If you think you’re an overachiever, you haven’t met Michael Tubbs.
The Stanford graduate interned at Google and President Obama’s White House, then was elected to City Council of his hometown: Stockton, California. In 2016, he ran for the mayorship and won, defeating the Republican incumbent. And he did all this by the age of 26.
“I’m always so happy when I get an introduction where someone mentions my age,” Tubbs tells Shondaland. “It’s actually been a huge asset. It’s made people like me want to work with me — it kind of gave me the room to be bold and radical.”
Tubbs’ origin story is very much a tale about beating the odds, and it’s a key part of the new HBO documentary, Stockton on My Mind, which follows Tubbs as he works to spark change in his beloved community. He grew up in Stockton, the son of teenage parents. His father has been incarcerated for his entire life, so he was raised by his mother and grandmother. Now a parent himself to a 9-month-old son, Tubbs’ experiences with fatherhood so far have provided newfound insight into his own upbringing.
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“I have so much appreciation for my mom and other single mothers because I have a partner, and it’s not easy,” Tubbs shares. “How do people do it by themselves? I’m in awe of parents. And I have more empathy for my dad because when I’m gone for a couple days for a conference, I really miss my son. That has to be torture — to not see the little moments, to not see your child, and have your child not know you.”
Parenting has also influenced how Tubbs views the role of government. “The government has to be concerned with allowing parents to care; we have to provide the opportunity to care,” he says. “This looks like paid sick time, family leave time, decent hours, decent wages. We want folks at home with their families. We need to help folks provide for their children and help grow the next generation.”
When he was elected in 2016, Tubbs became the youngest mayor of a city of more than 100,000 people in American history. But, perhaps more tellingly, although Stockton is a majority-minority community, Tubbs is its first Black mayor. On election night, he recalls having mixed emotions. On the one hand, he won. On the other hand, so had Donald Trump.
“I remember being shocked and sick to my stomach,” Tubbs says. “But I also said we will have a party tonight, and we will mourn tomorrow night, because I was really proud of Stockton at that moment, too. They elected a Black mayor who worked in the Obama White House with an agenda of opportunities focusing on everyone, including the most marginalized.”
In 2012, Stockton became the largest American city to declare bankruptcy after never really recovering from the Great Recession. The housing market collapse had only exacerbated the city’s financial troubles, which were rooted in years of mismanagement and overspending. With a long history of economic turmoil, crime, violence, and low literacy rates, Stockton was in desperate need of urban renewal and community investment when Tubbs began his mayoral term.
When folks aren’t able to pay for necessities, all the things we’re working on — whether it’s crime reduction or educational attainment — are that much more difficult when folks are in debt.
In discussions with his policy team about ways to address the city’s troubles, one idea kept coming up: universal basic income, or UBI. Today, the idea has become somewhat of a political catchphrase thanks to the likes of former presidential candidate Andrew Yang, whose platform was centered on what he called “The Freedom Dividend,” which would’ve given $1,000 per month to all U.S. citizens over the age of 18. While Yang is no longer in the presidential race, UBI has continued to permeate the national discourse as lawmakers navigate how to help families struggling with the financial crisis caused by the coronavirus pandemic.
But back in 2017, the concept of just giving people money was risky at best and political suicide at worst. Still, knowing he was elected to deliver big, sweeping change, Tubbs pressed on. He formed the Stockton Economic Empowerment Demonstration (SEED), a program that set out to give a group of 125 randomly selected residents $500 per month for 18 months. SEED quickly garnered national attention. Tubbs was tasked with transforming how the public viewed UBI. It wasn’t going to be easy.
“The backlash was swift, and people were confused,” Tubbs recalls. “Sarah Palin and Bill O’Reilly were coming after me, and I remember wondering, ‘Why are people scared of this idea?’”
Further complicating matters was the issue of funding. With limited public dollars to tap into, the newly minted mayor had to completely rethink how the city could fund such an initiative. That’s when his experiences in the private sector, especially in nearby Silicon Valley, entered the picture. The first $1 million in funding came through a grant from the Economic Security Project, a pro-basic income advocacy group co-chaired by Facebook co-founder Chris Hughes.
In February 2019, SEED began sending $500 per month to its test group of residents. To qualify, residents must be 18 or older, and live in a neighborhood at or below Stockton’s median household income of $46,000. Originally, the experiment was supposed to last 18 months. But due to the pandemic, it was extended to 24 months (a donation from philanthropist Carol Tonan funded the extended payments through January 2021).
Mayor Michael Tubbs with graduating high school students.
Courtesy of HBO
“Part of the reason why I did it wasn’t to be provocative, but because I realized that economic insecurity is a threat to our community,” Tubbs explains. “When folks aren’t able to pay for necessities, all the things we’re working on — whether it’s crime reduction or educational attainment — are that much more difficult when folks are in debt, can’t save for emergencies, and can’t pay rent. Folks who are economically insecure are stressed, and anxious parents aren’t able to be fully present because they are working.”
In addition to SEED, Tubbs has also championed efforts including the Stockton Scholars program, which is geared toward helping at-risk youths complete higher education, and Advance Peace Stockton, a violence prevention program that turns formerly incarcerated individuals into mentors for young men in the community who are likely to engage in criminal activity.
Stockton Scholars received a $20 million donation from Evan Spiegel, the founder of Snapchat and one of Tubbs’ friends from college. That donation will fund scholarships for at least a decade. On the violence reduction front, the city covers most of the program’s associated costs.
“The city is paying for one project, and I raise money for the other community-based projects,” Tubbs says. “It’s using public dollars while leveraging philanthropic support. Our orientation is toward proof of concept, so the public dollars can follow eventually.”
Between juggling ambitious policy goals, parenting a newborn, and running for reelection, the mayor’s plate is undeniably full. Right now, he’s just doing his best to stay present.
“I’m not sure what the future holds,” Tubbs says. “I know I want to remain committed to this idea of making our country live up to its values of providing human dignity to everyone. Liberty and justice for all. And I really mean everybody — no one left out.”
Mekita Rivas is a Washington, D.C. based writer and editor. In addition to Shondaland, her writing has been published in The Washington Post, Architectural Digest, Food & Wine, Wine Enthusiast, Glamour, Brides, Self, Refinery29, and others. Follow her on Twitter @MekitaRivas.
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