Betting on Stockton: Michael Tubbs

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Editor's Note: With Stockton, Calif. on the verge of bankruptcy, New America Media is profiling some of the residents who have chosen to stay in the city with the nation's second-highest foreclosure rate. This is the first in the series, "Betting on Stockton: Leaders of a City on the Edge," profiling some of the people who refused to give up on Stockton.

STOCKTON, Calif.--Come November, 21-year-old Michael Tubbs may become the youngest City Councilman in Stockton.

Tubbs, a Democrat, announced his candidacy in February, three months before he graduated from Stanford University with both a bachelor’s and master’s degree in Policy, Organization and Leadership Studies.

In announcing his candidacy, he said he wanted to “re-invent Stockton,” once a flourishing agricultural community in the Central Valley, but now on the verge of filing for bankruptcy.

A “Rose in the Concrete”

Tubbs was born and raised here. Instead of talking about the city’s high crime rate, its high unemployment level or its budget deficit when asked to describe his hometown, Tubbs quotes a short poem by the late rapper Tupac Shakur that Tubbs believes reflects the future of Stockton:

“Have you heard of the rose that grew from a crack in the concrete?

Proving nature’s law is wrong it learned to walk without having feet.

Funny it seems, but by keeping its dreams, it learned to breathe fresh air.

Long live the rose that grew from concrete when no one else cared.” 

Sean Dugar, the western regional field director of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), supports Tubbs’ bid for public office and refers to him as Stockton’s “bright, up-and-coming star.”

Oprah Winfrey sent him $10,000 after the two met in April on her visit to Stanford University. When she found out that Tubbs was running for Stockton City Council, she asked him to tell her about the city. Tubbs did—impressively.

The young candidate also has been endorsed by such groups as the Latina Democratic Club of San Joaquin County and San Joaquin County Democratic Party. Mary Ann Cox and Janet Rivera, Delta Board of Trustee members, also support him.

Against All Odds

Tall and with a boy-next-door look, Tubbs has beaten all odds in arriving at where he is today. 

Born to an incarcerated father and a 16-year-old mother, Tubbs grew up in south Stockton, home to some of the roughest neighborhoods in the city. For years, the family lived on welfare.

“When I was growing up, I didn’t know anyone who went to college,” said Tubbs. “I knew I was going to go somehow, but I had no idea about all the things I had to do” to get there.

Through mentorship and a supporting family, Tubbs was able to graduate from Franklin High School with a 4.3 grade point average. He got accepted into Columbia University and Stanford University, but opted for the latter.

Along the way, Tubbs was honored as a Ronald McDonald Future African American Achiever and a Martin Luther King Youth of the Year, among a plethora of other recognitions. He also served as an intern in the White House.


Stockton’s Woes

Home to about 290,000 people, Stockton was one of the hardest hit cities in the nation when the housing market collapsed. People from across the state had thronged to it in the 1990s and snapped up property. Over 95 percent of housing units in Stockton were occupied in 2000, compared to 50 percent today, according to the U.S. Census Bureau.

Stockton currently is more than $700 million in long-term debt and faces a budget deficit this year of about $26 million. Its home foreclosure figures are staggering--of the 100,014 Stockton houses with mortgages, 60 percent are underwater—worth less than the value of their mortgages.  According to RealtyTrac, Stockton recorded one foreclosure filing for every 217 households during the first quarter of this year, almost seven times more than that recorded in San Francisco during the same period.

The city’s unemployment rate is more than 20 percent, and its crime rate is among the highest of all California cities.

The Stockton City Council voted to authorize City Manager Bob Deis to file for bankruptcy as early as June 26, if officials fail to negotiate with creditors. That would make Stockton the largest city in the nation ever to file for bankruptcy.

Opportunities for “Homegrown Talent”

Where others may see hopelessness, Tubbs sees his native town as a community "where every kid is given an opportunity to maximize [his or her] potential" and a city that "utilizes its myriads of assets and serves as a model for a thriving, diverse, community.”

"It's going to take the homegrown talent that we've cultivated and educated to come back and bring those experiences and networks to the city," said Tubbs.

Tubbs gained 55 percent of the total votes for City Council District 6, during the June 5 primary election against 52-year-old Republican incumbent Dale Fritchen. Both men will face off in the general election on November 6.

Tubbs will be the first challenger to Fritchen since he took office in 2008.

While others argued that Fritchen’s unimpressive showing was due to his opposition to the city filing for bankruptcy, there is no doubt that a large proportion of District 6 voters--who are largely from the Latino, Asian-American and African American communities--support Tubbs. They feel he will reconnect them to City Hall, from which they have felt isolated for years.

Having grown up in District 6, Tubbs believes he knows exactly what residents want. Staying true to his vision, he has done rounds of personal canvassing, which residents from that area have never experienced from other candidates.

Tubbs’ campaign promises resonate with the voters.

“It’s a different dynamic when you want to work for a city that you grew up and have memories in,” said Dillon Delvo, a Filipino-American resident of the district and principal of a charter school in Stockton. Delvo believes Tubbs can help revive the city.

Understanding the importance of empowering youth and wanting them to have an opportunity to go to college, Tubbs founded Phoenix Scholars in 2009, a nonprofit that provides free counseling on college admissions, mentorship and scholarship advice for low-income, first-generation minority students. During the program’s first year, all 93 of Phoenix Scholars were admitted to Stanford, the University of California at Berkeley, the University of Southern California or Harvard.

“A lot of these students were discouraged from applying to top schools or just didn’t really have the knowledge of how to do it,” Tubbs said. “Now they’re doing well and understand that they need to come back, help their community, and make sure that other students have the same opportunity.”

Above all underlying problems Tubbs expects to confront as a City Council member, he said he wants to return to Stockton to stimulate a college-going culture again and encourage postgraduates to return to the city.


Stockton’s “Harvest is Plentiful”

"I'm really hopeful and excited that people will come back and see that harvest is plentiful, but the workers are few," said Tubbs. "It's going to take that talent coming back, saying, 'I don't have to go (elsewhere) and do Teach for America. I can Teach for Stockton.’”

When asked why he wanted to go back to Stockton after graduating, when high-powered jobs could be his for the asking, Tubbs said he wanted to use his education and experiences to serve the community that raised him.

“I think it’d be a little selfish for me to go off and have a comfortable life and hear my Mom call me about the gunshots she hears,” said Tubbs, “or have my mentees text me crying because they lost someone close to them before they even turned 21 because of gang violence.”

Tubbs added: "All the connections I've made at Stanford and the people I've been able to connect with weren't for me to just get rich. Making change is more important to me than going to the private sector and making a whole lot more money."