What the SLO mayoral race says about our community

Blake Beltram


Imagine you’re in a ship, and it’s beginning to sink. Never mind. You don’t have to imagine anything. Just look around. Tune into the news, scroll through Facebook, or perhaps reflect on the personal friendships and relationships that have been strained or lost recently due to fierce disagreements over politics, social issues and/or COVID.

If you live in San Luis Obispo, go count the empty storefronts on the same strip where, for decades, Thursday Farmer’s Market brought us closer than six feet apart. I counted 17.

Take a walk in and around Mission Plaza about dusk and see how safe you feel. Drive by one of the expanding homeless encampments, like the one across from the CHP office on California Boulevard and the 101. Send some blessings, count yours, and ask yourself what you would do about it if you were in charge. No easy nor pleasant answers.


Let’s just be real, 2020 is a shit show on all levels: personal, national, and it seems increasingly so in the “happiest place in America” – San Luis Obispo. With no sign of it letting up. In fact we seem to be stepping on the gas, Thelma & Louise style, heading into the November election.

In fact, the SLO Mayoral race has in part become a microcosm of what we see in national politics. I mean why shouldn’t we emulate national politics, when that’s working so damn well? Like the first presidential debate – wasn’t that such a tremendous example of class, intelligence, power and working together for the greater good, despite our differences? Didn’t it just make you proud to be an American?

If you’re wearing a partisan hat,and just take it off for a second, I don’t know how you can not be embarrassed by that debate and Washington politics as a whole. I was watching with a 7 and a 10 year old, and wanted to apologize for exposing them to such a thing: “I’m so sorry. I’m so sorry you have to see this as an example of the very best America has to offer, and witness this as not only an acceptable example, but supposedly the highest and best example of how we are supposed to talk to one another and treat each other in our society. I’m so sorry.”

But I can’t apologize for Washington, or the broken system, or the shit-show that is 2020. All I can do is strive for something better, and to be a part of creating something better.

Mayor Heidi Harmon

The SLO Mayoral race hits close to home, and it’s fascinating and heartening and disheartening to tune into it – and to realize that we are in the process of defining ourselves right here in SLO – not just by who we vote for but why. And maybe even more importantly — how.

How we’re willing to talk, or not talk, to each other. How we’re willing to be with each other, even those we disagree with. And how we’re willing to feed, or not feed into, politics as usual,and maybe some politics a bit more unusual.

Incumbent Heidi Harmon and challenger Cherisse Sweeney appear to be in a close race for San Luis Obispo Mayor, and these are the two camps from which we’re seeing both mud and kisses thrown.

Harmon, of course, is a well-known Bernie supporter, liberal, and social activist with the full support of the Democratic establishment — mud-slinging apparatus included, it turns out — behind her. (For the record, in past elections I have always respected, admired, supported and voted for Heidi.)

Sweeney, by contrast, has never been a politician – not even really a voter in recent years. She runs a downtown business, has a fairly strong professional history, and is running as an Independent “unifier” with no party backing or affiliation.

And that last part is where the record scratches and the Dem’s slinging device hurls a giant load at Sweeney. The Dems are claiming that Sweeney – along with City Council candidate Abrianna Torres – are part of a “stealth Republican takeover” of SLO. And enter Washington-style politics.

The SLO County Dems have created all too familiar formulaic “be afraid!” ads with mugshots of Sweeney and Torres, a terrifying headline, and red-highlighted copy to underscore why we should all be terrified of these two obviously terrifying ladies.

Torres, a young black woman in a predominately white city, being included in the public accusation seems highly ironic, if not outright humorous. We need to be afraid that a young black woman is part of a stealth Republican takeover of San Luis Obispo? Okay. Wow. Talk about a Trojan horse.

My first reaction to the ad was simply: Really?

There are three possibilities with this familiar attack-ad strategy:

1) It’s all true and thank God for the SLO County Dems for saving our city from the righties!

2) It’s all B.S., the Dems are running scared that Harmon is about to lose, and they’re playing dirty — which often works, in politics as usual.

Or, the least headline-grabbing, least-polarizing, least-sexy, most labor-intense-for-the-undecided-voter, most-likely option:

3) Some truth and some B.S. were thrown into a political cocktail mixer (shaken, not stirred), poured into a familiar election-year up glass, and served to us with two olives and a smile. A lot of us drink it up. When we do, number three essentially diverts the drinker, vote-wise, back to number one. (Though it all looks and smells a lot more like number two, if you ask me.)

There’s another term that most likely applies to number three — nuance.

