For more reporting on the controversy surrounding candidate David Oh's military record, see our news blog Naked City.
[ political scheming ]
In August, the Daily News ran the first of a series of articles questioning whether David Oh, who is running for a Republican at-large seat on Philadelphia's City Council, had lied about his military credentials in campaign materials that described him as having served in the Special Forces and as a former Green Beret.
Oh apologized for any "confusing" statements. But that only drew more wrath. A group calling itself the Philadelphia Independent Veterans Association soon urged him to drop his campaign.
Yet it's not clear that Oh did misrepresent himself — and it's even less clear what really spurred the attacks against him, which have all the makings of a smear campaign, less about military credentials than Philly politics. Recently, anonymous fliers bashing Oh began to circulate, in clear violation of campaign finance and disclosure laws. Someone is out to get Oh, and is willing to break the law to do it. Who or what, exactly, is behind the attempted takedown?
Oh's campaign literature has indeed referred to him as a Special Forces officer and/or a Green Beret — and Oh has appeared in at least one photo wearing the beret (not including the Photoshop job that graced the cover of the Daily News).
Here's the thing: Oh's military record makes it absolutely clear that Oh was designated "18-Alpha" — better known as "Special Forces." He was also assigned a green beret to wear as part of his uniform.
The dispute is based in the nuanced, changing definitions of these terms. Today, a Green Beret is one of an elite group that's completed specialized training and has been Special Forces "qualified" or "tabbed." Oh does not belong to that group, as two high-ranking Army officials told the Daily News. But Oh never claimed he did.
Retired Army Capt. Nick Panarella — a Special Forces officer in the Vietnam War and a member of the Special Forces Association who is, in fact, lobbying to make false military claims a crime — told City Paper: "From what I saw, [Oh] told the truth ... and I find it appalling that people who didn't serve are questioning the integrity of his service."
Recent headlines ("Vets slam David Oh for misleading military claims," "Vets rip candidate on Green Beret claim") suggest that Oh has come under fire from the local veterans community.
In fact, the only veterans group to have come out against Oh, the Philadelphia Independent Veterans Association, was formed by retired Navy veteran Joe Eastman, whose beef with Oh dates back to a row over a dinner banquet last year for the Philadelphia 82nd Airborne Association. Eastman said Oh invited too many Democrats and accused him of playing politics with the event.
"Look, I'm a Republican," Eastman told CP. "I've come to believe that Mr. Oh does not embrace the Republican values."
When CP pointed out that Eastman sounded more concerned about politics than Oh's military career, Eastman answered, "I am against David Oh for what I believe to be false claims about his military service."
Several established Philly veterans' groups say they've never heard of Eastman's group — and that they support Oh.
When the allegations first surfaced, Dan Bosak — Oh's predecessor as chairman of the Philadelphia 82nd Airborne Association — told CP, "There were absolutely concerns."
"We talked with [Oh]; he was nice enough to bring his documentation," says Bosak. The group concluded he had done nothing wrong.
Steve Zalewski, another 82nd Airborne Association member and co-chairman of Philly's chapter of the Vietnam Veterans Memorial Society, agrees: "Joe Eastman forms a group of 10 people, gives it a fancy name, while veterans from 10 different groups disagree with them. It seems he formed that group for one reason."
So who has a motive to smear David Oh? Only just about everybody in Philly politics. Oh's enemies include his opponents for the at-large Council seat, of course, but also the establishment, Republican and otherwise.
Oh's 2007 City Council bid against Republican Jack Kelly marked a challenge to the status quo: Oh ran without party backing and nearly won. Oh again stands to win a Council seat — which means he'll have a vote in one of the city's most important, least understood political contests: the battle for Council presidency.
Council members Marian B. Tasco and Darrell Clarke are widely considered the frontrunners for that position. Tasco has Nutter's backing — as, in May, did Council candidates who seemed likely to vote for her. Candidates who seemed to side with Clarke by declaring their unwillingness to support a "DROP-enrolled" president — i.e., Tasco — were generally backed by union boss John Dougherty and former mayor (and Nutter enemy) John Street.
Oh is seemingly indebted to neither side, which makes him a dangerous candidate indeed.
"You see an aggressive campaign," affirms political guru Larry Ceisler. "That's what happens when you have an election with a lot of consequences."