City Council candidate Sean Elo believes his background and his life and professional experience make him the best suited to represent San Diego’s District 9.
“I like to say that I’m really the product of a multi-ethnic, multi-religious upbringing that also involved an up and down ride in and out of the middle class,” he said.
Elo’s mom was born in California to parents from Central America and spent some of her childhood in Mexico. His father was born in New York to Jewish parents. He also has an aunt and cousins who are Muslims.
“I really do see everyone as family. With roots like mine, it doesn’t feel like anyone is too far away from being a family member,” he said.
Elo spent his childhood moving around different cities in Orange County and also lived for short periods in Florida and Oregon. His father sold cars — an industry Elo described as tumultuous. Coupled with health issues his mother had and a back injury his father suffered while Elo was in high school, the family’s situation was also sometimes turbulent.
“There were times that we lived a pretty comfortable middle-class life and other times that we were on pretty shaky ground when a hotel room or a family member’s living room had to be home for a short period of time,” he said. “I think it makes me see that there are a lot of different ways that folks can end up in different circumstances and very rarely are those based on how good a person is.”
The experiences of his youth had an impact on his thoughts about government and society.
“I’m really proud of being able to make it through college and law school as a first-generation college student despite those struggles that my family had, but I don’t think I did that alone,” he said. “People helped me and society at large helped me and I think that does inform the way that I hope to see society at large do more to support one another.”
When Elo graduated high school, he attended Golden West Community College in Huntington Beach where he continued playing water polo and swimming, eventually landing a job as head coach of Fountain Valley High School’s water polo program. After taking a short break from attending college, he went back to finish his undergrad at Chapman University. He said he was on the track to becoming a teacher and coach when a Senator from Illinois changed the direction of his life.
“The 2008 Obama campaign completely captivated me,” he said, adding that the former president’s tone and his diverse background that mirrored his own inspired him to make a greater impact on the world.
So, Elo went to South America for three months to teach English to very low-income middle school students and also volunteered at a special needs school. After that, he went to Korea to teach English. While he was there, he took the LSAT and applied to law school at Cal Western. He thought he would practice law for a little bit then get into the world of policy and politics, but in his second year of school he took an elective course called Problem Solving for Vulnerable Populations, which changed the trajectory of his career.
The professor of the course also ran the City Heights Community Law Project and suggested Elo would like working there. That program runs free legal clinics at Hoover High, Monroe Clark Middle and Rosa Parks Elementary for low-income residents of District 9.
“It was an incredibly rewarding experience and I learned a ton about the community and the different issues impacting it,” Elo said, adding that the experience was very formative for him because that’s where he “fell in love with City Heights and District 9.”
“I just got to know the neighborhood, but also got to see individuals and families dealing with the same situations and problems every day and learned those problems were because of underlying issues,” he said.
But it also showed him that he could have a greater impact helping these families working elsewhere.
“While I found it very rewarding to try and help them and provide legal services when possible … I knew that I would have a very short shelf life of not growing super frustrated by not addressing those underlying issues, which I saw mostly tied to policy.”
Elo decided then that policy would be the avenue to pursue after law school. To that end, he
worked on Scott Peters’ congressional campaign before landing a job at Mid-City Community Advocacy Network as director of campaigns and policy.
“It was a perfect job for me. We weren’t a think tank. It wasn’t me thinking up ideas on my own. It was working with communities to hear what challenges folks were facing at the neighborhood level and turning those needs and hopes into policy demands that we should attempt to move forward.”
During that time, Elo also ran for and won a seat on the San Diego Community College District board.
After a few years working at Mid-City CAN, Elo took a job as executive director of Youth Will, formerly known as San Diego Youth Development Office.
“It was a chance for me to lead an organization, a chance to focus specifically on youth,” he said.
Leadership is the difference
In the March 3 primary, Elo came in second with 21.1% of the vote behind Kelvin Barrios who led with 31.9%.
The two candidates will now face each other in November’s runoff election and although Elo admits that they both have policy platforms that are not “terribly different” from each other (although Elo points out that his platform is the only one with an anti-corruption component), he said there is one aspect where there is a “chasm” of difference between them.
“To me it is much less what our websites say about our policy goals and much more about what our abilities to lead, our experience in leadership and governance,” he said, adding that he has been in leadership positions his entire adult life.
He also sees a major difference in how the two candidates are campaigning for the seat on the Council.
“I think we’ve leaned heavily on grassroots campaigning,” Elo said, adding that his campaign is more about knocking on “thousands and thousands” of doors and less driven by money. He pointed out that Barrios outspent all the candidates in the primary field by a wide margin.
“I don’t believe that [raising money] is the most effective way to campaign,” he said. “I just don’t think it’s through mail and with money. You need the resources to get materials into the hands of voters but I think the most effective way to communicate with people is face-to-face and have conversations and knock on someone’s door and ask them ‘What are your priorities? What are your needs? What do you want to see? And not only does that create a good starting point for a relationship, but also begins to establish the way we want to run our council office, which is directly connecting with constituents.”
In knocking on doors, Elo said he has learned that residents are frustrated by a lack of communication from the city on the issues that affect them directly such as bad streets and sidewalks or street lights that won’t turn on or off.
“Sometimes things can’t be done right away but residents just need to be informed of what’s going on,” he said, adding that his canvassing has given him a high level of understanding issues both specific to the neighborhoods as well as the ones affecting the city as a whole.
“So there these neighborhood issues, but then there are these umbrella issues that impact folks throughout the District and actually throughout the city,” he said. “So housing and homelessness is our unapologetic first priority because it is just a basic need of every human being and the impacts of the homelessness crisis and the related housing crisis impacts people in a variety of different ways, whether that means the humanitarian issue that exists when someone doesn’t have a home, safety, the environment — all the different ways this crisis impacts us.”
However, Elo said, because of the coronavirus, these campaign priorities could shift.
“We are in a completely unique moment that could really define the future for our city and our country in a variety of ways over the next several ways. We don’t know what the economic fallout is going to be. We don’t know the long-term impacts from a health perspective are going to be. We don’t know any of those things.”
For more information about City Council candidate Sean Elo, visit seanelo.com.
—Reach editor Jeff Clemetson at [email protected]