Philadelphia Councilmember David Oh is preparing to resign his at-large seat and launch a long-expected run for mayor.
The three-term legislator is planning to announce his candidacy in early February, he told Billy Penn. He would be the first Republican to enter the race, and the 11th declared mayoral candidate overall.
Acknowledging the challenge of winning the top job in a city where registered Democrats outnumber Republicans nearly 7 to 1, Oh argued he can appeal to voters fed up with Democratic leaders’ failure to improve their safety and quality of life.
“People say, ‘Well, a Republican hasn’t won the mayor seat since 1940-something.’ That’s actually not evidence,” Oh said. “Just like we’re not supposed to have a Democrat in the governor’s office because ‘it wasn’t his turn.’”
Oh is used to running against expectations. He was the first Asian American elected to City Council and is the only member who is a military veteran. For years he’s been at odds with Philly GOP leaders, who have endorsed two other people for the at-large race.
Like many candidates this year, Oh says his top issue is reducing crime, along with improving the public schools, boosting the local economy to produce jobs, and making city services more customer-friendly.
“Government is out of control because of a failure of management,” Oh said. “[As] mayor, if you can’t get intelligent, courteous services out of your police department, or your L&I department or your Health Department, or address why it takes 45 minutes for someone to answer 911 — that’s not excusable.”
Here’s what to know about Oh as he tries to leverage his outsider success into higher office.
Prosecutor to National Guard to City Council
Now 62 years old, Oh has served on City Council since 2012.
He grew up in Cobbs Creek, son of a pastor who founded the city’s first Korean-American church. He graduated from Central High School, Dickinson College, and Rutgers University Law School-Camden. A father of four, Oh continues to live on the block where he grew up.
After working for three years as an assistant district attorney in Philadelphia, he enlisted in the U.S. Army and served in a Maryland National Guard Special Forces unit. Returning home, he opened a solo law practice in Southwest Philadelphia. It later moved to Center City, and eventually merged with a larger firm.
Oh got involved in government, organizing Gov. Tom Ridge’s trade mission to South Korea and a meeting with Korea’s president, and serving on Mayor Ed Rendell’s transition team. In 2003 and 2007 he ran unsuccessfully for Council at-large, going after one of the two seats reserved for a non-majority candidate (usually Republicans, until 2019, when the Working Families Party captured one for the first time in modern history).
During the 2011 race, Oh started off strong, winning endorsements from the police and firefighter unions and Republican ward leaders. But he was damaged by a pair of minor scandals.
First the Daily News reported that Oh repeatedly claimed he had served as a Special Forces officer and was a former Green Beret, even though he had not done the lengthy required training. Then the paper uncovered his 1990s arrest for firing a gun in the air to scare off a group of people near his home. He said he thought they were prostitutes and drug dealers, but they turned out to be undercover police; a jury found him not guilty.
In the campaign, former Local 98 leader John Dougherty used the revelations in fliers attacking Oh as unsuitable for office, ostensibly because Oh wouldn’t commit to supporting Darrell Clarke for Council president.
Oh nonetheless scraped out a razor-thin victory over the next-place finisher, and ascended to his current seat.
Election victories despite lack of party support
Oh has frequently played an outsider role, both on Council and in the Republican party. He has also continued to encounter occasional controversies.
When he won reelection in 2015, it wasn’t without campaign stumbles. He again didn’t get the party endorsement. The Board of Ethics fined him $2,000 for telling a supporter how to get around campaign finance limits and accepting an illegal contribution. His law license was suspended because he failed to pay a renewal fee.
The following year, Oh picked a politically charged fight with the Philadelphia Parking Authority, a state entity and a rare bastion of Republican patronage in a city dominated by Democrats. He and Councilmember Helen Gym teamed up to criticize the PPA for alleged financial mismanagement that left the school district with less funding than expected.
PPA officials responded by saying Oh was attacking them because Republicans — including then-PPA Chairman Joseph Ashdale — had not supported his reelection bid. Council eventually rejected Oh’s call for a PPA audit, and his proposal to give the city authority over the agency stalled over questions about its legality.
In office, Oh’s legislative efforts have been hit or miss.
He voted against Mayor Jim Kenney’s sweetened beverage tax. He fought a bill targeting stop-and-go liquor stores — it was favored by Black civic leaders who saw the stores as nuisances, but strenuously opposed by Asian-American business owners. His measure seeking to make it harder for illegal squatters to take over homes was approved, though it faced criticism from tenants’ rights groups and was immediately amended after passage. After some homeowners saw big increases in 2018, Oh proposed giving Council authority to block property assessment hikes that exceeded certain thresholds. His bill was defeated.
He has proposed having police officers undergo training to use minimum use of force in non-threatening situations. Last year he introduced legislation to repeal the sweetened-beverage tax, calling it “vindictive” and pointing out that more than half the revenue went to the city’s General Fund rather than Rebuild and other programs.
Oh has also made the news for non-City Council business. He was stabbed outside his home during a 2017 attempted robbery, suffering a punctured lung and a slashed arm. A suspect was arrested, but later found not guilty.
In 2018, the Department of Human Services investigated Oh for child abuse after his 8-year-old son broke his collarbone while they were practicing a judo move. He was cleared — he’s a longtime martial arts practitioner — but when he called for Council to investigate DHS reporting guidelines, critics said the move smacked of revenge. After weeks of public testimony in favor of establishing an investigative committee, Oh’s proposal passed, albeit in altered form.
Republican ward leaders again declined to back Oh’s 2019 reelection bid. He got the fewest votes among GOP primary candidates, but topped all Republicans in the general election, leading to this term.
Oh has not officially launched his mayoral campaign and cannot yet accept contributions toward a run. In his Council campaign’s last available finance report — from the end of 2021 — he had about $109,000 cash on hand.