Local reporter Cory Clark grills Republican mayoral candidate David Oh on democracy, immigration, education and community
Meet David Oh, who is running as a Republican against Cherelle Parker. We’re digging deep into important issues in the nation and here in Philadelphia to get to know the candidates, the issues, and their perspectives on them.
You are a former assistant district attorney. Do you think these indictments are politically motivated outside of Trump’s motivation for allegedly committing the crimes they’re based on?
It’s not for me to say. I mean, it’s not something that I pay attention to. To some people, it’s the most important thing in the world; it is unfolding, and we probably don’t know enough right now. Is there a basis for saying there was some criminality? Yes, absolutely. Do I know what all the details are? No, I don’t. I’m not privy to that, and neither is anyone else.
Could it be politically motivated? Well, many things are politically motivated one way or another. The question is… is the political motivation determinative? Is it because they don’t like his politics or the party? I’m not a mind reader, but I don’t think that’s the case. Beyond what I’ve said, I’m a lawyer who’s not working on this case. I haven’t read any of the material, so I don’t think I can comment on this further.
No, I think you gave a pretty good answer, not having read the indictment. I just wanted to ensure we got your thoughts as a lawyer and someone running as a Republican in Philly. I think your opinion will matter to fellow Republicans here.
He (Trump) is still the head of the Republican party and leading in the polls. Is there a future for the Republican party without him?
He’s not the head of my party; he’s not anybody. Donald Trump, no…President Biden is the head of the Democratic party, and Donald Trump is one guy running to be the nominee of the Republican party. He is not the nominee nor the presumptive nominee; he is just one person in a crowded field running to become the nominee.
I think saying things like Parker is the Mayor-elect is just irresponsible; she’s not the Mayor-elect. She’s just the Democratic nominee, and in my case, I’m the Republican nominee, and to say that I might be the presumptive head of the Republican party in Philly, I’m not, and neither is Trump the head of the national party. He’s just a Republican who used to be president. That’s a big title, former president, and that’s enough; I would go beyond that.
Is there a future for the Republican party without him?
Sure, I think so. I could be wrong, but I think there is a future without him.
Even with the tight grip he has on the base?
Sure, within the Democratic Party, there are all kinds of Democrats; you have the progressive Wing and what you might call the traditional Democratic Party, and we’re watching them fight right now. There are fights within parties, and there are as many different kinds of Republicans as there are Democrats. Sometimes, their differences are so great you can’t see how they are one party, and sometimes they get together.
I’m very independent-minded. I don’t look to other people to tell me who I am. I define myself. If anything, I look to see if you fall into my definition, but I don’t fit into anyone else’s definition.
Republicans have made immigrants their punching bag for nearly a generation.
How will you protect the immigrant community in Philadelphia?
I’d like to be fair; while Republicans are stereotyped as beating up on immigrants or, more accurately, undocumented aliens, so have Democrats. It’s really not a matter of party for the most part; it’s a matter of where you’re from. If you’re from Texas or a border state, whether you are a Republican or a Democrat, you’re probably for border security and other things. I have been a strong proponent of immigrants and undocumented people. Now, that doesn’t mean they are immune to law enforcement; they are subject to law enforcement, and they are subject to immigration laws and the enforcement of immigration laws. However, that is not the role of the city government, nor the city government’s role to not cooperate with I.C.E. and other entities when dealing with criminals. I would cooperate with federal authorities for people who have committed violent crimes.
Now, I wouldn’t cooperate for things that are truly minor. Immigration and Customs Enforcement has changed the definition of what is a felony. In Pennsylvania, a felony is a crime punishable by up to seven years or more in the commonwealth. A misdemeanor is punishable by no more than five years, maximum. But I.C.E. has changed the definition of a felony to a crime punishable by more than one year. That’s a very different definition. We live in Philadelphia, in the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania, so almost everything is punishable by more than one year, so everything would be a felony by their standard.
While I don’t condone the violation of immigration laws, they’re here. So we can treat them poorly, or we can treat them well. Regardless, they have constitutional rights. That’s not me; that’s the Supreme Court.
While they’re here, I want them to do well. I want them to get an excellent education, get a good job, and build for the future, and they can always try to become documented. That’s one of the things about our country; there are many pathways to becoming documented. In the meantime, their children are entitled to an excellent education and everything else. I try to follow the law.
