Stockton's First Black Mayor Michael Tubbs Doesn't Want to Be Its Last

Stockton, California, Mayor Michael Tubbs is acutely aware of the issues that his city faces—like violence, income inequality and low college admissions. And now, anyone who watches the new HBO documentary Stockton on My Mind can get familiar with those issues, too.

Currently available on HBO Max, the doc chronicles Tubbs' first term as mayor and highlights the work that he's put in to help reduce homicides in the city, the advocating that he's done on behalf of a basic universal income, and the support he's pledged to the education system, by beginning the Stockton Scholars program, which provides qualifying high school graduates $500 or $1,000 a year to attend college.

A Stockton native, Tubbs, 29, was elected mayor in 2016 at the age of 26, making him the youngest mayor in Stockton's history, as well as the city's first Black mayor. Tubbs' mother had him at 16, and his father is currently serving a life sentence in prison for kidnapping, drug possession and robbery. Part of what he wants to accomplish while in office is help people who have been dealt a hand similar to his. "How do I empower other people from backgrounds like mine to upset the setup?" he says in a speech early in the documentary.

Speaking to Newsweek over the phone on Tuesday, Tubbs noted that the coronavirus pandemic has only made certain priorities even clearer. "I think COVID-19 has really shown us how the things we were doing before COVID-19 were so important," he said. "In terms of providing a basic income for people, in terms of being in relationship and community with people and in terms of just making sure city government is working efficiently and knowing how to communicate."

Ahead of the debut of Stockton on My Mind, which premiered on HBO on Tuesday, Tubbs talked with Newsweek about education reform, his community's response to COVID-19 and the 2020 presidential election. Read our conversation below. This interview has been edited and condensed for the sake of length and clarity.

Stockton on my Mind
Mayor Michael Tubbs speaking to high school students in Stockton, CA. Courtesy of HBO

Does being the youngest mayor of Stockton, and also its first Black mayor, add any pressure to you?

Absolutely. I think particularly given the conversation we're having in this country—we know that racism is not in the past, it's very much in the present. Whenever you're the first something and the youngest, I think there's a lot of extra screening, and [I] also just put a lot of pressure on myself. I don't want to be the last Black mayor Stockton ever has. I want to represent well for young people, for Black people, for all people. So, definitely, every day [there's] still a sense of responsibility, a little bit of pressure to deliver and do my best.

What are some of the challenges that you've faced as mayor?

Well, I think the biggest challenge is that the need is so great, as you see in the documentary, and the resources are so small. You only have 24 hours in a day, and you can't act unilaterally. Like, everything I do requires consensus. So I spend a lot of time getting people to come up to believe what's possible with you. That's been the biggest challenge of it. I think also because things have been bad for so long, there's just a real sense of, like, nihilism and a real sense of hopelessness. So having to fight that, while fighting people who want to keep the status quo is a little bit difficult sometimes.

And I know that the documentary addresses it a little bit, but how has Stockton changed since you took office?

We're not all the way there yet, but we've made significant progress. Our homicide rates for the last three years has been down 40 percent from what our average was the previous six, which I'm really proud of. Our downtown's coming alive. The Sacramento Kings moved their G League team here. So you see more investment. We've created over 2,000 jobs. We've received more grants from state government philanthropy than ever before, to address issues of climate change and education. Just the narrative of the city is much more positive and things are just moving in the right direction.

One of the issues the documentary highlights is the work you do with the education system. And early in the documentary, you talk about your experiences with racism in the education system. Is that an issue that you still see as mayor, and what do you do to counter it?

A hundred percent. Even just a couple months ago, I was having a conversation with some leaders about the need to make our graduation requirement aligned with the state college-entrance requirements, and had educators say that's just unattainable for our students. And that's why I started the Stockton Scholars program—to really put my flag in the ground to illustrate to the students, but also to the adults, that I believe that all of our students, every single one of our students, has the potential to do something after high school. And I'm committed to providing them money to do that.

One of the other things that I thought was interesting was you speaking to eighth graders about the Stockton Scholars program. What's the importance of starting education reform in younger grades, rather than just with high schoolers?

[You've] got to start at birth. The research says so much of brain development, language acquisition, et cetera, starts between zero and three. So it's important in eighth grade, because I remember eighth grade being a real transition point for me and my friends. It's really interesting what we do at high school. I tell people that the four years of high school can determine the next 40 years of your life, which is crazy, but it's true. The choices you make in high school dictate the choices you have after high school, which is your adult life, and [that] gets them thinking.

So when they get to high school, they have a vision for themselves after high school. "Hey, know if you do everything right, when you graduate, you're going to be given a scholarship." And to put that in their minds when they enter their freshman year, they know that the expectation [is] for them to do something. That it's not enough just to graduate anymore.

One of the parts of the film that I thought was really interesting was watching you react to the 2018 midterm elections. Do you have predictions for the 2020 election?

If we want to remain a democracy, Joe Biden has to be elected president. I don't know if that's a prediction or a warning, but I refuse to entertain a scenario where Joe Biden is not president.

What are issues that you think the people of Stockton care most about in the upcoming election?

I think they care about COVID-19. I think they care about the economy. I think they care about homelessness and housing.

But what do you hope comes out of the election, regardless of who is elected in 2020?

No, I'm not—Joe Biden has to win. The first thing: Joe Biden just has to win. And then from that, I hope to see a vision for this country that [includes] a 2020 version of the New Deal, that's reflective of what we know to be true—that we have to provide for everyone. We have to redress past harms and we have to provide a 21st-century social safety net.

The two biggest issues the country's been dealing with in the past few months are both COVID-19 and a reckoning with racial inequality. How have you seen both of these issues reflected in Stockton?

I'm proud of the way Stockton has been having these conversations. We've had many protests in Stockton, but we have had no tear gas, no rubber bullets, no vandalism, no looting, very constructive.

COVID-19 has put front and central just how we don't value our migrant workers and how that has to change. And we're just having very difficult conversations about race and equity and the need to do more for folks that are impacted more. And it's been not easy to have, but [it's] refreshing to have the space to have the conversation.

Have you received more support for ideas or policies that you talk about in the documentary, in the wake of COVID-19? Like, universal basic income or the Stockton Scholars program?

Yes. I think more people understand, "Wow, the rest of the country is looking at what we're doing in Stockton. Wow, we're on the cutting edge."

More than ever, it feels like local leaders are being highlighted during the pandemic. How do you think that a documentary like this puts you on the national stage and can affect small cities across the country?

I hope the documentary just really shows people what's possible at the local level and how you can't wait for someone to pinpoint you out to lead. If you feel called to lead, if you have the relationships and support to lead, now is the moment to lead, because we need leaders more than ever. And I hope people see that at the local level, you can get things done.

That's not sexy. It's not all glamorous—99.999 percent of the time, your work won't be captured in a documentary. But it's necessary work to really make our democracy real, and that democracy is real at the city level, at the local level.

I feel like in recent years we've seen more and more young politicians making waves nationwide. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez is probably the most famous, but even people like Ilhan Omar and Matt Gaetz are both under 40. What do you think that young politicians gaining traction and national recognition means for the future?

I think it means our future will be better than our present. I think oftentimes younger politicians have a vision for the future that's not tethered to where we've been. And that's much more forward-thinking and much more about what we should be and pushing us to be our better self.

Stockton on My Mind is currently streaming on HBO Go and HBO Max. It will be available to stream for free from August 7 to September 21.