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Republican David Oh has resigned from City Council to run for mayor of Philadelphia

Democrats enjoy a more than 7-to-1 voter registration in Philadelphia, making any Republican campaign for mayor a long shot. But David Oh is hoping to beat the odds.

Former City Councilmember David often clashed with his own Republican Party.
Former City Councilmember David often clashed with his own Republican Party.Read moreHEATHER KHALIFA / Staff Photographer

David Oh resigned from City Council on Monday to run for mayor, becoming the first Republican to enter the race and ending a unique legislative career in which Oh clashed with both major parties and cultivated his own coalition of supporters.

“In the past few years, we’ve fallen on hard times and headed down the wrong path,” Oh said in a video announcing his candidacy after 11 years on Council. “This is a great city full of amazing people, but not if we don’t take action now.”

Democrats enjoy a more than 7-1 voter registration in Philadelphia, making any Republican campaign for mayor a long shot. But Oh has gone his own way throughout his political career, and he’s hoping to give Philadelphia its first competitive general election since Republican Sam Katz’s relatively narrow losses to former Mayor John F. Street in 1999 and 2003.

» READ MORE: The Philly mayor’s race is a money race, from thousands of small donations to a $5 million check

Oh said Monday that Republicans could be competitive if they nominate “a candidate like me who is very popular with Democrats and independents.”

Candidates vying for the Democratic nomination, Oh said, will likely adopt far-left policies to appeal to the more progressive primary electorate. He’s running in part because “people need a choice.”

“People are hearing less and less opposing opinions. I think that’s actually not good. I think it’s better when you have a collective wisdom or a common wisdom,” Oh said in an interview. “At the far edges of either side of the political spectrum, if you don’t agree with someone, then they vilify you. We should try to understand where they’re coming from.”

He acknowledged that his campaign will likely struggle to raise money at first. But he also predicted that many people will consider supporting him if former City Councilmember Helen Gym, a leader of the city’s progressive movement, wins the Democratic nomination.

“Fund-raising is more difficult for me because the perception is that a Republican cannot win,” Oh said. “When it comes to Helen Gym [winning the nomination], there are groups of Democrats that would be happy to give me money, so they say.”

Gym spokesperson Harrison Morgan said Monday that she is “proud to be considered a leading candidate in this race — including having the most number of donors — and because of that, we do not think negative comments are worth responding to.”

The son of Korean immigrants, Oh grew up in Philadelphia and is an Army veteran and former prosecutor. He ran unsuccessfully for Council twice before winning, in 2011, one of the two at-large seats that are set aside for members of minority parties.

Oh has often been isolated on Council, both due to Democrats holding 14 of 17 seats and his rocky relationship with his own party. Oh has called for auditing the state-controlled Philadelphia Parking Authority, one of the few bastions of patronage jobs for Philadelphia Republicans, and GOP ward leaders have unsuccessfully backed other Republicans vying for his seat.

» READ MORE: Who's running for mayor of Philadelphia?

His time in office has also had its share of controversies and unusual moments. In 2011, he was criticized and eventually apologized for exaggerating his military service by implying that he had been in the Army Special Forces, or Green Berets, when he had not. Since then, Oh has frequently championed veterans issues on Council.

In 2017, Oh was stabbed outside his home in Southwest Philadelphia. The suspect was acquitted due to a lack of corroborating evidence. Oh referenced the incident in his announcement, saying that Philadelphia’s problems with crime have come “right up to my doorstep.”

In 2018, he was investigated for child abuse by the Department of Human Services after accidentally breaking his son’s collarbone while practicing martial arts. The city agency found that Oh had not abused his son, and Oh criticized DHS for investigating him.

Through it all, Oh has built an unusual coalition of supporters by positioning himself as the champion of a variety of disparate communities, often on issues that are outside of partisan politics.

Oh, for instance, has activated communities of veterans to support his efforts to preserve hiring preferences for them, and he has met frequently with immigrant groups for people from Asia, West Africa, and other parts of the world.

He even turned his child abuse investigation into a political opportunity, holding hearings that allowed him to tap into communities of parents who feel wronged by DHS.

While most Republicans usually get the bulk of their votes from comparatively conservative parts of South and Northeast Philadelphia, Oh has won support from pockets across the city.

That broad base of support is why he was able to win reelection in 2019 when the progressive Working Families Party launched an unprecedented bid to win Council’s two minority-party seats, which had been held by Republicans for 70 years.

Councilmember Kendra Brooks came in first among non-Democrats in that race, making her the first third-party lawmaker in Philadelphia’s modern political history. But Oh held on to his seat by finishing second, besting Working Families candidate Nicolas O’Rourke and four other Republicans.

» READ MORE: Super PACS made early picks for mayor in 2015 and 2019. This year, they’re in flux.

Although Oh often clashes with Republicans, he holds many traditional GOP policy stances: favoring lower taxes and spending and calling for a tough-on-crime approach to public safety.

On Monday, Oh said that his solution for poor conditions on SEPTA would be to withhold city funding from the transit agency. To clean up Kensington, Oh said he would prioritize arresting drug dealers, including by using drones to identify suspects.

“Look at Kensington, a drug-infested neighborhood created by failed policies,” Oh said in his launch video. “I will do what must be done to stop the violence immediately and lawfully.”

Oh’s resignation from Council leaves the legislative body with only 15 of 17 seats filled thanks to Gym’s resignation in late 2022.

Council President Darrell L. Clarke has not yet said when he intends to fill those seats. The Republican and Democratic primaries for the mayoral election and all Council seats are May 16.