Philly Mayoral Debate: a Local recap by Cory Clark
Last month, Democratic candidate for mayor Cherelle Parker and Republican David Oh, the city’s first female and Asian American candidates, squared off for their first and only face-to-face debate, covering issues ranging from violent crime and police accountability to education and the 76ers’ arena proposal to housing and taxes.
The moderators didn’t pull any punches with their questions, challenging both candidates on their stated positions while allowing them to differentiate themselves from their opponents. If you don’t have time to watch KYW’s full video, their recap includes handy audio clips for all the key points discussed here in my commentary.
Parker took the opportunity to double down on many of her campaign’s most controversial positions, such as her recent comments about sending the National Guard into Kensington to address the crime, opioid, and humanitarian crisis.
I’ll get to that in a sec, but If I had to take anything from Parker’s answers during the debate, it would be the deep debt she owes the building trades, which seemed to permeate many of her responses. This isn’t to say her answers were wrong, but it was clear who was driving her campaign and who she believes she owes her allegiance to — and it isn’t the people most affected by her policies.
To be fair, Oh didn’t do much better, the difference being that his positions were his own, and in many ways, he was to the left of Parker.
However, on several issues, both candidates’ policies seemed designed for political gain or pandering rather than by what studies and data show works.
Parker’s years of experience as a politician came through in the polished, confident, and disciplined way she stuck to her talking points; clearly, she had prepped well for the debate.
In contrast, Oh came across as less polished and didn’t have all his facts at the ready or willfully misrepresented them, particularly in his framing of the safe injection sites that had been proposed for Kensington.
Safe Injection Sites and The National Guard
Oh went after safe injection sites, mischaracterizing the one proposed for Kensington. “The mayor opened a heroin injection site without the consent of the community. He did it way too quickly, and then, and currently, he’s trying to put up more heroin injection sites in communities.”
Quick fact check: The site was never opened and was still in court in September when City Council passed a ban on safe injection sites. Beyond the basic facts, Oh’s position, as well as Parker’s, showed how little they know about addiction treatment or effective tactics for ending homelessness.
It also revealed that both of them are not basing their policies on evidence from other cities (like New York, which opened its first site in 2021) and countries showing the effectiveness of overdose prevention sites, but rather are exploiting fear and ignorance about addiction to advance “solutions” that further marginalize disadvantaged people in our city for political gain.
Parker had the opportunity to clarify her National Guard in Kensington comments but, rather than address the reasonable concerns of those who say using a militarized force to deal with a public health crisis could lead to greater abuses and violence, dismissed these concerns as “narrow-minded.”
She went on to say that the National Guard “can deliver food and assist in protecting property.” (That last bit sounds like policing to me, a role the Guard is not trained for. And the delivering food part, while commendable, doesn’t seem to fit with the tone of her previous comments about the Guard being “part of the solution” to “shut down the open-air drug market in Kensington that’s being allowed to prevail.”)
Perhaps to address some of the criticisms, she acknowledged that calling in the Guard wouldn’t be her decision alone. “I know that you have to work in partnership with the General Assembly and the governor’s office, among others, to call in the Guard.”
Stop and Frisk
On Stop and Frisk, both candidates referred to the tactic as “Terry Stops” (apparently due to the negative connotation of stop and frisk. Quick thought – if you have to rename something because it’s got a bad rep, maybe you shouldn’t support it). Regardless of the politically correct term, Parker doubled down on the tactic, saying she didn’t want to take any tools away from the police.
Again, she seemed to ignore volumes of data and many studies, which make clear the tactic essentially does nothing to reduce crime. (A recent stop and frisk study of New York, Chicago, and Nashville by the University of Chicago concluded that the tactic “doesn’t get many guns off the streets, exacts a heavy toll on those who are stopped, and corrodes trust in police.” One memorable line from the study – “In one summer, Chicago officers stopped a staggering quarter of a million people (primarily Black and Hispanic) without making an arrest.”)
David Oh was clear in his opposition to Terry Stops. He said he “doesn’t believe they can be done constitutionally and do not produce results because they’re used to harass and bully people.” He also called the tactic “regressive” and said the policy further divides police and communities of color that are disproportionately impacted by the policy. He summed it up as “historically an invitation to failure.”
