Can David Oh Still Win a Philadelphia City Council Seat?

Despite controversy over his military service, the Republican is still in the running

A little more than four years ago, when the city’s weak-kneed Republican machine was still thought to be firmly in the grip of Michael Meehan, a GOP City Council candidate named David Oh entered the stage and started doing things that were, for a Republican council candidate in this city, very, very strange. For one, he had ideas. Actual policy proposals. By the dozen, in fact. What’s more, they were novel and interesting ones. He went out there and endorsed the creation of an arts and entertainment district where clubs and bars could stay open 24 hours a day. Philadelphia’s future, he said, was as an international hub. He was out there proposing special free-trade zones, for crissakes.

Given the GOP’s pathetic tradition in Philadelphia, Oh’s 2007 candidacy was a revelation. Here was a guy from the Republican party who might actually be a contributor on council. And he almost won, despite the party’s opposition to his candidacy. Oh lost to incumbent GOP Councilman (and overall waste of space) Jack Kelly by 122 votes.

Fast forward to 2011. Meehan’s control of the GOP is being hotly contested by a band of Republican malcontents, and Oh—who almost showed Meehan up in 2007—is in the catbird seat. Oh cruised through the May primary, winning more votes than any other GOP council candidate. He seemed set to become the first Asian to serve on City Council.

But then things got messy. In August, Chris Brennan reported in the Daily News that Oh—who during his council campaigns had called himself a Green Beret—had never actually completed the required training and been formally accepted into the special forces. Had Oh ‘fessed up then to embellishing his record, the problem would have likely gone away. After all, he had trained with a special forces unit, so perhaps it could be forgiven as an exaggeration.

But Oh panicked. He demanded an apology from the DN. Then, as the tight-knit special forces community caught wind of the story and began to pick him apart, Oh published full page advertisements in the Inquirer and Daily News issuing his regrets for “any confusion or misimpression” his Green Beret claims created. Since then, though, Oh is back to saying that he never misled people about his record, and that the whole mess amounts to confusion over military terminology. I think it’s simpler than that: If the guys who are real-life, no-doubt-about-it special forces soldiers think that Oh is fluffing up his resume, well, that’s good enough for me.

Privately, Oh’s supporters acknowledge that he’s handled the entire affair badly. But they also feel he’s been unfairly singled out for scrutiny. (Brennan has also reported on Oh’s arrest in the 1990s for firing a gun into the air to scare off a group of people he thought were criminals near his home.) Maybe so. But those are the breaks in politics. A reporter gets a tip, and if it pans out, and the candidate fails to handle it well (like Oh) the story builds and builds.

The remarkable thing is, Oh still stands at excellent shot at winning a seat on Council despite all of this. He has strong support from the city’s Asian community, the reformist wing of the GOP, and is likely to get a pretty decent chunk of Democratic votes as well. As a candidate, Oh brings a lot to the table, and if he wins he may well become an excellent councilman. If he loses, which is also a real possibility now, he only has himself to blame.