Stockton Mayor Michael Tubbs: From son of a teen mom and incarcerated dad to one of America's youngest mayors

How Michael Tubbs became one of America's youngest mayors in Stockton
How Michael Tubbs became one of America's youngest mayors in Stockton

When Stockton, California Mayor Michael Tubbs was growing up in Stockton in the 1990s and 2000s, "the message I received a lot ... was that I was in fact set up for two things: Prison. Or death," he said in a 2012 TEDx Talk.

That's because Tubbs was born to a teen mom, who didn't have very much money. And he is a Black male with a father in jail

But that's not what became of Tubbs. 

Tubbs gave that TEDx Talk when he was 22 and had recently graduated from Stanford University. Four years later, at 26, Tubbs became the youngest elected mayor of an American city with over 100,000 residents. Now at 30, Tubbs is running for a second mayoral term in Stockton.

Tubbs is also now known as a leading voice in a coalition of nearly a dozen mayors advocating for universal basic income in the United States. 

With Tubbs' success, he says he has "upset the set up," as he likes to call it. 

Tubbs, who is the subject of the recent HBO documentary "Stockton on My Mind," worked hard to get where he is. But it wasn't only hard work. "Effort matters more when you have a real opportunity," he says. 

Here are the factors Tubbs says are the "nucleus" of his success.

A family who prioritized love and education 

Tubbs says that No. 1 to his success was being "blessed with a great mother, aunt and grandmother," he says. They "weren't perfect — they made a lot of mistakes — but they were adamant in instilling love and a sense of self."

They taught Tubbs from an early age, that "what I have to say was important, that I was worth fighting for," he says, and that "I could do anything when I put my mind to it."

They also prioritized Tubbs' education.

For instance, though educational opportunities may not have been abundant in economically depressed Stockton, Tubbs' mother sought them out. Tubbs' mom found out about a program called International Baccalaureate after she asked her supervisor at work where their kids went. 

As a result, Tubbs attended the advanced program from seventh grade to 12th grade. "The educational opportunities that [International Baccalaureate] afforded me allowed me to be competitive at a school like Stanford for sure," Tubbs says, and Stanford led to further opportunities in life.

A social services safety net

Being born to a teen mom — Tubbs was 1 year old when his mom carried him on stage as she received her high school diploma — meant that the family could receive government assistance. 

"I think a lot of public investment, a lot of social safety net" was key, Tubbs says.

For instance, Tubbs and his mom benefited from the federal government's Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants, and Children (WIC), a supplemental nutrition program for low-income women and their kids, Tubbs says.

Though his mother held multiple jobs when Tubbs was a child, like working at McDonald's and in retail, they still lived "paycheck to paycheck," Tubbs says, "so there wasn't an over-abundance of food all the time." 

Tubbs still has memories of being hungry as a kid and says the public food programs "absolutely" helped him be successful. 

Later, Tubbs and his mom, who eventually got into the healthcare field, benefited from a federal first-time home-owner program. She utilized the program buy a house in South Stockton when Tubbs was a teenager. (His mom has since bought a new house but still lives in South Stockton.)

Moral grounding 

Tubbs currently attends a largely Black, non-denominational Christian church, and attending a similar church growing up gave him a sense of morality and community. 

Morally, Tubbs says the church taught him to respect "universal human dignity." He believes deeply that no matter who you are, "your life has value, that you're here for a reason, that you matter, that there is something for you to do," Tubbs says.

With respect to community, Tubbs learned that people must see their neighbors as a reflection of themselves. 

And that in particular has served him as mayor. 

"As I prepared to govern, I realized that given the diversity of Stockton, the first step to making change will be to again answer the same question: Who is our neighbor? And realizing that our destiny as a city was tied up in everyone," he said in a 2019 Ted Talk

So for Tubbs, while, working hard is important, "it becomes more important after all these other things are in place for folks so they are actually on a path and can go somewhere."

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