Philadelphia City Councilman David Oh tried to strangle me in his office last week while some of his aides looked on.
To be fair, this only happened after I’d tried to stab him with a letter opener.
He wrapped his arm loosely around my neck, explaining that if he’d use a little more force on certain pressure points, he’d easily be able to change my body’s blood pressure and cause me to pass out right there on the third floor of City Hall.
Oh was teaching me some of the most basic moves he’s learned over the last 13 years practicing Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu, a form of martial arts that focuses on using grappling as a method of self-defense, and a discipline that values how intelligence and thoughtfulness can help smaller fighters stand a chance against attackers twice their size.
Today, he’s a brown belt — it takes about a decade to become a black belt if you’re practicing multiple times a week — training for national tournaments and teaching young kids the art when he’s not running for public office.
“Martial arts, for me, is an activity that I’ve done a long time,” he said, “and I appreciate it not simply for kicking butt. Martial arts is an artistic application of martial principles, of how to overcome overwhelming situations in egregious circumstances where your heart’s pounding and you can’t think straight.”
A Republican at-large city councilman, Oh was first elected to serve on City Council in 2011 and won re-election in November after a three-way nail-biter separated two winners from one loser by about 500 votes.
Born and raised in Southwest Philly, Oh grew up in the days of Bruce Lee’s fame and David Carradine’s role on the show “Kung Fu.” Being one of the only Asian kids in a largely non-Asian community, the last thing young David Oh wanted to do was fill a stereotype and become an Asian kid who, of course, knew kung fu.
But he was also growing up in a hardscrabble neighborhood in Philly. It turns out that when you’re about to get into a street fight, acting calm and scaring people because you know some martial arts isn’t a bad look.
At age 12, he took up Taekwondo, a Korean form of martial arts, and practiced for the next decade. Sure, what he knew came in handy. But post-college, he’d become busy with law school, and plans to open his own firm. Oh had become disillusioned with the amount of time he spent dedicated to martial arts and wondered if all that practicing was worth it.
In 2003, he waged his campaign for City Council, running with little backing and next to no party support. He did have the community on his side. His father, the late Rev. Ki Hang Oh, founded the first Korean-American church in Philadelphia in the 1950s, and later opened a community center.
Oh came in fourth out of five that year and didn’t make it onto Council. But he did surprisingly well considering he was a relative no-name, garnering more than 98,000 votes citywide.
The long hours of campaigning had gotten to him, though. And he needed an outlet. So he offered his services to the Wissinoming PAL Center, where he said he’d volunteer to teach a free martial arts class for interested kids. Now, it was time to get in shape after the long hours and junk food consumption of campaigning.
“I could hardly bend over and tie my shoe without huffing and puffing,” he said. “I’d hate to show up the fat, sweaty, out-of-shape, free karate instructor guy.”
He was interested with the idea of trying out Brazilian Jiu Jitsu, an iteration of Judo that was being taught at Maxercise, a gym at 7th and Chestnut. Oh’s first class was “eye-opening.”
The whole point is that a smaller, weaker person can beat a stronger, larger person through intelligence using their knowledge of leverage, physics and physiology. There are less big moves, punches and kicks as there are in something like karate. It’s more about methodical, relatively low-energy movements to pit your strongest body parts against another person’s weakest an take them down from there. As Oh repeats, it’s brain over brawn.
“It’s kind of like I had done this kicking, punching thing and I kind of got tired of it,” he said, “and I was going to teach it, and then I discovered this whole other thing that I was not really aware of what it was.”
Oh became fascinated. He took what he had learned and taught the interested kids at the Wissinoming PAL Center in the mid aughts, and today, he specifically remembers one young girl who was confused when she saw his signature on her participation certificate. She’d always known him as Mr. Oh, and wondered aloud: “Why’s he got an American name?”
Over the next few years, Oh progressed through the belt system and honed his fighting skills. In 2007, it was campaigning time again. He put working out on hold and put everything he had into running his second City Council at-large campaign. That year, Oh came in third out of five — he lost winning a seat by 122 votes.
Once again, he went back to the gym, back to learning more about the art at every practice, multiple times a week. And once again, less than four years later, he stopped it all to put his heart and soul into campaigning for City Council and praying that the third time really would be the charm.
In 2011, it was. Oh won an at-large seat and now he had something new to take his time away from Brazilian Jiu Jitsu: Being a city councilman.
Two years later, he’d finally found the time. Oh was a brown belt and had been in tournaments before, but this time he started training for the Pan-American Championships in Jiu Jitsu, an open tournament for those who practice Jiu Jitsu to travel to the west coast and take on some of the best who are a similar weight, age and belt level to them.
In 2014, Oh came in second place in his category.
In between then and now there’s been another campaign, another close election, another year of being a Philadelphia city councilman where Oh’s focused on more than getting better at grappling. Still, martial arts remains an outlet — a way he can exercise his body and his mind — in between meetings, emails, press conferences, council meetings and the drafting of legislation and policy.
And for Oh, it’s also a metaphor for politics and for public service.
When he’s considering whether or not to support certain proposals or ideas, he treats it somewhat like facing an opponent in a match: Size up the situation. Get a feel for what you’re dealing with. Determine the risks. Get in the right position. Work fervently and with the right mix of swiftness and patience. And attack everything with thoughtfulness and intelligence.
“The martial art is a very useful way of experiencing the problem,” he said. “It’s one thing to say ‘here’s a problem,’ and it’s all very theoretical. And that makes it very convenient. It is another thing when you are trying to answer a problem.”