Mayor Michael Tubbs’ office in Stockton City Hall looks more like a dorm room than the workplace of a city official. A well-used whiteboard, full of colorful scrawl, sits as the focal piece of the room. Inspirational quotes from the Bible and the rapper J. Cole—“anything is possible, you gotta dream like you never seen obstacles”—shout out from the painted walls he describes as a “peaceful but energetic” blue.
In fact, some of the black-and-white artwork he hangs on his walls—a portrait of Frederick Douglass and the iconic photo of Muhammad Ali standing over Sonny Liston—were inspired by the posters he looked at every day in his dorm at Stanford University.
But this is understandable. At 27, Tubbs is just half a decade out of college. He’s the youngest mayor elected in Stockton’s history—actually the youngest in the country to lead any city of its size, according to his staff—as well as the first African American mayor of his hometown.
“The ‘firsts’ I was excited about was to be the first one in my entire family to go to college, and the first one at my school to go to Stanford,” he laughs. “Those were the firsts I was really excited about. I had no intention of being the mayor of Stockton, let alone the first of anything here.”
Like so many young people, Tubbs once thought success meant leaving Stockton, a city of 310,000 that was known as the largest city in the country to declare bankruptcy before Detroit took over that title.
During a quarter spent in Washington, DC his junior year, he interned at the Obama White House, researching mayors and councils for 12 hours a day. “At first I hated it,” he says. But he saw communities that were once like Stockton and “learned at a local level what folks were doing.”
When his cousin was murdered at a Halloween party that year, he knew that change was needed in Stockton more than ever—and that he and the community he grew up in couldn’t wait around for someone else to make it happen.
“The convergence of those two ideas, of seeing local officials make differences with their communities, compounded with the fact that my cousin was murdered in the community I was from, it got me thinking and made me decide to come back to Stockton,” he says. In 2012, just a few months after he graduated from Stanford, he was elected to the City Council. Four years later, he won the mayoral race with just over 70% of the vote.
Now a year and a half into his first term, Tubbs stands at the precipice of yet another first: making Stockton the first American city to deploy a universal basic income pilot program, which would give at least 100 families $500 in donated cash a month, no strings attached.
“Poverty, in my opinion, is the crux of all the issues we face as a community,” he says. “I just kept thinking, ‘What can we do that’s different? What is something we can do to really push the envelope and at least, if we can’t create viable policy, start a conversation?’”
For Tubbs, this is a conversation he’s been entrenched in all his life. He grew up watching his mother struggle to pay the bills while his father was in and out of prison on a variety of offenses. (His father is currently serving a life sentence for kidnapping and robbery.)
An extra $500 a month for his mother back then would have “meant a lot less stress and anxiety, which would have meant a lot less stress and anxiety for me as a child,” Tubbs said. “She could have stopped going to the check cashing places sooner, probably could have afforded healthier food than fast food. She could have started saving up money.”
With the universal basic income pilot program, Tubbs knows he brought the eyes of the world upon Stockton, yet another added pressure to an already stressful job. But he’s ready for it.
And besides, Tubbs is used to critics. An effort to recall him and remove him from office was led earlier this year by a number of constituents who accused him of everything from taking payouts to not doing enough to bring down the city’s crime rates to using the city as a stepping stone in politics (but the group failed to meet its filing deadline).
Unfortunately, Tubbs said, much of that comes with being the first black mayor, and the youngest. He still receives his share of racist hate mail, and the messages that aren’t racist tend to deride his age. “You are not at Stanford anymore and Stockton is not a class,” one woman wrote in the Recall Tubbs Facebook group.
In moments like these, Tubbs reminds himself that he was elected into this office: “No matter what people may think about my age or my race, more people than not thought I could do the job.”
“For me, the biggest concern is not putting too much pressure on myself to confront every bias and fight back against every piece of ignorance. That’s just a lot of pressure to put on one person,” he says. “I just focus on doing the job. People can make whatever assumptions they want but they can’t dispute the work.”
I’m very thankful for the four years I had in City Council. That was not on the same scale, by any stretch, but it was good preparation and helped me be comfortable being the only one of my generation, or my race, in some cases, both, in the room—and having to be the decision maker or the driving force.
I think those feelings, when they arise, I have to remind myself that I am being too inwardly focused and the work we’re doing is very much about everyone else. No matter how I feel, whether I feel ready or not, I have to execute because the people felt that I was ready. I was given a job to do.
Making Sure He’s Not the Last
We have a very robust internship program, the likes of which the city has never seen. We do a lot of intentional community- and relationship-building. We spend a lot of time de-mystifying city government and making clear what’s what and who’s who. And I think the biggest thing we can do is make sure we do a good job.
When you’re the first, you can’t be content with being the first. You want to make sure you’re not the last. You make sure you push and you open doors and prioritizing the needs of everyone, especially those most marginalized, there’s going to be some pushback. That’s part of the job.
I’ve been to the majority of schools in the city just so kids can see, this is my mayor. Just that exposure helps with empowerment, helps them see what’s possible.
This article has been updated to clarify the fact that the group attempting to recall Tubbs missed its filing deadline.
Photo of Michael Tubbs courtesy of Larry Busacca/Getty Images for the 2014 Tribeca Film Festival.
Vivian Ho is a journalist who covered crime and criminal justice for the San Francisco Chronicle and served on the newspaper's breaking news team for six years. Before she joined the Chronicle in 2011, Vivian reported for The Boston Globe and the Worcester Telegram & Gazette. She is currently working on her first book, an exploration of America’s homeless transient youth and the violence that shapes them, set for publication by Little A in 2019. A New England native, Vivian graduated from Boston University in 2011. She was a finalist for the Livingston Award for local journalism in 2018.More from this Author