With almost no public polling, the competitiveness of the mayoral race in Philadelphia, America’s poorest major city, remains uncertain. Incumbent mayor Jim Kenney was reelected with 80 percent of the vote four years ago. The last Republican mayoral candidate to achieve even 40 percent was Sam Katz in 2003. (In the previous cycle, in 1999, Katz won 49 percent of the vote.)
Yet one week before voters go to the polls, Republican David Oh believes that he has a real shot at victory against Democrat Cherelle Parker. Oh has campaigned aggressively, attending civic events in every corner of the city. Early in the race, at his campaign headquarters in northeast Philadelphia, he spoke with me about Philadelphia’s future and his vision for the City of Brotherly Love.
A report released earlier this month ranked Philadelphia’s private-sector job growth as among the slowest of major American cities. Oh blames the current administration for the economic stagnation. The Kenney administration, he said, is “all about social justice and doing symbolic things but what he’s left behind in doing that is doing the basics. People need safety, they need a society that they can live freely in, and they need jobs.”
Oh summarized his diagnosis of Philadelphia’s economic woes: “the government gets its money from the people and . . . becomes a burden on the people, degrading the ability of poor communities to become middle-class communities and middle-class communities to become wealthier communities . . . that’s why we’re the poorest big city in America.”
A recent Philadelphia Inquirer survey showed that crime is the key issue for city voters. This is not surprising, given that more than 500 murders took place last year, a record, and a bus driver was fatally shot just last week. “We don’t have enough prison space,” Oh argues. “No politician other than me is going to say that.” Still, he opposes stop-and-frisk policing, believing that it damages trust between cops and the community.
Public education is a disaster zone. In 2022, just 15 percent of Philadelphia fourth-graders were proficient in reading and 13 percent in math, according to the National Assessment of Educational Progress. Oh calls for a referendum to change the school board’s charter. “Traditionally, the mayor of Philadelphia says the school district is another government and [that the mayor] really does not have any direct responsibility for the schools. I think the next mayor should take direct responsibility for the schools and for Community College and do so in a very sustainable and practical manner.”
Oh is passionate about cultivating Philadelphia’s public arts community, seeing it as a means of beautifying the city and promoting economic renewal. During the Great Recession, he observes, the arts bloomed in Philadelphia because it was “a very affordable city at that time, much more affordable than it is today . . . the artsy people from New York . . . were being pushed out . . . and found Philadelphia as a great place to go where you could find an apartment . . . very inexpensively.”
In addition to the mayoral race, two at-large City Council seats are at stake, with Republican candidates Jim Hasher, a real-estate broker and business owner, and Drew Murray, a longtime civic leader, challenging candidates backed by the Working Families Party. Veteran Republican councilman Brian O’Neill faces a well-funded challenger for his Northeast Philadelphia seat. If the GOP can secure these three seats on the council, it could disrupt the status quo in City Hall. Also on the ballot: Carolyn Carluccio and Megan Martin, running to serve on the Pennsylvania Supreme Court and Commonwealth Court, respectively. If Oh generates some crossover appeal, it may benefit the city’s entire GOP slate.
Oh has been active in the community and on social media. He’s built his own coalition of volunteers. He has worked hard to offer Philadelphia voters a credible choice. Could this dynamic candidate, regarded skeptically in many corners of the Philadelphia political spectrum, deliver a shock next Tuesday? We’ll know soon.
Photo by Gilbert Carrasquillo/Getty Images