The race for SLO mayor is heating up. So who is challenger T. Keith Gurnee?

T. Keith Gurnee is running for mayor of San Luis Obispo against incumbent Heidi Harmon.
T. Keith Gurnee is running for mayor of San Luis Obispo against incumbent Heidi Harmon.

As a 23-year-old Cal Poly student, T. Keith Gurnee was elected to the San Luis Obispo City Council in 1971 “as an environmentalist,” he said.

As a young Democrat — the youngest elected official in California at the time, and the first, and so far, last, to serve on the SLO council while attending Cal Poly — Gurnee worked to preserve the city’s greenbelt, limit campaign donations and enhance public transportation, he said.

But after ending a second term on the council in 1977, and embarking on a career as a planner and urban designer, Gurnee changed his affiliation to Republican, saying the Democratic party had shifted too far left during the Jimmy Carter era.

Four decades later, Gurnee is running once again for city council, this time for mayor. And once again, he has changed his party affiliation, he said, registering as a Democrat in May.

San Luis Obispo Joe Johnston jjohnston@thetribunenews.com

Gurnee attributes his new affiliation to the Trump administration’s handling of a policy that separated the children of undocumented immigrants from their parents.

Gurnee faces incumbent Heidi Harmon, a progressive Democrat, in a city with twice as many registered Democrats (12,237) as registered Republicans (6,217), according to the San Luis Obispo County Clerk-Recorder’s Office.

In a non-partisan race that is nonetheless laced with political undertones, Gurnee believes his experience as a longtime planner and urban designer will help with a more modest approach to planning and building.

As mayor, Harmon’s votes on development have largely supported new housing that she believes will provide workforce housing that’s “affordable by design.”

“I’ve lived here since 1965, and I haven’t seen a period of such explosive growth as what we’re seeing right now,” Gurnee said. “I’m concerned about where we are. ... We need more town planning, not town cramming.”

San Luis Obispo Mayor Heidi Harmon is running for re-election in November. Joe Johnston Jjohnston@thetribunenews.com

Tense race emerging

The mayoral race is off to a dramatic start, after a reportedly tumultuous SLO County Progressives endorsement meeting on July 26, where both candidates appeared. Differing versions of events have emerged.

Kathy Borland, who represents citizens group Preserve the SLO Life, accused Harmon of making insulting comments about Gurnee.

Borland said Harmon walked out of the discussion prematurely, “flaming mad,” after the mayor contended she was the clear progressive in the room.

“Heidi was standing in the foyer, “ Borland wrote in a Facebook post. “I said to her, ‘What happened to civility?’”

In response, Harmon said in a statement that the event “was not set up for success for either candidate or for the audience to really learn in a transparent way about where candidates in this race stand.”

SLO County Progressives co-chair Nick Andre said Harmon was heckled by rude members of the audience who showed up to the open event, including one man who berated her in a “sexist” manner. Two SLO County Progressive members even left the room out of fear for their safety, Andre said.

“Forums need to be moderated and there’s no place for negative and slanderous comments being yelled from the audience,” Harmon said. “I also believe there is a place for taking a stand for oneself and ultimately also for the people in the room when people are being mislead. I will always take a stand for what’s right.”

In the end, the SLO County Progressive members endorsed Harmon with 81 percent support, with 10 percent endorsing Gurnee and 9 percent undecided.

“Gurnee’s campaign is based on a farce, and he is just stoking misguided anger and outrage,” Andre wrote on Facebook. “You really believe a guy who made a whole career from development is the guy who’s going to stop it?”

Gurnee later told The Tribune that “I didn’t expect to get any support” from an organization of which Harmon is the founding co-chair.

“I really look forward to a campaign full of forums where we can all share our ideas and solutions and vision for the city,” Harmon said Wednesday. “The voice of the community is so important to me.... This moment on our planet demands courage and resiliency. That is what I can promise as your mayor and a candidate.”

