Dr. Mehmet Oz’s opponents have harped on him being a New Jersey guy running for Senate in Pennsylvania. But is it true? And does it matter?

By Brent Johnson | NJ Advance Media for NJ.com,Rudy Miller | For lehighvalleylive.com andJonathan D. Salant | NJ Advance Media for NJ.com

Bruce Springsteen. Jon Bon Jovi. Whitney Houston. Danny DeVito. Chris Christie.

Dr. Oz?

The list of famous people to grace New Jersey’s ZIP codes — whether they be native-born or transplants — is a lengthy one. Maybe you didn’t know that Mehmet Oz, the doctor who long hosted a medical TV show bearing his name, is on it. Though he didn’t grow up in the state, Oz has owned a mansion overlooking the Hudson River from high upon the Palisades hills in Cliffside Park for two decades.

Today, his sights are on Pennsylvania. In the last two years, Oz registered to vote at his in-laws’ address in the Keystone State, launched a campaign for an open U.S. Senate seat there, and bought his own property in the Philly suburbs.

But the man running against him really wants you to know about Oz’s Jersey connection.

The Garden State has become a critical character in the race between Oz, a Republican backed by former President Donald Trump, and Democratic Lt. Gov. John Fetterman for retiring Republican Pat Toomey’s Senate seat representing Pennsylvania. The outcome of that contest may determine which party controls the upper house of Congress come January.

Fetterman, 53, a lifelong Pennsylvania resident, has painted Oz, 62, as an interloper who has the gall of trying to defect from New Jersey, a rival next-door neighbor and a state that inspires ritual ridicule from all over the map. (That’s even though Oz was born in Cleveland, raised in Delaware, and got his medical degree from the University of Pennsylvania in Philadelphia.)

It’s an issue that plays on Pennsylvanians’ skepticism toward outsiders, as well as Jersey’s perpetual status as a national punching bag.

Notably, Fetterman unleashed a relentless trolling campaign that has included Twitter jabs about Oz’s Jersey residence and hired a plane to fly over the Jersey Shore with a banner reading, “Hey Dr. Oz. Welcome home to NJ! Love, John.”

He got some famous Garden Staters — stubbornly proud of their home state, as is the Jersey way — to play along. Snooki and Steven Van Zandt both filmed videos poking fun at Oz.

There has also been a push from a Jersey congressman, Democratic Rep. Bill Pascrell Jr., to nominate Oz to the New Jersey Hall of Fame.

Even Christie, the former New Jersey governor and fellow Republican, ribbed Oz over the matter.

“I defend Dr. Oz because he is a longtime New Jerseyan,” Christie said during a recent appearance in upstate New York. “The problem is he’s running in Pennsylvania.”

That leaves two questions to be answered: Does any of this actually matter? After all, there’s no residency requirement until a U.S. senator is seated. A number of notable politicians accused of carpetbagging in the past — such as Robert F. Kennedy and Hillary Clinton — have even gone on to win. Plus, Oz notes his wife grew up in Pennsylvania, leading his family to spend plenty of time there over the years.

And how true is the portrayal of Dr. Oz, Jersey guy? He’s one of many transplanted celebrities — from Chris Rock to Whoopi Goldberg to Eli Manning — who own mansions in the north Jersey suburbs, a short trip to Manhattan. Neighbors say he has largely kept to himself. His persona isn’t directly tied to the state. And his real estate portfolio has 10 properties altogether, from Florida to Turkey.

An NJ Advance Media team of journalists from NJ.com and lehighvalleylive.com visited both of Oz’s properties — his Jersey mansion, which he still owns, and new house in eastern Pennsylvania — to get a sense of his impact on, and embrace from, the communities he has called home.

The two places couldn’t be more different. The Cliffside Park house is gated and has a grand view of the Manhattan skyline, so much a source of pride for Oz that he opened the home to People magazine for a photo shoot just two years ago. The new house he purchased in Lower Moreland Township — a five-minute drive from the Philadelphia city line — looks as if it hasn’t been cared for in years. Oz has said he’s living nearby in Bryn Athyn at his in-laws’ home as he campaigns in the state.

