Credit: Krista Hershfield | Mustang News

This story first appeared in the November print edition of Mustang News, titled "SLO County Voter Guide." Pick up a copy from a newsstand around Cal Poly's campus to read more.

The city of San Luis Obispo is holding their general municipal elections Tuesday, Nov. 8. In this general election, two council member seats and the mayor seat are open. Four candidates are running for the two available spots: former council member Michelle Shoresman, as well as Emily Francis, Joe Benson and James Papp

The following interviews with Mustang News have been edited and condensed.

1) Tell us about your political background. 

Michelle Shoresman: I have always been driven by a sense of service. I have dedicated my career to public service, working as a manager in the Public Health Department for over 20 years and most recently serving as the spokesperson for the Department during COVID-19. I also serve as an elected trustee on the County’s Pension Trust Board, which makes financial and operational decisions on behalf of its members for over $1.6 billion in assets. 

In October 2021, I was unanimously appointed to a vacant seat on the SLO City Council when Mayor Harmon stepped down from her post and Councilmember Stewart was appointed into the mayor’s role. I am the only incumbent now running for council with the goal of retaining my seat for an additional four years. Before being appointed to council, I served on the city’s planning commission. I have also worked and volunteered with a variety of local organizations including Big Brothers Big Sisters, local youth sports, and have volunteered on a variety of political campaigns. I am the founder of Lead Organizer for Women in the Pipeline, whose mission is  to prepare and encourage women to run for office. 

Emily Francis: I decided I wanted to study political science and go into law, but realized the part of that scenario that was most impactful to me was  my teacher Mr. Alcox and how excited he got all his students about learning. I went on to volunteer for Jeanne Shaheen, US Senator from NH  in her race for governor. I later volunteered for the John Kerry campaign in Colorado in 2004, and the Obama campaign in 2008 I served as a county delegate. While department chair of the social studies department at Arroyo Grande High School, I kept a very low political profile to keep nonpartisan and ensure I didn’t bring my own politics into the classroom. In 2020, I volunteered and canvassed locally for Elizabeth Warren and in 2022 I did phone banking for Jimmy Paulding who had been a guest speaker several times in my classroom.

Joe Benson: This is my first time running for office and I’m really enjoying everything about it. I provided public testimony twice during the county redistricting process in 2021 – advocating against what was blatant gerrymandering by the conservative majority of the SLO County Supervisors. It’s important to note that I’m the only candidate in this race who spoke out during those hearings and had the courage to advocate for the City of SLO to be properly represented at the county level. I also worked on the election campaigns for Supervisor-elect Jimmy Paulding and Supervisor Dawn Ortiz-Legg.

James Papp: As an undergraduate, I worked as a columnist and editor for the UCSD Guardian, which connected me to campus and local politics, including land use around the university. As a graduate student, I got involved in student government, initially because of unhappiness at how the library singled out grad students for especially harsh fines, and later at one point I checked and was on fourteen different committees, from the UCLA College of Letters and Science Executive Committee to the UC Systemwide Committee on Planning and Budget, which had oversight over a $5 billion budget (adjusted for inflation, because this was in the early nineties). At one point—during budget “lockdown” during a recession, I managed to get $27 million (again, adjusted for inflation) to plug a fee-increase hole in TA and RA salaries, which showed me you can make major changes through paying attention, doing the analysis, and influencing the influencers. One of my major beefs about the SLO City Council is they never do basic longitudinal, market basket or capital versus operating analysis of the city budgets.

In a sense, my involvement in politics has always been apolitical, as someone appointed for expertise rather than running races with slogans and glad-handing. The problem in this town is that the politicians are quashing the citizens and independent experts on behalf of the interests of developers and senior city staff in cahoots with the developers (developers, I hasten to add, not of affordable housing, which the city needs, but luxury housing, which is where the money is).

2) In three words, describe why you are fit for the position you are running for.

Shoresman: I am experienced in government processes and policy making, hard-working and dedicated to improving our community. 

Francis: I am a great researcher, hardworking, and focused. 

Benson: I am pragmatic, balanced, and forward-thinking.

Papp: How about “Reasonably intelligent, uncorrupt.”

3) Where do students (at Cal Poly) fit into your agenda; how does your campaign benefit them in terms of engagement?

Shoresman: Although I graduated from Cal Poly close to 30 years ago, as a SLO resident, I engage with Cal Poly almost every single day. Whether it’s swimming laps in the rec center pool, attending an event at the Performing Arts Center, catching a game in Spanos Stadium or talking with faculty, staff or students, I appreciate the richness that the Cal Poly campus brings to our community. Student voices are important to our city. I always encourage student involvement in our city activities, advisory bodies and meetings. This community is your home for four years (or longer), and your needs should be represented. 

