David Oh at a mayoral candidates forum in March; Cherelle Parker at a mayoral candidates forum in January. (Cory Sharber/WHYY)
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As a nominee for Philadelphia mayor, debating your opponent has been a routine practice between non-incumbents for at least two decades.

It’s unclear if that will happen this year.

Three months ahead of the November general election, Democratic nominee Cherelle Parker and Republican David Oh have not yet met in a public forum, despite Oh’s June request for two to five televised debates

Oh confirmed to Billy Penn that he has yet to hear from Parker about any debates or forums. 

“The important thing is that anyone who is running for mayor who wants to be in charge of the city should go before the people,” Oh said, “to answer their questions, receive their criticism and talk about what their priorities are.”

Experts say changing media environments, increased political polarization, and the overall declining value of debates are to blame for the ebb in this election season staple. 

The partisan nature of general elections isn’t conducive to productive conversations, said Richardson Dilworth, head of Drexel University’s political science department and author of “Reforming Philadelphia,” a book on the evolution of Philly politics.  

“You’re just trading talking points,” said Dilworth, who also happens to be the grandson of a former Philly mayor. However, he noted, there are reasons to engage.

“Agreeing to a debate provides a level of legitimacy to a mayoral candidate,” Dilworth told Billy Penn. “So when they become mayor, there’s a sense that they were justly elected — and I think that really matters.”

Philadelphia is a predominantly Democratic city, with almost 76% of voters registered to vote blue, according to Pennsylvania voter data. Even so, past Democratic candidates have given their Republican counterparts (and even some third-party candidates) the time of day on the debate stage. 

“I think it was the debates that put me on a par with a guy who really knew a lot,” said Sam Katz, on his 1999 run as a Republican against future Mayor John Street. Their race ended up being the city’s closest mayoral general election in recent times.

Parker’s campaign did not respond to Billy Penn’s questions on this issue. Some agree there’s no real incentive for her to take part in any debates.

“What does [Parker] really have to gain or lose,” except time to potentially transition to her new position, observed Michael Sances, a Temple University political science professor. Once the May Democratic primary is over, “the race is already basically decided,” he said.

In this year’s Republican primary, Oh ran uncontested.

“Maybe 20 years ago, a Republican could have a good shot at getting at least a substantial share of the vote here,” Sances said. 

Twenty years ago, that’s exactly what happened. 

1999: Philly’s last ‘squeaker’ mayoral election

Then-Republican Sam Katz, a businessman and politician, and Democrat John Street, then a city councilmember, went head to head in the 1999 and 2003 general elections. Street won both contests — but the first victory was by a very small margin. 

Philadelphia hasn’t had a Republican mayor since Bernard Samuel from 1941 to 1952, but Katz came close to pulling off a monumental upset that year, receiving 48.5% of the vote in what the New York Times called a “squeaker” of an election. 

Katz estimates he and Street met more than 25 times during their fall campaign in 1999 for debates or conversations, he told Billy Penn.

“When the polling was showing it as a close election, it got tense at the end,” Katz said. “Never disrespectful.”

More recent mayoral general elections between non-incumbents have been nowhere near as competitive. In 2015, Mayor Jim Kenney won his first term with approximately 85% of the vote, vs. the 13% for Republican Melissa Murray Bailey. Still Kenney did debate her in September of that year.

Former mayor Michael Nutter debated Republican Al Taubenberger in advance of the 2007 general election, when he ended up cinching his first term with 83% of the vote.

Despite Katz’s near-success in 1999, when he met Street again in 2003, things were a bit different. It was a few years after Bush v. Gore and the hanging chads scandal of the 2000 presidential election, and Philadelphia’s Democratic voters associated any and all Republicans with the national party. 

“[Debates] can be valuable if people are trying to differentiate themselves over policy, style, message. And for me and John Street, we had that in ‘99,” Katz said. “We had it to a lesser degree in ‘03.”

The trend of associating local politicians with the broader Republican party continues today. 

“David Oh, no matter what he says, no matter what scandal could possibly happen with Cherelle Parker between now and the election, it’s virtually impossible for him to win here because people are just so dead set against voting Republican,” said Sances, the Temple political science professor.

A chance to slip up and provide opponents publicity

Even if Parker and Oh agreed to a debate or forum, it might not make waves, said Dilworth, the author and Drexel prof. The current media landscape in the city doesn’t allow for the viewers or ratings as it once did, according to, he said.

Television outlets have lost viewership, making it more difficult for debates to reach a sufficiently sized audience, which Dilworth connects with decreasing voter turnout. 

At one point in time, general election traditions would call for a broadcasted debate. 

“I think the expectation was come the general election, you’re gonna have a debate,” Dilworth said. Now, there are no “dominant sources for media.” 

He pointed to the Democratic primary election in May. Thanks in part to the plethora of organizations engaged by the Lenfest Institute-led Every Voice, Every Vote project, mayoral candidates catered to several town halls and smaller venues in an effort to reach various “niche” audiences.  

In addition to not carrying the weight they once did, broadcast debates are sometimes viewed by candidates and campaigns as little more than an opportunity to slip-up. 

“Is she going to convince any of the small number of Republicans in the city to vote for her?” Dilworth said. “Is it going to help her in any way or just provide the potential to hurt her? Is it just providing David Oh with free publicity that he needs far more than Parker?”