Fetterman campaigns in York

John Fetterman arrives at the Holy Hound Tap Room in York during a May appearance. Mark Pynes | mpynes@pennlive.com

Berwood Yost, director of the Center for Opinion Research at Franklin & Marshall College and head of the school’s poll, said residence is especially a focus in the race because Pennsylvania hasn’t elected many candidates without a “long history” there, let alone ones who are celebrities.

“If you talk to Pennsylvanians and you ask them where they’re from, they tell you their hometown,” Yost said. “There’s a strong sense of place here.”

Former Pennsylvania Gov. Ed Rendell said that when he was running for re-election as Philadelphia mayor in 1995, Republican challenger Joe Rocks ran ads calling him a New Yorker. That was more than three decades after Rendell moved to Pennsylvania for college and never left.

Unlike New York, Rendell said, Pennsylvania isn’t as open to out-of-towners.

“New York is the most transitory city in the country. In Pennsylvania, it’s exactly the opposite,” Rendell, a Democrat, told NJ Advance Media. “We’re not nearly as transitory. It’s important to us, especially when (a candidate) comes from New Jersey or New York or a nearby state, when they’re trying to take advantage of the situation.”

Robert Thompson, director of the Bleier Center for Television & Popular Culture at Syracuse University, noted the phrase “Jersey guy” usually conjures “broad-stroke stereotypes” people probably don’t associate with Oz.

“When a lot of people who are not from New Jersey or from the metropolitan area think of New Jersey, they think of Springsteen, they think of Bon Jovi, they think of ‘The Sopranos,’ ‘Jersey Shore,’” Thompson said.

“That stereotype doesn’t include the vast diversity of the people who live in New Jersey. These other people are so much associated with all of the characteristics talking directly about New Jersey. We don’t get that with Dr. Oz.”

Steven Miller, a professor of journalism and media studies at Rutgers University, agrees.

“He’s not a Jersey guy,” Miller said. “But what is he? … Nobody knows where he’s from.”

Regardless, Miller said, the Fetterman campaign has aimed to define Oz as an outsider — from Jersey, no less — before Oz could define himself.

Rendell said Oz is “almost more Hollywood than anything,” but the “big thing is he’s not a Pennsylvanian.”

“No amount of talk will change that,” the former governor said.

Even after officially moving to Pennsylvania, Oz continued to make campaign contributions from his Cliffside Park address, according to data from the research group OpenSecrets. In October 2021, he donated $5,800 apiece to Republican nominee Herschel Walker, running for the U.S. Senate from Georgia, and former New Jersey state Senate Republican Leader Tom Kean Jr., the GOP nominee in the most competitive House race in the Garden State.

Through June 30, 2022, the period covered by the most recent Federal Election Commission filings, Oz did not make a federal or state donation from a Pennsylvania address. The next reports are due Oct. 15.

This is hardly the only issue in the race. Oz has accused Fetterman of being soft on crime, attacking him for supporting the release of some prisoners, including some sentenced to life imprisonment who compiled records as model inmates while behind bars for decades. The lieutenant governor answered in his own ad defending his record, and the newest anti-Oz ads focus on the Republican’s stance on abortion rights, a big issue for Democrats after the U.S. Supreme Court decision to overturn Roe v. Wade.

But the residency question is always hovering.

“Go back to Jersey!” one person yelled as Oz made an appearance at Musikfest in Bethlehem this summer.

Oz brushed off the concern in a recent interview with The Associated Press.

“People don’t really care where I’m from,” he said. “They care what I stand for.”

THE JERSEY MANSION

Aerial view of Dr. Oz house on Cliffside park
An aerial view of the Cliffside Park mansion of Dr. Mehmet Oz.Andre Malok | NJ Advance Media f

Cliffside Park, a borough in Bergen County just across the Hudson from Manhattan, is formerly the home of both the late U.S. Sen. Frank Lautenberg and the now-defunct Palisades Amusement Park — the one from that early ‘60s novelty hit. Scenes from the Tom Hanks movie “Big” were also filmed there.

Oz’s home there is worth $2.9 million, according to the most recent assessment. It sits atop a stretch of the Palisades hills that features a mix of older and newer houses. Just down the hill is a neighborhood of more modest homes and Cliffside’s downtown, dotted with schools, pizzerias, and liquor stores, as well as a number of ethnic restaurants.

