Sam Oropeza has no time for party politics in his run for Philly City Council in 2023
Oropeza, a Republican, is running for an at-large seat on City Council, and wants to bring a fresh face and energy to the legislative body.
MORE IN THIS SECTION
When thinking about the quagmire that is party politics in Philadelphia, Sam Oropeza has better things to worry about.
He’s one of three Republicans running for an at-large City Council seat in 2023, but the only one who didn’t get an endorsement from the city Republican Party this local election cycle.
“We didn’t ask for it,” Oropeza told AL DÍA in a recent interview about his campaign. “It was abundantly clear in that last election our values didn’t align.”
Those values for Oropeza are rooted in the Kensington community he reps the most in his at-large run. It’s been his home for the last five years, where he’s operated as a real estate agent.
His office is a block off Kensington Avenue on Venango, and he’s also built a reputation as a community-minded leader — behind more than a few cleanup efforts in the surrounding neighborhood and as a mentor of young kids wanting to go into fight sports.
The issues Oropeza says he sees on a daily basis in Kensington are also not ones that get the Democrat or Republican label.
“These are people issues,” he said. “I’m here to do the work that needs to be done here in Philadelphia.”
It’s that mission that fuels Oropeza on his run, and he speaks confidently of his prospects in the 2023 race. He also knows a thing or two about overcoming adversity with his back against the wall.
A “normal” childhood
Oropeza was born and raised in Briarcliffe, PA, a community in Darby Township, just beyond the western border of Philadelphia in Delaware County. He was the youngest of six — with three older brothers and two older sisters.
“So I got beat up all the time,” Oropeza said, noting the worst came from his sister Francis, who was just two years older than him.
For all intents and purposes, Oropeza said he led a “normal” childhood, going to Catholic school all through high school — St. Joseph’s Parish School in Collingdale before attending and graduating from Monsignor Bonner. His “hyperactive” energy was often exerted playing a number of sports, including wrestling.
But along that early journey, tragedy struck in Oropeza’s life, as his dad passed away when he was just 10 years old from liver and kidney failure.
“That’s really when I learned a lot about life and reality,” Oropeza said. “My life changed forever at that point.”
In the moment, he didn’t realize the long-term effects, but they’re something he’s grappled with a majority of his life.
“If you don’t take the time to heal and to self reflect, it can really damage and control your life,” said Oropeza. “It can shut off a side of the world that you’ll never see or never know was out there.”
Lessons from fighting
That other side of the world Oropeza would find in the Upper Darby Boxing Gym. Invited to go at 10 by one of his sister’s boyfriends not long after his dad passed, he still remembers his first time entering the gym. He was in awe of the sparring and bag sessions he witnessed, but what stuck out most was the smell — a combination of leather and sweat unique to fight gyms.
“It makes this terrible smell, but to me it was the sweetest smell I’ve ever smelled my whole entire life,” said Oropeza.
He was also scared, but the fear is what fueled his future fight career.
“The thought in my head was if I became a fighter, I wouldn’t be scared,” said Oropeza.
Fighting taught a number of things that Oropeza still carries to this day. First, it made him into a goal-oriented person.
“You have to know where you want to go,” he said, citing the UFC as his ultimate goal when his fight career began. He didn’t get there, but did amass a 13-win, three-loss professional record and was in competing promotions like StrikeForce and Bellator.
Secondly, it taught him emotional control — something he admits to having to use on a regular basis on the campaign trail in 2023.
Third, and most important for a young Oropeza, it finally gave him some positive male role models to look up to and emulate.
“I was searching for… somebody I could look up to. Somebody I could follow in their footsteps,” he said.
Oropeza said he wants to be the same for Kensington and Philadelphia youth on City Council.
As a fighter, Oropeza also learned about Philadelphia’s many different neighborhoods going to gyms, but truly found Kensington when he entered real estate.
Outside of the ring, he wore many different hats to make ends meet. First, he got a degree in power plant technology from Williamson College of the Trades in Media and began working at warehouses and plants in the Philly region. When that got old, Oropeza found an in with Center City real estate firm Rittenhouse Realty Advisors (now Global Real Estate Advisors), and was assigned a territory that included Kensington, Harrowgate, and all the way to Trenton, New Jersey.
Oropeza did acquisitions, and the Kensington area was ripe with opportunity to repurpose the many old mills and factories that used to employ hundreds in the surrounding neighborhoods. He was inspired not only by the restoration, but also the community members he got to know in the process and how they worked together.
“I believe in that neighborhood,” said Oropeza. “It’s something that I wanted to get involved with.”
His on-the-ground work started a year into the COVID-19 pandemic. With shutdowns still widespread, Oropeza said he saw Kensington “get crazier.”
“It bothered me to my core,” he said of individuals he saw taking advantage of the situation to wreak further havoc in the community.
One of the issues to amplify — and it’s still a problem — was illegal dumping. To combat it, Oropeza created Rescuing Streets through Clean Ups, a collective of residents from Port Richmond, Harrowgate, Kensington, and Juniata to clean up blocks and other frequent dump sites in the surrounding area.
“I enjoyed it,” Oropeza said, who also met other like-minded community members in the process. “Our city needs a lot of help with cleaning up.”