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T. Keith Gurnee is a candidate for San Luis Obispo mayor. Courtesy Photo

Gurnee’s background and platform

Gurnee’s professional background includes decades working for San Luis Obispo-based RRM Design and then running his own consulting company. His work, he said, has included planning for the revitalization of Venice Beach’s boardwalk, a land trust in Humboldt, preservation of Bishop Peak and designs of the Pismo Beach Pier and Avila Beach’s Front Street.

He served from 1978 to 1980 as Morro Bay planning director.

During his career, Gurnee specialized in downtown and waterfront revitalization, creek restoration, land conservation and park design, according to campaign materials.

Gurnee is running on a campaign of “For Our Neighborhoods.”

Locally, Gurnee has joined in efforts against a controversial city proposal to add separated bike lanes in his neighborhood along Broad Street between the Foothill Boulevard area near Cal Poly and downtown, saying they’ll congest roadways and block driveways.

If elected, he also wants to hold Cal Poly accountable for the impacts of its enrollment, which was at 22,188 in fall 2018. Gurnee says the California Environmental Quality Act can be used as a tool for leverage, and legal action can be a last resort.

“I would hold a community charrette (workshop) with different members of the community, with the question, ‘How do we deal with Cal Poly?’ ” he said.

In its drafted master plan update, Cal Poly projects that it will house 65 percent of all of its students on campus over the next 20 years, capping enrollment at 25,000.

A cyclist bikes towards Cal Poly in the green bike lane along California Blvd. in January. Growth and traffic are key talking points in the SLO mayoral race. Joe Johnston jjohnston@thetribunenews.com

Gurnee on development

Gurnee said Harmon is among an inexperienced council that is being overpowered by the decision-making of a skillful, bureaucratic city staff.

“I think (the city’s staff) has too much power,” Gurnee said. “Quite frankly, the City Council doesn’t have the experience to know they’re being led around.”

Major city projects approved under the current council include the 720-home Avila Ranch development off Buckley Road and the 580-home mixed use San Luis Ranch off Madonna near Highway 101. In addition, three large-scale hotels are coming online within the next six months — all approved by past councils.

Other controversial projects include the proposed 78-unit, four-story, mixed-use development at 790 Foothill Boulevard — approved by the city Planning Commission with pending city council consideration — and a six-story mixed-use project at 1144 Chorro St.

In response to growth, staff and council members have pointed to the city’s growth management plan that limits the rate of population increase to 1 percent per year on average and has a cap of 57,200 people by around 2035.

What is Gurnee’s agenda?

Progressive leaders have been critical of Gurnee’s column for local online publication Cal Coast Times, in which he criticized the group for “political theater” in their protests of the death of Andrew Holland in San Luis Obispo County Jail.

Holland was strapped to a restraint chair for 46 hours, which local progressives felt was inhumane and protested with a mock restraint chair demonstration.

“There is no greater insult to (Holland) than allowing the progressives to exploit the tragedy of his death by creating political theater for their own narrow political purposes,” Gurnee wrote.

Andre said it’s contradictory to ask for an endorsement after that critique.

Andre also called into question Gurnee’s support of the proposed Las Pilitas Quarry project along Highway 58 in Santa Margarita, countering a land-preservation agenda.

The issue won’t be a decision before the city, but speaks to his ideologies, Andre said.

“Keith is trying to portray himself as a moderate, middle-of-the-road Democrat,” Andre said. “How do you reconcile this, given his history?”

In regard to the quarry, Gurnee argues that by producing aggregate for roadways locally, long truck trips won’t be needed to haul in product from other parts of California.

“Far more greenhouse gases come from 25-ton diesels going across California than a much shorter haul from Santa Margarita,” Gurnee said.

And he contends that he has long been a “moderate,” regardless of party affiliation.

“I am fiscally conservative and socially liberal,” Gurnee said.

Nick Wilson: 805-781-7922, @NickWilsonTrib