It’s a notably diverse town, including a sizable Turkish population. That makes it a fitting home for Oz, the son of Turkish immigrants. He has dual citizenship to the U.S. and Turkey.

Oz and his wife Lisa told People magazine in 2020 they built the opulent home in the early 2000s after they couldn’t find an existing house they liked to raise their growing family. Lisa said they wanted something overlooking the Hudson because her husband’s family in Istanbul “likes to look at the Bosphorus Sea.”

The house, according to the magazine, has six bedrooms, eight bathrooms, Mediterranean-styled architecture, a movie theater, wine cellar, and gym. There’s also an animal print rug under a piano.

“It’s Jersey,” Lisa told People. “I gotta have animal print.”

The couple paid $75,000 in property taxes in 2021, according to state records — nearly 700% more than the average New Jersey bill of $9,284.

The home may have also had a cameo in the Senate race. Fetterman mocked Oz for apparently filming a campaign video in the house, with the background matching photos from the People spread.

“Pro tip: don’t film an ad for your PA senate campaign from your mansion in New Jersey,” Fetterman tweeted.

Oz and his wife still own the Cliffside home, according to property records. The doctor told NJ Advance Media his kids are living there.

“My one son is a medical student,” he said. “One of them is working in an investment company. One of them is a psychologist there.”

Towns like Cliffside are ideal for commuters who travel back and forth to New York for work. Oz told People he left for Manhattan at 6:30 a.m. each day to film his TV show or treat patients at what is now New York-Presbyterian Hospital.

How much Oz ingratiated himself to the Cliffside Park community is an open question — though he attended at least one local event.

The state senator representing the borough, Paul Sarlo, recently shared a picture on Twitter he took with the doctor at an event for the Cliffside Board of Education, in which the town got local leaders and celebrity residents to read Dr. Seuss books to children. Oz wore a red and white “Cat in the Hat” headpiece in the photo.

“How is Dr. Oz running in PA Senate Race; last I checked he was my constituent in Cliffside Park,” Sarlo, a Democrat, tweeted.

The senator said he doesn’t know Oz well but met him twice at events in the borough. He admitted he‘s surprised to see the doctor running in Pennsylvania.

“I know he did a lot of work in New York City and was very supportive of Cliffside,” Sarlo told NJ Advance Media.

Cliffside Park
Shops and restaurants line the main drag of Cliffside Park. John Jones | For NJ Advance Media

Despite the doctor’s ties to Turkey, managers of two Turkish restaurants in Cliffside said Oz had not eaten there.

Don Reed, who has lived in town for 20 years, a few blocks from Oz’s house, said he never met the doctor and never saw him out and about in Cliffside.

“Never,” Reed said, noting that Oz has “not lived here in a long time.”

Tony Kesenci, an Armenian immigrant who has lived in town for 42 years, said he does not know Oz, though he “has a big name” and “used to live here.”

“He’s in Pennsylvania,” said Kesenci, who owns a local carpentry business.

Peter DeCarlo, the owner of downtown sandwich shop Sarge’s Sub, said he knew where Oz’s house was but never met him or saw him in town. He said his grandson went to school with one of Oz’s sons.

“Everybody has held him in very high regard,” DeCarlo said. “He’s a good man.”

DeCarlo, a Republican, said he didn’t mind Oz is running in Pennsylvania.

“Lots of people own homes in different states, especially ones with lower taxes,” DeCarlo said.

He said he hoped Oz won and would vote for him if he lived in Pennsylvania because he supported his stances.

“I think he would do a good job,” DeCarlo said. “He’s an intelligent man.”

At least one local Democratic official had nothing negative to say about Oz.

“When he lived in Cliffside Park, he was always welcoming and helped residents in any way he could,” Mayor Thomas Calabrese said. “I’ve called for his assistance many times for our Cliffside Park residents and as a doctor he has always gone above and beyond to assist. I can attest to his humble character and he would be a great asset to any community that he chooses to live in.”

Mehmet Oz
Dr. Mehmet Oz is renting this Bryn Athyn home from his in-laws. Saed Hindash | For lehighvalleylive.com

Just months after the People magazine feature on the Cliffside mansion was published, both Oz and his wife registered to vote in Pennsylvania, in December 2020. They listed their address as the house belonging to Oz’s mother-in-law, located in a Bryn Athyn neighborhood featuring large homes bunched together.

