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Michael Tubbs, one of America’s youngest mayors, aims to lift his hometown of Stockton

Michael Tubbs on becoming Mayor of Stockton

From "the rougher parts of Stockton" to the Mayor's office, Michael Tubbs is the city's youngest, and first African-American mayor.
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From "the rougher parts of Stockton" to the Mayor's office, Michael Tubbs is the city's youngest, and first African-American mayor.

Michael Tubbs eased into the chair at Big Herk’s Clippers and closed his eyes, hoping for a precious few moments of downtime under a blue barber’s cape.

“Hello, Mr. Mayor!” a man boomed as Hynek Washington’s electric shaver began buzzing.

“Mayor Tubbs!”

“Well, if it isn’t the mayor.”

Stockton’s favorite son no longer is a relatively anonymous City Council member. His story has gone national. He is in demand as a speaker on radio programs and academic panels around the country. His constituents approach him at the gym, on the street and in the barber shop where he gets his weekly cut. They have questions about police tactics, crime and zoning regulations. They want answers.

“I am the mayor,” Tubbs said on a recent day, his eyes widening. “Sometimes I have to pinch myself. It’s such a huge honor.”

In January, after four years of serving on the Stockton City Council, Tubbs was installed as mayor of the town where he was born to a teenaged mother and an imprisoned father. At 26, he is Stockton’s first black mayor, and the youngest mayor in American history of a city with a population of at least 100,000, according to his staff. He oversees a diverse community of around 300,000 people, a place with big-city problems that include a high violent crime rate, a struggling school system and a growing homeless population.

Why would Tubbs, who graduated from Stanford University with bachelor’s and master’s degrees and a raft of academic and leadership awards, traveled the world and interned at the White House, choose to take his skills and intellect back to Stockton?

“When I first left Stockton for college, I thought, ‘OK, I’m successful now,’ ” he explained. “I made it.”

Then, in 2010, a cousin was murdered at a Halloween party, and his focus changed. Tubbs decided he did not want to be another educated young person fleeing his home city. He wanted to help change Stockton’s fate. “I decided it would be cowardly for me to continue to do research and write essays about all of Stockton’s problems and not try to do something about them,” he said.

Tubbs has taken over an office that in the months preceding his election had been rocked by scandal and legal issues. Incumbent mayor Anthony Silva, who led the city during a turbulent four years marked by the recession and a prominent bankruptcy filing, has pleaded not guilty to felony charges including embezzlement, grand theft and misappropriation of public funds in connection with the nonprofit Stockton Kids Club. Prosecutors allege Silva used money from the organization to fund personal travel. Silva also is fighting misdemeanor charges related to his alleged recording of a 2015 strip poker game with teenage camp counselors.

Tubbs, supporters said, represents a fresh start for the city.

“He’s a strong young man who has dedicated his life to Stockton,” said Cindi Fargo, chief executive officer of the Downtown Stockton Alliance.

Tubbs is not without detractors, some of whom regularly line up at council meetings to blame him for the city’s troubles, including a violent crime rate that is second only to Oakland’s among California’s larger cities. Of particular concern recently has been a string of confrontations between police officers and citizens in which residents have alleged excessive force.

“Our new mayor is down with the oppressors!” read a recent post on the website of Stockton’s chapter of Black Lives Matter, written in response to the removal of vocal protesters from a recent council meeting.

The Democratic mayor defended the city’s police, who he pointed out wear body cameras and have taken special training on tactics for defusing potentially violent encounters. Tubbs said he has been as transparent as possible with protesters, who include family members of people killed in confrontations with police.

“I can’t take criticism personally,” Tubbs said. “People are going to get upset and angry. I understand that. I didn’t get elected mayor to make friends. I got elected to get stuff done. No one puts more pressure on me than I do on myself.”

In his office on the second floor of City Hall, Tubbs has a whiteboard on which he has scribbled his priorities in orange, green and black ink. At the top, he has written “Hot Zones,” referring to blighted areas of the city where crime is rampant. Tubbs is working with nonprofit groups, health organizations, police, educators and others to bring social services, youth programs and businesses into the areas.

The mayor also has listed “Small Business Entrepreneurs” and “Homelessness” as key issues. He updates the board daily, adding ideas, meetings, events.

