Michael Tubbs with his aunt, Tasha Dixon, at his first State of the City speech. (Sasha Khokha/KQED)
When Michael Tubbs was 15, he used to hang out at City Council meetings. A lot. Wearing a spiffy collared shirt and a tie, his adolescent voice crackling into the microphone, he’d get up and share his ideas about how to make his city better.
“We actually watched him grow up,” says Connie Cochran, who’s worked for the city of Stockton for a dozen years. “Even back then, he explained that someday he would be mayor. And you know what? That's exactly what he did.”
At 26, Michael Tubbs is not only the new mayor of Stockton, but the first African-American mayor of that city. In fact, he’s the youngest mayor of a sizable American city today.
He’s taking the helm of a place better known for bankruptcy and violence. For a few years, Stockton topped Forbes Magazine’s list of most miserable cities in the U.S.
But Tubbs says he’s up to the challenge.
His hashtag? #reinventStockton.
California's Youngest Mayor Wants to Rebrand 'America's Most Miserable City'
Tubbs knows something about adversity. He was born to a teenage mom, and his dad is incarcerated. But he went on to get a scholarship at Stanford, intern at Google, and return to his hometown to win political office.
“I remember growing up I'd be really embarrassed as if I did something wrong, or there was something wrong with me because my father was in prison,” explains Tubbs.
“As I got older, I realized there are also wider structural policy choices that create the environments in which people make choices. Now I spend a lot of my time figuring out how to create conditions and environments where people are more likely to make the right choices.”
Tubbs came back to Stockton after a stint as an intern at the White House. He says Michelle Obama told the interns something that made him rethink his future.
“She said, ‘When you walk into these gates think of all the people you're taking in with you. Think of all the people outside just wishing they could get in,' " recalls Tubbs. "I understand there’s a responsibility that comes with opportunity."
While at the White House, Tubbs got some tragic news from back home. A cousin he had grown up with was murdered, one of 50 homicides in the city of Stockton that year. Tubbs decided to come home.
"[I was] working through my own feelings of guilt and grief and also not feeling that there's sufficient focus, pressure or even a conversation about the value of lives. The value of lives of young people and the values of lives of young men of color in this community in particular."
At age 22, Tubbs ran for City Council.
Impressed by his underdog story, Oprah Winfrey sent him a check for $10,000 to boost his campaign. He won his mostly Latino district with about 60 percent of the vote. His path to that victory was chronicled in the powerful documentary film, "True Son," made by some of his fellow Stanford classmates.
Then, last November, Michael Tubbs was overwhelmingly elected as Stockton’s mayor.
At his first State of the City speech last month, he talked about investing in young people, especially those growing up in violent neighborhoods, caught in cycles of poverty and crime.
"I know some of you out there are asking why, why spend any time or tax dollars on these folks,” he told the crowd gathered at the Port of Stockton. "I know some people say, 'Mayor Tubbs, I don’t think it’s worth it.' But the truth is, we will pay either way. And the cost of trauma and violence is a much greater cost than job training and opportunity."
Tubbs also talked about putting Stockton on the map with the nation’s first all-electric bus fleet, and ending subsidies for city golf courses enjoyed by only a few.
"Stockton, this nation is looking for a comeback story,” said Tubbs, as the audience cheered. “And why not you? Why not us? Why not the jewel of the Central Valley? Why not the great city of Stockton, California?”
“He’s turning the perception around. Not only for people inside of Stockton, for people outside of Stockton,” said Emily Oestreicher, a recent transplant from San Francisco who attended the speech. She and her husband, artist Jared Rusten, were drawn to Stockton because they could buy an affordable old building and transform it into a furniture-building studio. They hosted Michael Tubbs' victory party there.
“He has authenticity, and he cares about this community,” said Oestreicher. “He also has the intelligence, and the skills, and the energy, as a young person, to make things happen.”
Tubbs' message seemed to resonate across the political spectrum for others at the speech, like Ryan Haggerty. He heads up a construction company that got hit hard during Stockton’s foreclosure crisis. He supports President Trump -- and Mayor Tubbs.
“I think that some youth is healthy,” said Haggerty. "I think a fresh perspective is always good. And you know, he's from here so I think he understands a lot of our underlying challenges."
Tubbs' Aunt, Tasha Dixon, was beaming after the speech. She said she’s not surprised that the little bookworm she knew as a kid grew up to become the mayor.
“Michael would not leave the house without a book in his hand,” said Dixon. “Even if he was going to go practice for basketball. He still had a book in his hand. He was still reading. You know, a kid that you know is going to go somewhere.”
In fact, when I ask Tubbs to take me on a tour of his old neighborhood, he takes me right to the Maya Angelou Southeast Library.
"It's a place where I wrote my college apps. Discovered James Baldwin," says Tubbs. "And every time I lose my keys, I had to stay here until my mom got off work."
Reading, he says, allowed him to see that the world was bigger than his city or his street. After college, he tried starting a summer program for kids, worked for a while as a teacher. But, he says, he was interested in scale. Not just helping a few kids, but an entire city.
We stop together at an elementary school garden, where a group of third-graders shrieks in delight. “Is that the mayor? Yes, it’s Michael Tubbs. That’s the mayor!”
Tubbs spends a lot of time visiting schools and youth programs. He’s started a summer book club with young people. And he talks books whenever he meets kids.
"Education and early investment as a child really made all the difference for me, and that’s why I’m a big champion," says Tubbs, as kids clamor to hand him some strawberries they grew.
“And look, the kids are wonderful, they're awesome. They didn't create the community they live in, the families they were born into. They have all the potential in the world, so I think it's our job to make sure they have all the opportunities in the world as well. So they can reach their potential.”
Michael Tubbs says he thinks being a young mayor helps him focus on his city’s most important demographic.
“Because, number one, I'm not that old. I'm only 26. In this county, a third of our people are under 21. Early investment in them creates the community we want tomorrow, today."