Francis: Most of my team is affiliated with Cal Poly and many of us who live in SLO can thank Poly for making it the community that it is. That being said, I think there’s more we can do to develop the relationship between the city and the university. The learn by doing model offers so many wonderful opportunities to use the skills and research of students and faculty to innovate around planning, transportation, housing, and innovating for climate resilience. I hope to keep strengthening our relationship with Poly by providing stronger protections for renters, finding ways to integrate practical civics into opportunities for Poly students and encouraging students to advocate for their needs in the community. 

Benson: The students at CalPoly are critical partners in the City’s success both now and in the future. Having a world-class learning institution is a tremendous benefit for our city and we should consistently find ways to fully leverage the incredible talent available. Having provided pro bono legal advice at Cal Poly’s hothouse for the past 5 years, I know as well as anyone how deep the intellectual talent is and how much our community can benefit from it. One of my goals as a council member is to find ways for our city to have an economy that offers good high paying jobs and housing that is more affordable rather than the current environment of graduates typically only being able to afford to come back mid-career or later.

Papp: Poly students no more form a single identity or interest group than any other large population. I was a grad student in LA during the Rodney King riots, and my approach then was to focus on specifically practical efforts. When, 25 years later, nothing had changed, I joined the SLO protests, as the oldest regular protester. The SLO City government paid insincere lip service to those protests and killed any meaningful change by bureaucratizing it, so after a further two years, still nothing has changed.

But there are plenty of Poly students who had no interest in the protests. Some are focused on their schoolwork, some on finding future work, some on finding affordable housing. A tiny, tiny minority with outsize profile are focused on getting drunk on Higuera Street and vandalizing our Chinatown neighborhood on the way home at two in the morning. Those, I run after, catch and call the cops on—who then do nothing.

The following questions were asked individually to the candidates based on their platforms. 

How has your time as a council member enhanced your current running platform for council?

Shoresman: As a council member, I have had the opportunity to serve our community for the last year, hearing from hundreds of residents about their concerns and goals for the community. Although many of the issues I am focusing on in my campaign come from my own experience and desires for the city after living here for more than 25 years, it is enlightening and affirming to know that most of my fellow residents are concerned about the same things, and want the same things for SLO that I do– they want to continue to protect our environment, they want housing that their parents and growing children can afford to live in, and they want to take care of our houseless community members. They also want a more diverse community– one that encourages diverse thinking and perspectives while preserving the sense of community that makes SLO special.

How will your experience as an educator enhance your ability to lead in council?

Francis: As a public school  educator, I am incredibly proud of the work I have done with high schoolers in creating a love for history, government, and a general sense of intellectual curiosity. My time in the classroom brought me immense joy and connection to the next generation who I am convinced is the best among us. Serving as both a teacher and as a club mentor to a variety of student-run organizations gave me insight to the fears and hopes of teens in our community. 

One of the most valuable experiences I learned through teaching is the importance of acknowledging what you don’t know and being willing and eager to seek out those who have the data and answers to help you understand. A council member is not generally a subject area expert on the policies they are voting on. Being curious helped me immensely in teaching and I hope that attribute will also help me be a good council member. 

Working to reimagine SLO’s downtown community to be more vibrant and inclusive, what do you plan on doing to bridge communities of locals and diverse peoples brought in by the Cal Poly Campus?

Benson: Our city has a tremendous opportunity to make further investments in fixing the current racial imbalance. We know in business that diversity results in higher performance and better outcomes and I believe having greater diversity is critical to the city’s success. I fully support the DEI task force recommendations and I support increasing the current budget for such recommendations so that underrepresented groups in our community can amplify their voices and feel like SLO is their home. I also want to actively recruit underrepresented groups to serve on the city’s advisory bodies (e.g. planning commission, parks and recreation commission, etc.) so that decisions are being made with all members of our community having a seat at the table.

How will your background as a historian supplement your position as a city council member differing from the other candidates?

Papp: Two things differentiate me as a professional historian and architectural historian from the other candidates. (1) I work every day as a small businessperson representing ordinary property owners in their dealings with an increasingly Kafkaesque bureaucracy regarding historic resources. My expertise is unsexy land use, zoning, permitting, infrastructure, etc. My opponents are a county bureaucrat (who tends to side with the bureaucrats), a lawyer (lawyers form 0.03% of the general population, 33% of Congress and 40% of the SLO City Council, but maybe we need more) and a high school teacher. So they are going to have a less direct dog in this fight. (2) As a historian, I have an analytical view of how communities and governments function and fail to function over time. For example, I know how homelessness in the 1930s and 1980s compares with today and what popular solutions are non-starters and how the major impetus has not been to solve homelessness but to keep it out of bougie sightlines. I know how city and developers’ policies have been used to take a once-diverse city and make it increasingly, unjustly and boringly white. This is useful knowledge in policy and planning.