I know. So boring. So old-school. Your kids might have to Google or Alexa it, because it seems to quickly be turning into a nostalgic relic. So 90’s.

“Alexa, Play Nirvana. Alexa, Define Nuance.”

Alexa: “Shuffling songs by Nirvana.Come…as you are, as you were, as I waaant you to be… . Nuance is usually defined as: A subtle difference or distinction in expression, meaning, response, etcetera.”

Turns out the meaning of the lyrics and the word “nuance” seem to be mutually exclusive today. Who needs nuance, if candidates could just show up the way you want them to be? Or not, then your job as a voter is easy. No need to worry about being for someone when you know who you are against.

I’ve met and talked to Sweeney a couple of times, and Torres once. And, as someone who has never NOT voted Democrat, I didn’t get the far right-wing takeover vibe. Like, at all.

I’m hearing two women who are smart, passionate and compassionate, reasonable, measured and nuanced. Politically, I would say pretty socially progressive, probably moderate in most ways, and yeah maybe there are a few right-leaning tendencies in there as well. Could be, for sure.

Cherisse Sweeney

Are Republicans and the far-right in the area supporting Sweeney? Think about it, logically and plainly. If you were far right or Republican, would you back a vocal Bernie supporter and outspoken activist and liberal, or someone – anyone – that was even a click to the right of that person?

Isn’t this just common sense? Right backing just makes Sweeney right of Heidi, and for better or worse, that’s not hard to do.

As a liberal and lifelong Dem myself, I don’t really care if Sweeney is backed by the right – practically speaking and the Dem’s “takeover” Boogieman aside – I don’t know why she wouldn’t be.

I also don’t care if she “moved from Avila Beach to SLO just to run for mayor,” as long as she played by the rules. She’s owned a business here for eighteen years and her kids go to school here. If the rules suck, let’s change them for next time. For now, I don’t care.

I also don’t care who she’s backing for President. She’s being smeared as a far-right Trump-lover, and someone who didn’t care enough about her civic duty to even vote in the last presidential election. Isn’t it one or the other?

We know she didn’t vote four years ago, which goes pretty far in negating the Trump-loving smear.

But, it turns out the “American Independent” party she’s admittedly registered as is indeed a far-right party. There’s the smoking gun. Wait, there’s more to the story?

Nuance? Damn-it. Yeah, there’s nuance, and possibly some good old-fashioned embarrassment on the part of Sweeney, which may make the truth hard to admit. Here it is: A 2016 LA Times investigation “…found widespread confusion among California voters who choose the American Independent Party, an ultra-conservative organization that’s been largely invisible from most campaigns. A poll of AIP voters found 73 percent mistakenly thought they were “independent” of all parties. Those voters should have chosen the ‘no party preference’ option.”

The hard truth – and nuance – on this one is that Sweeney can either be (perhaps fairly) accused of being naïve and uninformed when it comes to affiliating herself with a political party or of being a far right-winger. Tough pill to swallow, that. What I see is someone who did not vote for Trump or Hillary in 2016. That smacks of independent, and unhappy with the polarized choices, like nobody’s business.

What I do care about is this: What would she do for SLO, in real world practical terms, now today? What would she do policy-wise, what would she do, pragmatically speaking, to help or hurt our community right now, in the midst of a crisis. Because from what I can see, with “for rent” signs increasing as fast as the homeless population, the boat is beginning to sink and we’re all in it together.

So what are we collectively choosing to do about it? Turn on each other? Smear each other? Point fingers at each other? Are we really going to adopt the worst of national politics in a city where we look each other in the eye, work with each other, see each other downtown and at local events?

I have no problem with hard truths being told or hard questions being asked and answered – they should be. But to go after each other’s character, to play dirty for the sake of winning, because one believes their cause is just, isn’t okay in my book.

The moment we stoop to dis-integrity to win the day, is the moment we, by definition, give in to more of the same politics as usual. It’s the moment we begin to create a community that we ourselves won’t want to live in.

We can do better than national politics here in San Luis Obispo. Why be the national average when we could be the national example? Let’s debate ideas and ideologies and policies and pragmatics and support the majority, whoever that may be, in their well- intended efforts to keep the ship from sinking and sailing on to a better tomorrow.

But let’s not have good people tearing down good people, for the sake of winning – because we all lose in that. We need vision not division, and I know I’m not alone when I say what we don’t need is to import the worst of national politics and emulate those narratives and tactics in our little community.

We can do better.

Blake Beltram is the Co-founder of Mindbody and host of the Wellness Revolutionaries podcast. He is not supporting either of the two presidential candidates this year, and has endorsed Sweeney for Mayor of San Luis Obispo.