Michael Tubbs: Redefining the Stocktons of the World

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Why you should care

Because as urban war zones like South Stockton go, the nation goes.

Video by Tom Gorman

Driving into Stockton, California, in the heart of drought country, you expect to witness stark poverty and trash-ridden streets befitting the city twice named America’s “most miserable” and famous for its near nightly murders on the evening news. Instead, you are greeted by a downtown with a sparkling marina and a regal main street as emblematically American as an old Norman Rockwell painting.

That is, of course, what the town aims to do — surprise you, say, “Hey, come stay awhile. We’re not so bad.” It’s not quite clear the attempt is working yet. The city, only slightly smaller than Pittsburgh, is eerily empty on a Monday afternoon — no bumper-to-bumper, little foot traffic. Stockton, a town of just over 300,000, once home to the Gold Rush, became the largest city in U.S. history to declare bankruptcy in 2012 (Detroit followed soon after). And now the fading blue-collar town is fighting to give itself a new narrative.

At the helm of that narrative could be a 25-year-old mayoral hopeful named Michael Tubbs, a Stanford grad who’s returned to his hometown. A city councilman for now, the Democrat (in an overwhelmingly left district) dropped a bid for the county Board of Supervisors in September to gear up to take on incumbent (and fellow Democrat) Mayor Anthony Silva, who didn’t respond to requests for comment, next November. There’s no outright campaigning yet, no donations to consider. But he’s telling his story, and a familiar one in a troubled town: He speaks of shootings, of the housing crash, of civil unrest. Historically an agriculture town, Stockton has a location, connecting San Francisco and Sacramento, that’s made it a de facto transportation hub, and its biggest employer is local government. But Tubbs needs to give it something more.

To be honest, it’s the neat story line of a well-educated boy come home that’s brought me here, as Tubbs well knows: “It’s useful,” he says. Mayors with nice pedigrees saving troubled places are attractive — call it the Cory Booker effect. And Tubbs has a real shot at winning: “Mayor Silva has a lot of vulnerabilities. He has tended for a brutalizing campaign — he likes to attack with everything he’s got,” says Robert Benedetti, a local political scientist and research associate at the Center for California Studies at Sacramento State University. “But Tubbs has an ability to rise above that, and that might win him a lot of votes.” Tubbs is especially appealing — if he wins the election, he’ll become the city’s first Black mayor, and the youngest in its history. But just as he wants to tell a nuanced story of Stockton, he will also need to tell a nuanced story of himself.

When politicians have breed and promise, the errors don’t stick so much.

Tall, well-dressed and gregarious, Tubbs was born poor, the son of a teenage mother and an incarcerated father. He studied hard, made it out and headed to Stanford, where he completed a bachelor’s in comparative studies in race and ethnicity, and a master’s in policy, organization and leadership studies. His choice to come home is part of an interesting trend of backward migration: More and more bright young politicians who have left their hometowns for schooling are coming back (though most hold office in much smaller towns). There are at least 45 mayors across America who took over before their 33rd birthday and are serving today, compared to fewer than 10 reported in the 1980s and ’90s, according to an OZY count. At their best, these upstart leaders bring a spark of energy, optimism and tech savvy. The trouble is, like their 20-something startupping brethren, some fail — and badly. Tubbs’ worst possible scenario is becoming another Nick Wasicsko, the 28-year-old Yonkers mayor whose ’80s election, ensuing desegregation battle and subsequent suicide was documented in the recent television miniseries Show Me a Hero.

The closest Tubbs has come to such disgrace was last December, when he pleaded no contest to a DUI misdemeanor charge. Some asked for his resignation, but there were “more supporters than detractors,” wrote the local paper, The Stockton Record. Tubbs has apologized since; he told OZY, “It shows that making one mistake can undermine years of work.” “He’s a youngster,” says Ralph Lee White, who works on the city charter review committee.

The relative lack of impact that DUI charge has had on his career feels a bit like the forgiveness we gave George W. in the 2000s for his youthful substance-abuse problems — when politicians have breed and promise, the errors don’t stick so much. Those troubles seem absent as Tubbs drives me through his old neighborhood in South Stockton. Squat housing developments with chain-link fences and brittle grass. Here, “you couldn’t have driven by without getting carjacked and mugged 20 years ago,” says Fred Shiel, a longtime local housing activist. There were 12.42 violent crimes for every 1,000 people in Stockton, according to 2014 FBI data — making it more dangerous than 97 percent of U.S. cities.

The stats go on: Stockton has sky-high unemployment and foreclosure rates. Hungry for investment in the early 2000s, the city focused on a sparkling downtown and suburbs. High-risk mortgage loans were handed out like candy. Which is why, when the 2007 subprime mortgage financial crisis hit, Stockton led the country with one in every 30 homes in foreclosure. “The city tried to build new subdivisions and let the old ones go to hell,’” Shiel said. “And that ate the city up.”

Tubbs doesn’t have an answer to those nuanced troubles when I ask. Rather, he shows off smaller progress: a brand-new credit union; a local health clinic; the headquarters of the Reinvent South Stockton Coalition, a community engagement organization he started. He’s juggled these projects part-time, as city counciling isn’t a full-time gig; he also teaches an ethnic studies classes at a local high school and leads youth engagement strategy for a nonprofit in San Francisco. If elected mayor, Tubbs says he’ll continue focusing on issues like recidivism, jail overcrowding, workforce development and county hospital services, while using the figurehead role of mayor in Stockton’s city manager-based government to influence change.

So he doesn’t have a lot of policy specifics. But he does have a couple of nice turns of phrase: “Yes, people need to work hard, agency matters, pull yourself up by your bootstraps,” Tubbs says. “But let’s make sure everyone has laces on their boots first.”

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