Republicans have been attacking Trans and women’s healthcare at the state and national levels. How will you protect healthcare in Philadelphia, specifically reproductive healthcare?
A lot of what we’re talking about here lies at the federal and state level, but we have healthcare centers that provide for a broad range of healthcare needs, whether it’s H.I.V. care or care for people transitioning or dealing with complications due to their transition from one gender to another. Those are things that are just a part of providing public healthcare, and we’re going to keep doing that.
The Supreme Court has dealt with whether abortion care is a constitutional fight, a federal dispute that could always be resolved through a constitutional amendment. In the meantime, abortion is legal in Pennsylvania, so there’s nothing for me to do there other than continue to provide the available services in accordance with the law.
There has been a massive rise in hate crimes nationwide, including in Philadelphia. As Mayor, how would you protect marginalized communities from these sorts of crimes and cool the rhetoric aimed at them?
I think the best thing the Mayor can do is provide a less stressful environment. What I mean is the more people can’t get a job, earn a living, or pay the rent, the more they feel they are somehow disadvantaged by other people; the more they tend to scapegoat other people.
So, I would start by making life easier for people by providing a more efficient government that is more responsive. The next thing is to look at our city government, and many things can be done with technology regarding language and access. Making sure people can get the answers they need 24/7.
Recognizing things aren’t always constant; sometimes there’s Asian hate and anti-Asian violence, and sometimes it’s Anti-Semitism or Transphobia, Anti-Black racism. These things ebb and flow; sometimes, they are somewhat suppressed, and other times, they rise to the surface. The Mayor should take an active role whenever and where bigotry arises in the city. It’s essential to stay within the realm of the law, within the frame of the constitution, understanding the First Amendment protects even speech we don’t like. The Government can’t be there to tell people what to think; they can tell them the law and hold them accountable when they step out of it. Hate speech is one of those issues where the First Amendment collides with the law and the public good; you can’t target people, especially with the intent to create harm directly or indirectly…You have to be careful here because there is a fine line between protected speech and hate speech.
I remember in law school when the ACLU defended the Nazi Party’s right to march down the street; I know that’s a hard pill to swallow, but what you do against a group that you despise can be used against a group you support, so you can’t allow the Government to become a tool of the person, what their preferences are because the Government can bring a lot of force to bear, a lot of violence, police, prisons and the rest. So you have to let the First Amendment guide you in these things, thus why I’m a Republican. (It’s worth pointing out that Republicans are currently and have historically ignored the First Amendment when it suited them. Examples are the Don’t Say Gay Laws in Florida, the restriction of various portions of history that call out racism or touch on Black history, the banning of books, government suppression of the Black Lives Matter movement, the civil rights movement, and the use of COINTELPRO. The list of current and historical examples is indeed pervasive.)
I think, for example, when we see LGBTQ hate and Trans hate and all that, we see the language, we see the activity, and one of the ways we try to deter it is by bringing out the visible support of our city for those marginalized groups. We stand with them to borrow a phrase.
For example, there was an anti-LGBTQ attack in another part of the country, and there was a lot of concern in the Gayborhood that there could be some sort of copycat attack here. So, I asked a person from the community who was in touch with me if they wanted an extra patrol car or two in the Gayborhood. I left it to them, but I thought if we were going to do that, wouldn’t it be good to place some LGBTQ officers there, to use officers who the neighborhood would be more comfortable with, who knew their issues. The same goes for the Asian community. Do they want officers who speak Chinese, Cambodian, or Vietnamese? Whatever group is affected, we have to go to them and ask them how they want to handle things. You can’t just send the police in because that may exasperate things. The community may feel not only are we being subjected to hate, but we’re also being overrun by the police, who also have a history of harming our community. So, we check first and hold open lines of communication with marginalized communities to catch these things before they get out of hand.
You said you wanted to open the school board to at least some elected positions if your goal is to protect children and improve their education. Is that a smart thing, given the prevalence of hate groups like Moms for Liberty, specifically in Pennsylvania, which they claim is the state with their second-highest membership?
Sure it is; how does extremism arise? It’s because people are unhappy with things the way they are; it’s not because some extreme people are talking to happy people. Extremists can’t be effective if many people are happy with how things are, so pretending people are satisfied with how things are is a denial of how things are.
