During the 20th century, Stockton was a commercial hub between Sacramento and San Francisco. It had military installations and was regularly used as a Hollywood set. But when Michael Tubbs grew up there in the 1990s, gunshots whizzed in the streets and more than half of the city’s high schoolers dropped out before graduation.
Tubbs was raised by his mother, who had him at 16. In a high-school essay, Tubbs describes meeting his father for the first time at the age of 12. He was in chains and dressed in an orange jumpsuit at the Kern County Prison. “Why are you here,” Tubbs recalls asking.
His dad responded: “Prison is your destiny. From birth you are set up to fail. …You’re a black man in America, and it’s either prison or death.”
His father’s words have never left him. They settled in his core and drive his ambition.
In less than two decades he’s graduated from Stanford, captured Oprah Winfrey’s attention and worked at Google. Once a White House intern, he’s also famously set his sights on the presidency. In 2008, during Barack Obama’s first presidential bid, Tubbs met the then Illinois senator and recalls: “I looked at him, shook his hand and told him, ‘I’m next.’” Obama reportedly said, “Okay.”
But for now, Tubbs is focused on his Californian city. The goals he’s set for himself as mayor are lofty: Lowering unemployment (8.3 percent in February 2017), raising graduation rates (82.6 percent in 2015), lowering violent crime (25 instances of murder between January and June 2016) and attracting a major philanthropic investment, like the $816 million Detroit received from the Ford Foundation and other donors to save its art museum.
“I’m tired of talking about where we’ve been. I’m more interested in talking about where we’re going,” Tubbs said at his victory party, “We have to mature as a community and start demanding solutions.”
But finding them will require deft political skill. The average Stockton resident earns $19,900 annually, yet the city has little ability to provide revitalizing social services, considering it’s still recovering after declaring bankruptcy in 2012.
Tubbs’s approach to government taps an innovation-based strategy much like the tech campuses in nearby Silicon Valley. He pilots small projects and relentlessly studies the data to determine what’s most effective for the lowest cost. He’s also investing in long-term fixes — rather than short-term patches that drained city coffers — so that the kids born today will have more opportunity than he did.
“I would say I’m solution-oriented. I don’t want to know how this can’t happen. Tell me how it can,” Tubbs says.
Some of his earliest efforts — ones he helped initiate as a Stockton city council member — have established Tubbs reputation as so-called “doer.” He closed liquor stores in South Stockton, opened a health clinic and worked with young people on community cleanup projects.
As mayor, however, he faces inherent challenges that come with the implementation of his early projects. For example, as a council member, Tubbs was a key advocate for distributing body cameras to Stockton’s police officers as a way of raising accountability. In August 2016 (prior to Tubbs’s mayoral election), a 30-year-old man named Colby Friday was killed in an officer-involved shooting. An officer’s body camera failed to capture the incident because it was not activated. A nearby security camera did record the event, and the district attorney has agreed to share that footage with Friday’s family.
In another incident, when Black Lives Matter protesters interrupted a city council meeting in February, Tubbs announced a five-minute break and abruptly left the podium, angering his one-time supporters. A month later, he tells NationSwell his number-one rule about politics: “It takes thick skin.”
During his 2016 run for mayor, Tubbs built his campaign around the idea of creating opportunities and stability for the people of Stockton. And it worked. He beat his opponent, Republican Anthony Silva, by almost 40 points.
Tubbs credits the young interns who canvassed and phoned banked for him with drumming up civic engagement in the city. In contrast to many of Tubbs’s childhood peers, these teens are some of the loudest voices in the ears of Stockton’s elected officials.
“My phone does not stop ringing, because the young people we’ve trained expect more from their elected officials,” says Lange Luntao, a Stockton school board member.
Michael Tubbs and his friends grew up believing they needed to leave Stockton to find opportunity and a better life. Once gone, few ever felt the need to return. Already, Tubbs is inspiring more of his young constituents to stay. With time, perhaps others from his own generation will return.
Editors’ note: A previous version of this article stated that the Colby Friday incident was reportedly captured on a police officer body camera. NationSwell apologizes for the error.