Is NIMBY ‘the new N-word’? Controversy resurfaces in SLO mayor debate at Cal Poly

SLO mayoral candidates debate diversity

San Luis Obispo mayoral candidates Keith Gurnee and Heidi Harmon explain how they would increase diversity awareness in San Luis Obispo as part of a debate at Cal Poly hosted by the Cal Poly Mustang Media group.
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San Luis Obispo mayoral candidates Keith Gurnee and Heidi Harmon explain how they would increase diversity awareness in San Luis Obispo as part of a debate at Cal Poly hosted by the Cal Poly Mustang Media group.

In a roughly 45-minute debate Tuesday, San Luis Obispo’s top mayoral candidates debated development, diversity and bike pathways — and dredged up a past controversy involving alleged racially insensitive language used by T. Keith Gurnee that San Luis Obispo Mayor Heidi Harmon called “a real concern.”

Harmon, the incumbent, and Gurnee also touched on several other issues in the wide-ranging, student-moderated discussion, including housing, downtown hotels, building heights and on-campus voting. The debate was hosted by Cal Poly’s Mustang Media Group.

Harmon and Gurnee are largely divided over city growth.

Harmon contends that new housing in San Luis Obispo will help bring down the cost of homes, while Gurnee argues that new developments are congesting the city and ruining its character.

On Tuesday, both candidates talked about ways to bring down the high costs of living in the city.

Harmon promoted the idea of Cal Poly students sharing homes with seniors — saying this would help achieve housing affordability for students.

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Cal Poly has a goal of housing 65 percent of students housing on campus by 2035. Gurnee said he’d help sponsor an architectural design project that envisions a new Cal Poly housing community on the northwest end of campus.

A past controversy was brought to the surface again Tuesday after Harmon denounced Gurnee’s reference to “NIMBY” as the “new N-word” in an Aug. 12 column he wrote for CalCoastNews.com.

NIMBY stands for “not in my back yard,” typically referring to neighbors who band together to oppose development projects that could impact their communities.

Gurnee’s column stated “Let’s stop using the new N-word (NIMBY) to label the people who care about this community and defend its character.”

San Luis Obispo mayoral candidates T. Keith Gurnee and Heidi Harmon take part in a debate at Cal Poly hosted by Cal Poly’s Mustang Media Group before Tuesday’s election. Harmon won a second term as San Luis Obispo mayor. Joe Johnston jjohnston@thetribunenews.com

“My opponent said the city’s sanctuary status is not something he supports. He said it’s not his ‘cup of tea,’ ” Harmon said of Gurnee. “He also has compared the elite, white, incumbent residents to the N-word. ... That kind of communication, especially in the culture we’re in now, is a real concern to me.”

Gurnee said that he has apologized profusely for his phrasing — including to City Council candidate Erica Stewart, who is half-African American.

“It was a really unfortunate thing for me to say and I don’t know why I said it,” Gurnee said. “But I did say it and I apologize for it. But both words — NIMBY and the other one — are pejorative terms meant to slight and marginalize a population that’s important.

“Again I apologize for that remark and I’ll do everything I can to live it down.”

Speaking in regard to diversity and inclusivity on a national level, Gurnee said comprehensive immigration reform is needed. He called President Donald Trump’s statements that he plans to remove birthright citizenship “unconscionable.”

A cyclist bikes towards Cal Poly in the green bike lane along California Boulevard in San Luis Obispo, which was added to increase safety for bicyclists. The current City Council’s plans to add bikeways in the city have been supported by San Luis Obispo Mayor Heidi Harmon and opposed by her challenger, T. Keith Gurnee. Joe Johnston jjohnston@thetribunenews.com

In reference to perceptions about community growth, Harmon said that students have been “demonized” by some who say they want to protect neighborhoods.

Harmon said students and poor people must be protected when it comes to decisions about housing and city goals, including transportation. She defended the city’s approval of the controversial Anholm Bikeway Plan between downtown and Foothill Boulevard near Cal Poly.

Gurnee argued that three out of four Anholm neighborhood residents opposed the Anholm bikeway project (in a city survey, 26 percent of Anholm neighbors voted in favor of the project and the rest for other alternatives), which will cost an estimated $3 million upon completion. It will include separated bike lanes along some stretches, including Broad Street where Gurnee lives.

Gurnee said that, instead of running “exclusive bike paths through historic neighborhoods,” bikes pathways should be created on heavily trafficked thoroughfares such as Foothill Boulevard, where Cal Poly student Kennedy Love was killed by a drunk driver in 2017.

Gurnee also spoke about incoming hotels in the downtown area approved by past city councils. He said the hotels will congest the downtown, noting that one of them, Hotel San Luis Obispo, set to open at 995 Morro St. in 2019, took the place of a city parking lot.

“I think this will be a very close race,” Gurnee told The Tribune after the debate. “And it’s the most important election that the city has had in decades.”

Clarification: This story has been updated to clarify T. Keith Gurnee’s comments on the city survey related to the Anholm Bikeway Plan.

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