During an event in Philadelphia last month, ex-TV doctor and GOP Senate nominee Dr. Mehmet Oz comforted a Black woman whose family had suffered multiple tragic losses to gun violence, in what appeared to be a spontaneous moment of empathy and compassion.
But it turns out the woman is an Oz campaign staffer, and she organized the event herself.
The woman at the so-called “Safer Streets Community Discussion” event is Sheila Armstrong, who identifies herself on her Facebook page as Oz’s Philadelphia County coordinator. Armstrong has been on the campaign’s payroll since at least June, according to Federal Election Commission records showing she’d been paid more than $2,000.
In the emotional exchange, Oz shared a moment of compassion with Armstrong, who lived through the trauma of losing both a brother and a nephew to gun violence. Oz hugged her and asked how she’s managed to stay strong through such tragedy. Neither he nor Armstrong disclosed to the many journalists at the event that she was on the campaign’s payroll.
Brendan McPhillips, the campaign manager for Pennsylvania Lt. Gov. and Democratic nominee John Fetterman, first noted Armstrong’s ties to the campaign. It appears reporters for the Associated Press and Philadelphia Inquirer, both of which covered the event, were unaware of Armstrong’s role in the Oz campaign. (Both outlets have since clarified that Armstrong was a paid staffer.)
McPhillips called out her inclusion in an Associated Press article highlighting the importance of the Black vote in the upcoming Senate race, which was published this week. The Intercept later confirmed McPhillips’ claim.
Oz’s campaign did not immediately respond to a VICE News request for comment regarding Armstrong’s appearance at the event.
Armstrong helped coordinate the event, according an Instagram post published days before. In the post, Armstrong also notes losing two of her family members to street violence, which was a major part of her decision to support Oz.
“My service is NOT about a ‘political party’ but about where God places me and the people of God that I serve during my assignment,” she wrote. The notice also asked those who wished to attend to email her directly.
But few people actually showed up to the event. An image tweeted by Democrat State Rep. Chris Rabb, who says he wasn’t invited to the event even though it was held in his own community, shows less than half a dozen participants taking part in the discussion. Participants appear to have been outnumbered by reporters, and half of them, Rabb said in the tweet, were featured in Oz’s campaign material, including a TV spot in which Armstrong makes a brief appearance.
Oz’s bid to succeed Republican Pat Toomey in the Pennsylvania seat, viewed by the GOP as vital to winning the Senate, has been plagued by mishaps and questions about authenticity. An Oz campaign video ostensibly meant to attack Fetterman and President Joe Biden over inflation went viral because Oz repeatedly referred to vegetables as “crudités,” and Fetterman has portrayed Oz as an out-of-touch outsider due to his longtime New Jersey residency, wealth, and fandom for the wrong sports teams.
The lieutenant governor spent much of the summer with an enormous polling advantage in the race and still maintains a lead over Oz, but Oz has begun to close the gap in recent weeks after a wave of ads attacking Fetterman’s positions on crime and his health, as Fetterman continues to recover from a stroke he suffered in May.
Fetterman has continued to hammer Oz on his highly questionable practice of hawking miracle cures during his career as a TV doctor, his authenticity, and a report from Jezebel earlier this month that Oz’s research at Columbia University resulted in the deaths of more than 300 dogs over the course of 21 years.
Oz’s position on abortion has also been a focus in the Pennsylvania race, as it has been elsewhere. Leaked audio from before Oz won a contentious Republican primary in May showed the candidate telling Republican voters that abortion was “murder.” In an interview with NBC News published Friday, Oz wouldn’t say if he supports Sen. Lindsey Graham’s proposed national abortion ban but that he doesn’t “want any federal rules limiting what states do with abortion.”
“It should be up to the states,” Oz said, echoing a position Graham himself held as recently as May.
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