Stockton Mayor Michael Tubbs has become one of the most scrutinized public officials in the U.S., in part because at 28 years old he is one of the youngest mayors of a large city in the country. He also has far-reaching ideas that have some folks cheering and others jeering. Comstock’s sat down with Tubbs to talk about his efforts to transform his hometown.
You’ve said Stockton can become a model for urban transformation. How so?
Many of the problems other communities are grappling with — housing affordability, homelessness, violent crime, economic development or education — are in Stockton in spades. But Stockton doesn’t have the kind of resources available in places like San Francisco or Los Angeles to deal with them. So we say it could be a model because given the challenges we have with resources, solutions found here are going to be more scalable than you would find in much more prosperous cities.
You’ve drawn a lot of attention, and criticism, for your Universal Basic Income program that will use private funding to provide some Stockton residents with a $500 monthly stipend. Why do you think this will work?
I came to this conversation not knowing if it would work, but I think the best leaders are people that ask questions and aren’t afraid to try things. Over the past year, I’ve been listening to community members and going to town halls and learning things like how 1 in 2 Americans can’t afford even one $500 emergency, or that in Stockton rents have risen 22 percent and wages have gone down 8 percent in the last year. People are paying more and more and still falling further behind. I get emails from people who are working two or three jobs and still can’t pay the bills. That suggests to me that our economic system needs restructuring. Research has shown that an unconditional basic income does good things for people. We have models right now, like the earned income tax credit, which show that if we give people the money to do the things necessary to provide for themselves and their families, more often than not they make good decisions.
Where are you with implementation?
We have raised about $1.5 million, but given the amount of folks interested I’m doing my best to raise more. But at the bare minimum we will help at least 100 families for at least 18 months.
The Advance Peace program has also drawn both praise and condemnation. Explain how this would work.
For the past 30 years, Stockton has been double the state average in homicides. One of my cousins was murdered here, so when we talk about violence and violence reduction it’s very personal for me. It’s the main reason I decided to get involved in local government after I graduated from [Stanford University]. The Advance Peace program is in line with other strategies we’re running in the city to fight gang violence, but it focuses on individuals that are driving our violent crime rate rather than groups. In most cities, less than 1 percent of the population drives 70-80 percent of all the violent crime. In Stockton, that’s about 154 people, most of whom are folks we’ve engaged with before. They have evaded law enforcement because they’re still on our streets, but also have evaded getting help from our social safety net.
For me, the status quo is just unacceptable. If I thought everything was OK or didn’t need radical restructuring, I could easily be doing something else without as much scrutiny.
Advance Peace is intensive relationship building and seven-days-a-week case management for the 25 to 50 guys who are the most likely to commit a violent crime. It has seven principles, one of which is cognitive behavioral therapy. They have to make life maps and set goals. The controversial part is that after six months they are eligible to be part of a fellowship, so they’re getting cash for things that fellows do. Some of that controversy I understand, but a lot of it I don’t because, before I was mayor, my two previous jobs were being a fellow for Stanford and a fellow for the Emerson Collective. That means I was given money for doing a task, just like a job, which is essentially what these young men are doing. We’ve also been really blessed with this program because it is privately funded. So it’s a perfect complement to the work we’re doing already in violence reduction. But given the numbers we had last year, I just feel our current strategy in and of itself wasn’t sufficient. We need to add more resources and more bandwidth to help all those we need to serve.
You are working to develop relationships with big money philanthropists from other parts of the state. What’s your motivation?
The Central Valley gets significantly less philanthropic capital than the rest of the state. So when I was on the City Council, I made it my mission that the Central Valley should get as much as everyone else — if not more, given that there’s more need here. So I’ve spent time cultivating relationships with donors and funders. Because Stockton declared bankruptcy … we don’t have as much debt as we once had. In terms of discretionary dollars, our budget is still very, very, very, very, very sensitive. Philanthropy can’t do everything, but what it can do is seed exciting things. It can create catalytic projects. It can provide a proof of concept so that we can later make a case to the public for why we should use taxpayer dollars for something that was privately funded, and help build up the capacity of our community-based organizations, which rely on grants to do their job.
How is the city doing now financially?
Thanks to the hard cuts and the painful decisions we made during bankruptcy, we’re now the second-most fiscally healthy [large] city in the state. Our audits come back good every year, our budgets have been balanced and there’s even been surpluses. We’re using an actuarial model we call our ‘longer-range financial plan,’ which isn’t perfect but at least it gives us as much data as it can about how a decision made to spend money today can impact our future, which makes us incredibly cautious with spending money. I think given the history of the City right now that might not be a bad thing. So our financial footing is really stronger than it’s ever been.
Challenging the status quo seems to come easy to you, but do you ever think that you are pushing for too much change too fast?
It is something I think about. I haven’t figured out the balance yet. This is a political office, so a part of that is making sure enough people are happy so you get reelected, but for me, the status quo is just unacceptable. If I thought everything was OK or didn’t need radical restructuring, I could easily be doing something else without as much scrutiny. What I’m learning is how to do things in a way where people don’t feel attacked or like the rug has been swept from under them. But I also understand that given the short amount of time we have, we have to move quickly. I’m sure my staff gets tired of me saying it, but I start every conversation with ‘The status quo is bad, we have to make it better.’ The things that are good, let’s keep those, but the things that are functionally and structurally bad or have been bad for 30, 40, 50 years, it’s go time. Oftentimes, it’s easy to complain about things moving too fast when you’re not personally affected by the bad things that are happening. I know folks, for example, whose rents have risen 22 percent and who are emailing me saying they can’t afford their rent. For them, I’m moving too slow. For mothers who are burying their kids, I’m moving too slow.
You were recently named one of Fortune magazine’s “40 Under 40.” You were endorsed by Oprah. You’ve been featured in national publications and have been on just about every news show. How do you keep yourself grounded in the day-to-day, sometimes ponderous work of running what remains a very troubled city?
I think the staying grounded part is probably the easier answer — because of my wife. None of all that phases her. My family is the same way. Most of my support team of folks are just people who, if I wasn’t mayor, would still have the same amount of love for me. That’s super helpful. But I also think spending time in the community is key because people who are incredibly marginalized, they don’t know about or care about Fortune or Forbes or Oprah. They care about how we’re going to get this park cleaned up and how are we going to keep it safe. So just spending as much time with regular community folks, especially folks who are feeling the worst of Stockton more than others, is really humbling for me.