Stockton Mayor Michael Tubbs on His ‘Calling’ to Turn His Hometown Around
At just 27, Michael Tubbs is Stockton, California’s, first African-American mayor and the youngest mayor in American history of a city of more than 100,000 people. Tubbs, who was previously on the Stockton City Council, says he plans to use his position to reduce violent crime, foster economic development and improve public education.
Not infrequently, the news coverage about Stockton, a Central Valley city of 300,000 east of San Francisco, is negative. In 2012, Stockton’s foreclosure rate was the highest in the country; it also became the largest city in the country to go bankrupt. But now Stockton is making headlines for being the first city in the country to pilot a universal basic income program, which Tubbs coordinated. It’s funded by a million-dollar private grant from a tech group called the Economic Security Project, co-chaired by Facebook co-founder Chris Hughes. According to the terms of the grant, several dozen Stockton families are to get $500 a month, no strings attached, with the goal of gathering data on the economic and social effects of giving people a basic income.
Tubbs is putting his own experiences to work in his home city. He was raised in Stockton by a single mother, who had him when she was a teenager; his father was incarcerated. His own path has been different: Tubbs graduated with honors from Stanford University and interned in the White House and at Google.
His quick rise has drawn notice outside of strictly political circles, and outside Stockton city limits. Oprah Winfrey donated $10,000 to his campaign. In 2017, he was included on Forbes’ 30 Under 30 list, and The Root has named him one of the 100 most influential African-Americans.
Tubbs talked to Truthdig about how having a hardworking mother without higher education and an incarcerated father shaped his policies, how getting out of Stockton was a measure of success when he was growing up—and how a cousin’s murder prompted him to come back.
Emily Wilson: What is the biggest challenge about being mayor?
Michael Tubbs: I think the challenges are twofold—number one, this is a city of so many people with so many needs and there’s so much to do, and it’s difficult to find a way to effectively communicate policy to residents. The second thing is probably just the emotional personal toll being an elected official can take, but luckily my time on the City Council gave me some preparation.
EW: Did your working at Google and the White House help prepare you for this job?
MT: Oh, absolutely. The White House showed me how much leadership matters, and Google really showed me how corporations and business people think and work.
EW: People have strong reactions to the idea of basic income. What have been some of the responses you’ve gotten?
MT: What I’ve been fascinated by is the amount of positive response we’ve gotten from people, and I’ve been surprised by how much people are really hurting and really need opportunities. I’ve also been fascinated with how I thought it was a really novel discussion, but people seem to be ready for it.
How we came to it was I learned about it in college by studying Dr. King and given the fact that one in two Californians can’t afford a $400 emergency, and we have one the fastest-rising rent markets in the country in Stockton, signified for me we have to be bold around articulating and experimenting with solutions that help people. So we met with the Economic Security Project, and they were looking for a city to do basic income with. They said, “Have you heard of this?” and I said, “Oh, yeah, Dr. King was talking about it.” I come at it from a social-justice, here-and-now perspective, and we decided to partner together.
In terms of where it’s at, we just hired a project director who is working with the community now around eligibility and selection criteria. It’ll be people making $50,000 and below, but they’re still hammering out those details. Our goal to start is this fall or early next year.
EW: What are other projects you’re excited about that maybe haven’t gotten so much attention because this has gotten a lot?
MT: We have a progressive general plan that calls for infill development on the housing front. We just approved a fee reduction for people who want to build affordable housing. We allocated a bunch of dollars from our general fund around homelessness to do more housing for really low-income people. The Stockton Scholars program, our scholarship program that will make California State University tuition essentially free for the vast majority of Stockton Unified students, is the thing I’m most excited about.
EW: What do you want people to know about Stockton that they don’t know?
MT: Stockton is the all-American city. It’s diverse. It’s a major city with a small-town vibe. It’s a place where you can really contribute in a big way.
EW: What do people most want to see in Stockton?
MT: Opportunity. Jobs and safety and better schools.
EW: Why did you want to get out of Stockton? Why did you come back?
MT: I grew up in some of rougher parts of town, so success was always defined as leaving Stockton. That was a marker for the family or the community. If you were still here, it was like, oh, what did you do wrong?
I had no intention of coming back to Stockton. I really wanted to go to the East Coast for school. That’s where I knew I was going—as far away from Stockton as possible. I was going to go to Columbia, but it was too big and right in New York City. I know me, and I knew it would be hard to focus on academics there, so I went to Stanford because there’s not a lot to do in Palo Alto.
I came back precisely because my cousin was murdered in Stockton while I was interning at the White House. And that was a jarring moment that made me think about what role I wanted to play in the world, and also what was the point of being individually successful if the people I loved and cared about were still struggling, and that was a turning point for me. My family thought I was crazy. I’m a spiritual person, and I felt it was almost like a calling, or something I had to do. It was very purposeful.
I came back to run for City Council. I spent time researching and talking with community activists, and I realized the most effective way I could directly impact the issue of violence was to run for City Council. The idea was it was such a long-shot campaign that even if I lost I could spur a conversation about it, but then I ended up winning.
EW: Why do you think you did win?
MT: We ran a really good campaign. I think a lot of people had lost hope, and I think they thought, “Oh, my kid could be like this kid who went to Stanford,” and that gave people hope. And the Oprah donation didn’t hurt, for sure.
EW: As a senior in high school, you wrote an essay that won a contest sponsored by writer Alice Walker about how your parents’ mistakes helped you succeed. What did you learn from your parents?
MT: I think seeing how hard my mother worked to get promotions and provide for her children as a single parent, and how she had some career progression issues—not because she couldn’t do the job, but because she didn’t have the education. Growing up and seeing that motivated me to pursue my own higher education and also illustrated for me the importance of people having opportunities. That reflects in a lot of my policies whether it’s basic income or Stockton Scholars.
I think having a father who’s incarcerated has given me a path for criminal justice reform and also to help folks when they’re coming back to reintegrate into society, so after their debt is paid, they’re not continually paying a debt.