My point is no matter who’s Mayor, whether it’s me, Kenney, or Parker, we’re going to appoint people we think should be there, but the School District has been and is a proven failure for our kids.
Mayors have been selecting School Board members, but you’ve never really had a school board where people have thought you know they’re doing a bang-up job. So look, the politics are already there; I’m saying let’s get more accountability there. We’re not going to get a fully elected school board because the City and the State don’t want to give them taxing power, so let’s do a hybrid system.
There currently isn’t support for that, but as Mayor, what I can do is make my selections and tell five of them, ‘Look, you’re going to be in this position until I can get this election done.’ Now, that doesn’t make the school board members, but I’m going to appoint those five people who were elected to the school board.
We have to break through the power dynamic to get people behind us, so this is a way for me to show people what this can look like.
How will you protect Philadelphia students from the harmful policies of groups like these?
It comes down to accountability and transparency; we have to make the school board more responsive to the communities they represent.
You talk a lot about improving infrastructure in our schools, which is definitely needed, but I don’t hear you talking about enhancing our kids’ mental health or making accessible things like tutoring or aftercare for poor working-class families. How would you get kids the extra mental health care and tutoring they need to develop into their best selves?
I take the position of global best practices in delivering a good quality education. Well, some things are just obvious, like transparency. How much money does the school district have, and how much of it ends up in the classroom? What is the difference in spending for a classroom in SW Philly, Germantown, North Philly, and Northeast Philly because they’re not supposed to be different? They’re supposed to be the same.
When people talk about how unfair education spending is in Pennsylvania… look at Lower Merion compared to Philadelphia; no, just look at Philadelphia. You don’t have to look at Lower Merion. That’s just a little tiny school district with a bunch of rich people. Look at our city; we have wealthy and impoverished neighborhoods, and all schools should be the same regarding funding and quality of education.
I also don’t hear you talking about things like food or housing insecurity, which also impact student performance in the classroom. How would you address the issues that aren’t directly related to the district but have a huge impact?
I have a very different perspective from you, and I think our problem in these neighborhoods is a mentality problem. People are trapped in a box; they want the Government to do things for them, like provide mental healthcare, housing, food, etc. The Government can’t do that; it’s never been able to do that, but people keep waiting for it, and it will never happen.
Each of these communities needs to break out of this box and learn to come together and pull their money, and right now, people can’t do that because they’re trapped in this box.
Even the gang kids respected books; you covered it and took care of it. People didn’t have copiers, computers, or cell phones to get on the Internet; people used the library for all these things. It was a community resource. It was peaceful in and around the library, even the gang kids. People would go there; they were studying, reading, doing what they needed to do. People were quiet. If they weren’t, they were removed. There was discipline in the library, which is critically important for children, especially kids from broken homes and rough communities.
So when the library came to the City Council and said we need two million dollars from the City, we’re not going to charge fines for lost or stolen books in these poorer communities anymore. I opposed it. Because I felt it was very out of touch, it was a white suburban thing, you’re giving these kids charity, but you’re taking away a fundamental tool in these communities for learning credit, you’re also telling me you have no plan for these libraries that are vital resources for the community in these neighborhoods. This is a shared public resource. If you’re rich, you don’t care. You can buy a book, throw it away, it doesn’t matter, but if you’re poor, you need those books, those resources the library has. It is a shared public resource, so you appreciate it; you appreciate the park, swings, and basketball court. You’re going to take care of it; you’re not going to graffiti up the place; you’re not going to punch a hole in that basketball everyone is using; cut down the net. There is a sense of community-mindedness that I think is invaluable.
It’s for all of us. It’s crucial that when you have all these broken families, you make up for it through a societal perspective within your culture and your race within your impoverished community.
If I were Mayor, I would turn that system into a system of credit where you could take out a violin, an electric guitar, a laptop computer, scientific equipment, and even a gaming console. What if we coordinated with the schools, and if you got good marks on that math test or at the end of the semester, we set it so you could keep that gaming console longer?
Schools are a critical issue; right now, they are shouting to these communities that we don’t care about them. So my campaign is about shaking things up, tearing them down if necessary to build them back up because I understand how corrupt this city is. We have to shake off the stagnation in City Hall, the School district, and these communities. We gotta shake them out of the box they’ve been pushed into.
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