Oropeza’s community work is also connected to his past as a fighter, and he still hosts youth in the community for training sessions at Front Street Gym on Sunday mornings. They’re aptly called Sunday Scrappers.
“Why not me?”
His community advocacy hit another level last year when he first put his hat in the political ring to run for office.
“When you look at what an elected official is, you’re a public servant. And I don’t see much service going on to the people,” said Oropeza. “Why not me?”
He ran in the special election as the Republican candidate to replace PA State Senator John Sabatina Jr., who stepped down to pursue a spot on Philly’s Court of Common Pleas.
Oropeza lost to his Democratic opponent Jimmy Dillon in a short, three-month campaign, which doubled as a crash course in Philadelphia politics. Some of it was brand new, while other aspects harkened back to his time in fighting and real estate.
On the new side, he got a good look at the Democratic political machine in the city, which raised more than $800,000 to beat him in the special election.
The familiar came in the form of so-called friends and supporters that were there one day hyping him up, but no-shows when it mattered at the ballot box.
“It’s a dirty business,” reflected Oropeza.
But both experiences didn’t damper his spirits when deciding to run for an at-large seat in 2023 — which has also received an endorsement from at-large Republican Councilmember David Oh, who is expected to run for mayor this year. Oropeza also believes if he can meet enough Philadelphians across the city, they’ll give him a chance.
“If you knock on their door, if you look them in the eye, if you’re sincere with them and authentic and really mean what you have to say, they’ll give you a shot,” he said.
The motto for his campaign this time around is “every neighborhood, every block.”
A crime reduction plan
On the issues, Oropeza has public safety at the top of his list, saying the gun violence crisis of the last two years is “destroying Philadelphia.”
For solutions, Oropeza has created a crime reduction plan that’s engaged both law enforcement experts and formerly incarcerated individuals to offer input.
“I get to see a perspective from both sides,” said Oropeza of the thought process when developing the plan.
First, he wants to declare a state of emergency over gun violence get much-needed resources to the city from outside sources. Oropeza believes there’s no quick solution to the crisis, but the state of emergency is a start.
“At what point are we gonna say we need help?” he said.
Second, Oropeza put an emphasis on a policing strategy that honed in on policies that “worked,” and weren’t “unproven.” His example of the latter was the city’s recent Driving Equality Bill, which Oropeza said is a reason for the city’s record hit-and-run numbers of the last year.
For policies he said that worked, Oropeza cited “pinpoint policing” as a strategy, which focuses on hot spot areas in the city for a police presence. In 2019, the city announced a similar initiative called Operation Pinpoint, which was then in response to the then-10-year-high homicide rate of 353. 2019 ended with the same number of homicides, and what followed in the three years of COVID-19 since were record numbers for the city and over 500 homicides in 2021 and 2022.
The other policy Oropeza mentioned to AL DÍA targets those committing the violent crimes in neighborhoods and removes them.
“We have to get the criminals causing harm off the streets so they can’t harm us anymore,” he said.
The third pillar of his crime reduction plan would tackle blight and ramp up efforts to catch and prosecute those committing illegal dumping.
“A clean neighborhood is a safe neighborhood,” Oropeza said.
The fourth part would conduct an audit of City Council’s recent $208 million anti-violence budget. The idea behind the audit would be to make sure the funds are going to the correct orgs and potentially expanding it to more doing work against gun violence in the city.
The fifth and final part of Oropeza’s crime reduction plan would be to put funding into Stop the Bleed programs that provide first-aid training and distribute tourniquets to use on potential victims of gun violence. Oropeza envisions it as a citywide program.
“Stopping someone from bleeding out is going to save their life,” he said.
Opioids, education, and accountability
When it comes to the opioid crisis, Oropeza is opposed to safe injection sites, and says they don’t reduce the overall overdose numbers despite saving the lives of those that use them.
However, he did show a willingness to change that viewpoint should a majority of residents let him know.
“I’m here to serve the people of Philadelphia,” said Oropeza, “but I don’t hear that right now.”
The other two parts of his campaign tout providing a quality education and bringing more accountability to city government.
On education, Oropeza hones in on providing a safe environment for children to learn and teachers to teach, and is in favor of giving parents more of a choice when it comes to where their kids go to school and who sits on the school board. Structurally, he suggested breaking up the School District of Philadelphia into smaller districts to potentially make the number of kids more manageable. In the 2021-22 school year, there were approximately 196,000 students in the Philly school district.
“How do you really oversee that?” Oropeza said.
When it comes to accountability, Oropeza said he wants to do a better job than predecessors of letting residents know what his job as an at-large councilmember entails.
“I want to spend as little time inside City Hall as possible,” he said.
Instead, he wants to be in communities like Kensington where he can be present with residents.
“We need youth and we need energy,” said Oropeza. “We need to work together.”
The Republican primary in Philadelphia is on May 16, 2023. The general election is on Nov. 7, 2023.
This content is a part of Every Voice, Every Vote, a collaborative project managed by The Lenfest Institute for Journalism. Lead support is provided by the William Penn Foundation with additional funding from The Lenfest Institute, Peter and Judy Leone, the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation, Harriet and Larry Weiss, and the Wyncote Foundation, among others. To learn more about the project and view a full list of supporters, visit www.every voice-every vote.org. Editorial content is created independently of the project’s donors.