Working with the D.A.
On the topic of D.A. Larry Krasner, Parker went after Oh for his public condemnation of Krasner’s record and policies. “It’s sexy for some, salacious for others, to point fingers and talk about who is not doing what, but that’s not how I’ve gotten things done in my career,” said Parker.
She said she’d take a more “comprehensive approach that doesn’t point fingers,” including the police adopting CompStat360. This data collection tool would ensure “police leadership responds on its plans to reduce crime.” She also said that she would hold Krasner accountable, in part, by making all cases sent by police to the D.A. open to the public. She called this “power in transparency.”
Oh responded, “I believe the decision by our mayor and D.A. not to prosecute so-called “low-level crimes” was bad policy. I think Kensington is a prime example of government policy that is very harmful, intentional, and discriminatory.”
He went on to say that, as mayor, he would challenge Krasner. “I will use the weight of my office to ensure that we have prosecution in the city so that people are protected. I will look at the attorney general’s office. I will look at deputizing my attorneys under concurrent jurisdiction, and I will look at using the federal prosecutors if (the D.A.) does not prosecute violent offenders.”
When asked about the Arena, Parker seemed to have a position for each side of her mouth. On the one side, she refused to take a firm stance, saying she “continued to affirm that I will use a data-driven and research-based approach that will include both quantitative and qualitative data.”
On the other side, her dismissal of the concerns of Chinatown’s residents and business owners as “a knee-jerk reaction” and her deference to the building trades throughout the debate came across as an unspoken approval for the gentrification of Chinatown by the 76ers developers.
David Oh’s position was clear; he opposed the project, even if it meant the Sixers leaving Philly. This mirrors many concerns from Chinatown residents, who believe if the arena plans were to move forward, “it would probably be the end of Chinatown.”
“Chinatown is 152 years in the making. It has gone through a lot and is also a cultural and economic engine,” said Oh. He didn’t know “what kind of concessions we’re going to make to Chinatown residents and businesses.” Still, he feared the arena would create a “completely new area of franchises, high taxes, and luxury housing.”
Parker and Oh both pledged to improve the public schools while also indicating they weren’t opposed to other types of schools, such as charters or private schools.
Oh’s primary concern was “quality education,” regardless of whether it’s “public, private, or charter. I want to ensure that every child in our city has access to a good, quality school and that if they have a choice, they can use that choice. However, fundamentally, I want to have good public schools. I believe a public education system is the best system for everyone.”
Parker replied that her candidacy was founded on “putting people on a path to self-sufficiency.” She added, “You can’t do that without access to quality public education. That’s why this concept of traditional public versus charters is not a narrative that I will allow in my administration.” Her vision for the school system was a collaborative one in which she would “bring leadership together from public schools, public charters, parochial schools, and even private schools to sit at the table and figure out if there’s any way for us to have synergy and learn from each other.”
In response to a question about the high cost of housing, Parker stressed the need to build more affordable housing units to reduce costs and prevent the displacement of vulnerable communities.
“I offered a plan during the primary where I talked about having 30,000 housing units available here in Philadelphia,” Parker said.
Oh criticized Philadelphia’s current home assessment property process and said it needed an overhaul.
“Our city, to me, illegally assesses property. It’s improper, and they are overtaxing people throughout Philadelphia, especially the most vulnerable poorest senior citizens [on] fixed income and low-income high crime areas.”
Oh also expanded on a proposal he introduced while on City Council to increase the amount of money in the Housing Trust Fund.
“The Housing Trust Fund and the affordable housing funding in this City should be about 100 million dollars, and I would fund it. Secondly, most affordable housing dollars are spent in gentrifying neighborhoods. That’s not where we should be spending it. We must move that money into the neighborhoods where people need housing. We could build more housing with skilled labor from our neighborhoods.”
Need for Change
Both candidates emphasized the urgency of change in Philadelphia. Oh said people are disillusioned with the status quo and do not believe their votes make a difference. He said he wants to “come in and clean house.” Parker said she was honest and consistent about her proposed solutions throughout the campaign. She said she did not tailor her message to different groups “based on their race, class, socio-economic status, religion, zip code, sexual identity, or orientation.”