One week after the most expensive mayoral primary in history, the Democratic candidates gathered for breakfast off Lancaster Avenue and showed a unified front for the winner, former City Councilmember Cherelle Parker. Many have begun to refer to her as “Madame Mayor” and “Mayor-to-be,” despite the nominee’s insistence they not do that.
At least one other person with experience in Philadelphia government is refusing to offer her the title just yet: David Oh, the Republican nominee who will oppose her in November’s general election.
Speaking in his campaign office in Northeast Philadelphia, Oh discussed the shortcomings of a crowded primary field that furthers the alienation many voters experience that contributed to the low turnout earlier this month.
“The problem that I find is that in Philadelphia, people run for a very limited group of people,” Oh said regarding the mindset for the primary election. “(Candidates) are focused on the 100,000 within the 300,000 (Democrats who vote). All of their effort is on that 100,000, which is OK, because that’s how you win elections. But I think the problem is that it has become so routine that they focus on the 100,000 and the fact that the election is over on May 16.
“You serve your 100,000 people. Your 100,000 people are your bread and butter, and that means you’re ignoring 1.5 million people. That is the story of Philadelphia and why we have such a polarized city.”
The former City Council member ran unopposed on the Republican side of the ballot May 16. While he was a part of many of the forums held throughout the primary campaign, Oh said he feels his position did not best prepare him for the general election where he’s facing a massive voter disadvantage. The party’s decision to leave him off mailing and sample ballots for the election did not sit well with him.
“I have a different fight, being on the Republican side,” Oh acknowledged. “I was not invited to all but one televised forum. I understand why, but at the same time, it creates a problem because even the losers of the Democratic primary have been on television, and I have not. It’s a great disadvantage to me.”
Being on the debate stages may have cost Oh free air time but he overall was not a fan of the short answers that made it “hard to distinguish the candidates” in a crowded primary field.
He noted the format of rapid-fire short answers covering a breadth of topics put more emphasis on presentation versus policy, keeping candidates on a short list of bullet points or catchphrases.
Oh has proposed a series of debates with Parker before the general election, with one in each of the city’s 10 councilmanic districts. He said he wants 30 to 45 minutes each for himself and the Democratic candidate to expound on their views and platforms, along with their legislative records. The Parker campaign has yet to commit to any debate schedules or formats.
Oh has served nearly three full terms as an at-large Council member in the city where he grew up. While not as well-known as his opponent, he has been referred to as “your favorite Democrat’s favorite Republican” by at least one radio commentator.
The son of a Korean pastor from Cobbs Creek, he got his law degree, served as an assistant district attorney for then-D.A. Ed Rendell, and left that office to join the Army in 1988. After leaving the service, he started his own private practice.
Oh worked on Rendell’s transition team and was part of a trade mission to South Korea for then-Gov. Tom Ridge. After losing out twice for an at-large seat, Oh became Philadelphia’s first Asian-American Council member in 2011.
Overall, Oh’s profile fits more of a traditional Republican that could run for a state seat or Congress. He realizes the city “can’t have a polarizing Republican candidate” and he seems to fit that mold well. During the interview on Wednesday, he mentioned he has worked with the various immigrant groups across the city who haven’t received as much attention from leadership.
“They’ve never met them, they’ve never been to them, they’ve never helped them, they never answered their phone calls, they never did anything with them,” Oh said of the interactions between most elected officials and many immigrant groups. “It’s a lot of people. It’s the nature of our elections in Philadelphia, which I think is a really bad system. In this city, people believe these folks don’t vote, and that’s why they don’t pay attention to them. I tell them it’s the opposite — they have no one to vote for, therefore, they’re not voting for you.”
Oh is taking a different approach to the general election campaign, referring to an “experiment” in voter turnout by going after the people Democrats can’t capture, including getting a chunk of Democrats to vote for him.
He said he plans to challenge his former colleague in City Council on issues they voted on, including budgets, property taxes, and inclusionary practices in government-funded projects like Rebuild.