A former Cal Poly student body president who helped unite the campus in the early 1990s is set to become the first African-American member of the San Luis Obispo City Council, unofficial city records show.
Though the final remaining votes haven’t made the race official, Erica A. Stewart is expected to become the newest member of a San Luis Obispo City Council that saw the re-elections of Mayor Heidi Harmon and Council member Carlyn Christianson in the Nov. 6 mid-term.
Stewart earned 21 percent of the vote, the second highest SLO council vote-getter, ahead of James Lopes who garnered 17.4 percent. Top vote-getter Carlyn Christianson has 27.4 percent with final remaining provisional and mail-in ballots still to be tallied.
Stewart joins a group of women and minority politicians nationwide who also made history two weeks ago, including the first two Muslim women in Congress, Texas’ first Latina elected to Congress and the first openly gay man to win a governorship (Colorado).
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San Luis Obispo was first incorporated in 1850, and it’s unclear if the city has ever had a black council member, but it doesn’t appear so.
“City records do not provide a definitive record of the ethnicities and race of past council members,” said Greg Hermann, SLO’s interim deputy city manager. “From what we have been able to determine, however, Ms. Stewart is the first African-American elected Council Member.”
Stewart, whose father is black and mother is white, told The Tribune in a phone conversation that, even in her campaign, she became aware of her influence as an African-American woman seeking a leadership role.
She recalled a Cuesta student of mixed race coming up to her after a panel discussion to connect.
“She came up to me and said, ‘Thank you so much for running,’” Stewart said. “I think for some people, it’s just nice to see somebody of a different ethnicity running for office. That’s a positive for the community and for groups focused on ethnicity... it can help to bring certain things (related to race) to the conversation.”
Harmon, who has advocated for increasing SLO’s diversity, agreed that having a black woman on the council will help open doors for “expanding the conversation that impacts people that live here in our city.”
“While I’m disappointed that it took to until 2018 to have the first person of color at the City Council in our city, I’m very much excited and looking forward to Erika Stewart joining our team.” Harmon said. “Representation matters.”
Preston Allen, a member of the SLO County NAACP chapter and former Cal Poly Vice President of Student Affairs, recalled how Stewart adeptly coordinated with a variety of groups on campus as Cal Poly’s Associated Students, Inc. president in the early 1990s.
“I believe she was also the first African-American student body president, and she handled it super well,” Allen said. “She’s very inclusive in how she carries herself. She doesn’t just walk in a space of being black or a person of color.
“The moment you meet her, no matter who you are, you’re endeared by her personality and personal skills.”
Allen said having a black council member could be a bridge to certain pockets of minority populations the community that can be overlooked.
“Where it’s decisions on housing, Cal Poly or the Chamber, there can be a blind spot in the room when you don’t have a person of color in the room,” Allen said. “Diversity can be a silent driver of making things happen and positive change.”
As Cal Poly’s director of Parent and Student Philanthropy, over the past couple of years Stewart has participated in difficult discussions about departures of black faculty from the campus and a racially insensitive blackface incident that sparked controversy about the environment for minorities on campus.
Stewart said she joined in challenging Cal Poly’s administration in a “polite and respectful way” to examine ways it can improve the campus environment for minorities and provide the proper diversity-related training and education.
Among Stewart’s priorities for SLO, such as housing for all, environmental protection and improved transportation, she also says diversity can help grow the economy.
“Increased diversity leads to better ideas, discussions and decisions,” Stewart said on her website. “It’s also been shown that there is a direct correlation between increased diversity and economic growth.”