Bryn Athyn is a bucolic island in an ocean of suburban sprawl. Residents in the walkable church community greet each other politely while picking up their mail at the local post office. The borough is surrounded by office parks, big box stores, and chain restaurants like Bonefish Grill and Maggiano’s.

Jammed traffic on the Pennsylvania Turnpike and four-lane highways forms a perimeter around the sleepy borough. The fixer-upper house Oz bought earlier this year is on well-traveled Huntingdon Pike. If you don’t hit the gas coming out of his driveway, you’re a target for cars coming around a blind curve to your left.

Oz told NJ Advance Media he and his wife moved to the area because his in-laws were getting older.

“COVID really hurt them,” he said. “They were very lonely. … We would go back all the time on the weekends anyway, so we just moved back.”

He said his wife grew up in the area and her family had been there for 140 years. The house also was where the couple got married 37 years ago.

Oz said he wanted to buy the home from his mother-in-law, but she didn’t want to sell it.

Public records show Oz filed for permits to redo the swimming pool on the site. He also has a license to practice medicine as a resident of the town until the end of the year.

“It’s a great little community,” Oz said. “It’s a church community. Her great-grandfather built the cathedral in Bryn Athyn.”

Members of the General Church of the New Jerusalem, a Protestant denomination, founded the town in the early 1900s. The church also runs a local high school called the Academy of the New Church, which Lisa Oz attended.

“When I met Lisa, that’s the most amazing thing — she knew everybody,” he said. “We’ve grown up knowing all those folks.”

Oz and his wife bought a home on 34 acres on Huntington Pike in nearby Lower Moreland Township for $3.1 million in February, not long after he launched his campaign. It’s two miles and two left turns away from the closest Wawa, the quintessential eastern Pennsylvania convenience store chain that is part of Oz’s investment portfolio. He owns $5 million to $25 million in Wawa’s non-public stock, according to his personal financial disclosure form filed with the U.S. Senate.

Oz's Huntington Pike home
Dr. Mehmet Oz and his wife bought this home on 34 acres on Huntington Pike in Lower Moreland Township, for $3.1 million in February.

No one was home when an NJ Advance Media reporter stopped by to speak to Oz or anyone who might be working on the renovations at the Huntington Pike home.

The large, historic house has a detached cottage, detached two-story garage, an old barn, and a long driveway for privacy. There was paint peeling, rusty air conditioners sticking out of the windows, and weeds growing in the walkway. In other words, it needed a good power-washing.

Oz told NJ Advance Media he planned to revamp the house. He said he cleared some of the land but hadn’t gotten around to beginning renovations.

“The plumbing is bad,” he said. “No one’s lived in it for a long time.”

The property used to belong to the Academy, the church’s high school. A worker at the church office said the previous owners died and bequeathed the property to the church. The worker, who did not want to be identified, said Oz frequently came to the area on weekends to visit his in-laws and attended services at the church with the family.

“To me, it’s the best place to live,” Oz said. “You’ve got the church right there, the relatives right there. You have a little space. And it’s accessible to nice areas.”

Oz said he didn’t recall the People magazine spread about his Jersey home coming just months before the move to Pennsylvania.

“I remember a People magazine shoot, geez, maybe 10 years earlier,” he said. “It wasn’t this close. It was years and years ago. We lived in that Cliffside Park home for quite a while. There wasn’t anything new about it.”

Oz’s presence in his adopted part of Pennsylvania was a mix of welcome and raised eyebrows.

“If he’s going to make a change, I don’t care if he lives in Texas,” Amanda Dudek of Bensalem said. “If he makes a change, he makes a change. And that’s what we need.”

Clara Huntzinger, a Bryn Athyn resident, said she was impressed that Oz “remembers people’s names.”

“He looks you in the eye,” Huntzinger said.

Ron McQueen, also of Bryn Athyn, said he had no issues with Oz’s residency.

“He lives right up on the Pike,” McQueen said. “He’s in the news to support the values of America and understands that we need to have the freedoms we’ve had.”

Martin Romeril of Bethlehem came to see Oz at a recent campaign appearance at a local diner. He said Oz’s move to Pennsylvania didn’t bother him.

“That’s where he lives now,” Romeril said.

