayoral candidate Sam Katz came close, losing the mayor’s race to John Street by less than one percentage point. Katz, now a Democrat, calls our one-party city “a sad state of affairs, going back to 1870.”
“The conditions under which Oh is running are untenable,” he says. “The conservative nature of the Republican party, its demographic, its locations — which are limited to four or five places in the city — its organizational structure, its history of internal warfare, its significant cultural and ethnic difference from its mayoral candidate … its registration numbers. Republicans are 11 percent, 12 percent. There’s nothing in the atmosphere that would make winning a race like this possible.”
Still, wouldn’t it be nice if it seemed like David Oh, one of the two major candidates for Mayor of Philadelphia, were up for the job?
MORE ON THE 2023 MAYORAL ELECTION