His office remains sparsely decorated, with just a few photographs decorating the shelves. One pictures him with some of the people who helped shape his life, including his mother Racole Dixon; grandmother Barbara Nicholson; and fiancée Anna Malaika Nti-Asare, whom he met at Stanford and plans to marry in December.

Tubbs grew up in the working-class Nightingale area of Stockton. His mother was a teenager when he was born, and his father, for whom he was named, was incarcerated in a juvenile facility. His father was in and out of custody during most of Tubbs’ childhood. Today, the elder Tubbs is locked up in California State Prison, Sacramento, serving a “third strike” life sentence for kidnapping, robbery and possession of a controlled substance.

Tubbs visited his father in prison only once, when he was about 12.

“I didn’t like the way the guards treated everyone, all of the searching, the sadness of the kids,” he recalled. “It was formative for me. I knew I didn’t want to be caged.”

His childhood, he said, revolved around church, curfew and education. “I enjoyed it,” said Tubbs, who has a younger brother, Drevonte. “My mother and grandmother shielded us from some of the reality of the neighborhood.” The women expected straight A’s on Michael’s report cards, and he rarely let them down.

Tubbs was a standout student at Franklin High School, from which he graduated with an international baccalaureate diploma before heading to Stanford. There, he earned a bachelor’s degree in comparative studies and ethnicity and a master’s in policy, leadership and organization studies.

On his first date with the woman he soon intends to marry, Tubbs mentioned he was thinking of running for a council seat in his hardscrabble hometown.

“It was not because he wanted power or money,” said Nti-Asare. During internships at Google and the White House, Tubbs had met many powerful people. He had launched teaching programs for underprivileged students. He won prestigious awards. “He could have gone anywhere, done anything,” she said. “He had a mission.”

At age 21, he won his seat on the council, promising to “reinvent Stockton” and aggressively take on issues like gang violence and public safety.

Among those who helped get him elected was a high school friend, Lange Luntao. Tubbs lured Luntao away from Boston, where he was finishing his studies at Harvard University, to become his campaign field director. Now Luntao’s photo is in the lobby of the San Joaquin Unified School District. He is a member of the Stockton school board, and his best friend Tubbs is the mayor.

Tubbs, Luntao said, serves as an inspiration for young people in the city. “A lot of us were inspired by Michael’s decision to come back,” said Luntao. “Years ago, I could count only a handful of young professionals who had returned to Stockton to work and lead. Now I see it on a regular basis. Mayor Tubbs is the best hope we have for ending the brain drain.”

“Michael has a great brain for policy, and he’s very good at bringing people in,” Luntao said. “He does not claim to be able to fix everything. What he does is find a way to empower people.”

Tubbs insists he feels no extra pressure from being the first African American to lead the city. “I appreciate the historical significance,” he said. “But I have always been black. It’s not something I think about every day.”

He is not ready to commit to a lifetime of public service, he said. But he seems at ease in the role.

Striding through Stockton’s downtown streets, dressed in slacks and a sweater, he flashes easy smiles to everyone who makes eye contact. He poses for selfies at nonprofit events, and dons a Stockton Ports baseball jersey and Jordan sneakers in preparation for throwing out the ceremonial first pitch at Banner Island Ballpark.

At the mayor’s dais, Tubbs maintains a casual vibe, albeit in a suit and tie, and a sense of humor. He appears impatient at times, rolling his eyes at hecklers in the audience and politely imploring speakers not to exceed their allotted three minutes at the podium. “Come on, man!” he is likely to say when someone misbehaves.

On a recent Tuesday he weighed in on items ranging from a new appointment to the vector control board to a declaration of Women’s History Month, glancing down occasionally to tap into his cellphone. He seemed genuinely touched when members of Victims of Violent Crime presented him with a plaque and a bouquet of flowers.

“We’re proud of him,” said Washington, the barber, as he perfected the mayor’s fade haircut and chinstrap sideburns last week. “He’s a great kid. He’s consistent. He really listens and absorbs things. For him to come back to Stockton shows his heart.”

And, Washington added, the mayor is good for business.

“He’s on television a lot,” he said with a smile. “Now people are coming in all the time and asking for the Michael Tubbs haircut.”

Cynthia Hubert: 916-321-1082, @Cynthia_Hubert

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