“His experience as a physician will make him a fresh face in Washington,” he added. “Like the Phillies, he’s an underdog, but we’re hoping he can pull it out.”

James Daniels, a 34-year-old Easton resident and a Republican, said social media made America more interconnected, so a candidate’s length of residency wasn’t as important as it once was.

“If he’s going to do what’s best for me, I’m OK with that,” Daniels says.

He also noted Fetterman was from Braddock, further away from the Lehigh Valley than New Jersey is.

“What he did in western Pennsylvania is not going to affect something that happens in the Lehigh Valley,” Daniels said. “We’re an entirely different demographic.”

On the other hand, Kathy Riffert, 72, from Nazareth, said only Pennsylvanians know what Pennsylvanians need. One time, she recalled, a council candidate in her hometown of Pen Argyl knocked on her door while campaigning.

“He was from New York or New Jersey,” Riffert said. “I hate to say it, but growing up there, I know the Slate Belt and Nazareth, they’re small communities where I grew up knowing everybody. I don’t want an outsider coming in and telling me what to do.”

Juliana Ciarrocchi, a senior at Lower Moreland High School, said he didn’t see Oz as “a good fit for our community.”

“He just randomly pops up in Pennsylvania,” Ciarrocchi said. “It doesn’t feel right the wants to show up here when he hasn’t lived here for a long time.”

SO WHAT DOES THIS ALL MEAN?

Dr. Oz visits Bethlehem
Dr. Oz looks out from the Hotel Bethlehem during his visit to the city last month. Donna Fisher | lehighvalleylive.com contributor

Fetterman’s effort to paint Oz as an outsider has played into the concerns of the state’s voters, according to poll after poll.

Franklin & Marshall Poll released Thursday found 51% of registered voters saying Fetterman best understood the concerns of Pennsylvanians, compared to only 29% for Oz.

In a September CBS News/YouGov poll, 67% said Oz hadn’t lived in the commonwealth long enough to understand the issues. Just 33% said he did.

The most recent Franklin & Marshall survey showed Fetterman with a small lead as Oz has gained traction with his ads on crime.

Through June 30, the most recent report, Fetterman received 47% of his campaign donations from Pennsylvanians, according to OpenSecrets. Of the 10 ZIP codes that gave him the most money, all were in the commonwealth.

Oz received 22% of his money from Keystone State residents. Of his 10 biggest ZIP codes, only two were in Pennsylvania. Four of his top eight were in South Florida.

“Jersey is truly seen as a different world, and, of course, Hollywood is,” Yost, the Franklin & Marshall pollster, said of Oz. “And he’s associated with both.”

This, of course, isn’t the first time someone prominent moved to another state to seek political office. Hillary Clinton, an Illinois native, famously caught guff for wearing a Yankees hat while running for U.S. Senate in New York, claiming she always rooted for the American League team. She won. So did Robert F. Kennedy, who grew up with the rest of the famed Democratic family in Massachusetts, but was elected to the U.S. Senate from New York.

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Jacob Rubashkin, a reporter and analyst with Inside Elections, agreed that Pennsylvanians aren’t as welcoming to out-of-towners seeking political office as New Yorkers were.

“Pennsylvania politics is parochial to a degree that New York politics simply aren’t,” Rubashkin said. “The whole point of New York is people are constantly arriving. There’s a reason why Bobby Kennedy was able to come in and win that seat. There’s a reason why Hillary Clinton was able to come in and win that seat.”

Former U.S. Rep. Paul McHale, a Democrat who represented the Lehigh Valley, said the issue is whether a candidate from elsewhere could “truly understand what it’s like in that community” that he or she wants to represent.

“Can you drive over from New Jersey and comprehend what life is like in the many local communities of the Lehigh Valley? I’m pretty skeptical of that,” said McHale, who later served as an assistant defense secretary under Republican President George W. Bush.

“If Dr. Oz loses this election, what do you think the odds are Dr. Oz will be living in Pennsylvania 20 years from now?” he asked. “I think it’s pretty remote.”

NJ Advance Media research editor Vinessa Erminio contributed to this report.

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Rudy Miller may be reached at rmiller@lehighvalleylive.com.

Jonathan D. Salant may be reached at jsalant@njadvancemedia.com. Follow him at @JDSalant.

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