One week after the November election, Ilhan Omar, the congresswoman from Minnesota, and Melvin Carter, the mayor of St. Paul, were joined for a virtual town hall on the economy by a 30-year-old political star from California. “Ladies and gentlemen, if you haven’t seen him on his HBO special,” Carter said, trailing off as Michael Tubbs patched in.
Over the past four years, since he’d been elected mayor of Stockton, California., Tubbs had become a regular at forums like these, known for his youth and propensity to quote Tupac Shakur and, most of all, for championing a quintessential big political idea, the universal basic income. As mayor, Tubbs piloted an experiment in fighting poverty by paying citizens a fixed amount of money each month. He drew attention from progressive Democrats, from tech CEOs, from Oprah.
The HBO special Carter mentioned was an 89-minute documentary, “Stockton on My Mind,” which followed his political rise and premiered over the summer, during his reelection campaign. It was the second documentary made about Tubbs before he was 30.
Omar called Tubbs “the UBI mayor” and told him “your success is talked about quite a lot, not just in the corners where mayors exist, but … in the Beltway, where policy decisions are being made.”
There was one place, however, where his success was much less celebrated. As Tubbs spoke to the town hall about his ongoing commitment to “radical interventions” to address structural poverty, the votes were being counted back in his own, heavily Democratic city, and Tubbs was losing badly. By the following week, when Tubbs conceded to a little-known Republican challenger—ultimately beaten by nearly 13 percentage points, after holding out for an unlikely turnaround— interest in him outside Stockton had largely turned to probing his collapse.
For young Democrats, Tubbs had served as a model of how quickly an ambitious and charismatic candidate, even with little political experience, could gain power in a major American city, and use that seat to advance progressive causes across the country. His defeat served as a reminder of how fragile that route to progress can be.
The explanation, according to most accounts, was straightforward. Since taking office, Tubbs had been under attack by a poisonous social media campaign orchestrated by a local blog that, by its own admission, had it in for Tubbs. In a city where mainstream news sources had withered, it looked like a cautionary story about how an unscrupulous, dedicated gadfly can have an outsize effect on public opinion.
No question, the blog was a big part of it. But it wasn’t the only reason Tubbs lost. The other reasons had more to do with Stockton itself—a scrappy city whose takedown politics are so aggressive as to verge on the bizarre—and with Tubbs’ failure to watch his flank. And as much as Tubbs’ defeat revealed about the emerging real-world power of social media and fake news, it was also an object lesson in the peril of cultivating a national profile that eclipses one’s image at home.
Dan Wright, Stockton’s vice mayor and one of Tubbs’ supporters, suspected the blog “probably cost him a few hundred votes, I would imagine, maybe even a thousand.” It’s impossible to know the full extent of the social media campaign’s effect—and many people put it higher than Wright—but Tubbs lost by more than 10 times that many votes. In Stockton, Wright said, “People resent when somebody gets a statewide profile or, in Michael’s case, a nationwide profile … It’s, ‘Who does he think he is? Too big for his britches?’”
To Democrats outside Stockton, Tubbs’ loss for any reason would have been startling, primarily because his story, which they had been hearing for eight years, was so compelling. Born to a teenage mother and with his father in prison, Tubbs had grown up on the poor side of Stockton, excelled in school and left for Stanford University on a scholarship, only to return to run for a seat on the City Council after his cousin was shot to death.
Oprah Winfrey, whom Tubbs had met at Stanford, donated $10,000 to his campaign. Tubbs defeated a Republican incumbent by 24 percentage points, and the resulting documentary from that race, “True Son,” premiered at the Tribeca Film Festival. Four years later, Tubbs ousted the incumbent mayor, a Republican, with more than 70 percent of the vote, becoming the city’s first Black mayor and, at 26, one of the youngest mayors in the nation.
Once in office, Tubbs kept the national media captivated by drawing a connection from his biography—and Stockton’s considerably grimmer story—to the progressive policies he championed. Leveraging connections from the San Francisco Bay Area, Sacramento and throughout the Democratic Party, Tubbs raised or helped raise millions of dollars from private groups and government agencies for a local experiment in guaranteed basic income, as well as homelessness programs, mentoring of at-risk students and an intervention program to reduce gun violence. He spearheaded a college scholarship program for Stockton students that drew $20 million from Snapchat co-founder Evan Spiegel, who had lived across the hall from Tubbs at Stanford. And he started a coalition of mayors supportive of guaranteed income. (Not all of these fans seem to care if he’s staying in office: Earlier this month, Tubbs announced that Twitter’s Jack Dorsey, who had already donated $3 million to the guaranteed income initiative across several cities, was giving an additional $15 million.)
Tubbs cut a uniquely high profile in what, in California politics, is typically a dead-end job—leader of a crime-ridden, once-bankrupt city of about 310,000 people in the flat agricultural expanses of the state’s Central Valley, far from the nation’s political and media centers. And on the surface, Tubbs seemed certain to keep it. In the March primary, from which the top two finishers advance regardless of party, Tubbs finished about 20 percentage points ahead of the rest of the field. And the makeup of the electorate appeared likely to favor him heavily in November. Democrats outnumber Republicans in Stockton by a more than 2-to-1 margin. And Tubbs’ challenger, a Republican pastor and businessman named Kevin Lincoln, had little experience other than a blowout loss to a Democrat in a state Assembly race in 2016.
As the temperature dipped on election night, Tubbs and a clutch of supporters gathered beneath strands of lights on the rooftop terrace of the historic Hotel Stockton for what should have been a victory party, overlooking the city’s downtown and its inland channel, with CNN projected on a large screen. But from the first batch of results, Tubbs was behind.
“I was pissed,” he said. “I was like, ‘What the hell is happening?”
He looked at his campaign manager, who he said told him, “I don’t know. I don’t know.”
The autopsy of Tubbs’ loss began almost immediately after the election, even as he resisted conceding for two weeks amid California’s notoriously slow ballot counting.
The culprit most commonly cited—by Tubbs, his supporters, his critics and neutral observers—was 209 Times. Launched in 2017 by a local activist, Motecuzoma Patrick Sanchez, who ran against Tubbs in the primary, the blog named for the local area code had spent four years mauling the mayor. And by the time of the election, it had developed a massive-for-Stockton following — nearly 120,000 people on Instagram, nearly 100,000 on Facebook.
Its posts, shared throughout the city on those platforms, included a racist meme of Tubbs as a crack addict, with the text, “Got any more of that taxpayer money?” and one of him with a martini, labeled, “When you’re too busy living your best life to notice your city’s on fire.” The site claimed, deceptively, that Tubbs’ scholarship program was “missing millions of dollars.” When officials discussed the possibility of sheltering homeless people at a county fairgrounds, it depicted the mayor as overseeing a “Homeless Tubbsville.”
“Every time there was a homicide, it was Tubbs’ fault,” said Daniel Lopez, a top aide to Tubbs. “Every time there was a fight at the mall, it was Tubbs’ fault. Every time there was a fire, it was Tubbs’ fault.”
The message, Tubbs said in an interview after he conceded, was “sadly effective … You talk to people now and they say, ‘Well, he was stealing money from the city. He was corrupt. He was a thug. He didn’t do anything.’ And all of these things are objectively false, but they were true in the fake news echo chambers.”
The blog did what a lot of effective political attacks do, fake or not: It relentlessly pumped oxygen into a perception that already existed, that Tubbs was focused less on the city than on himself. When Tubbs appeared on TV during the presidential primary for Michael Bloomberg, whom he had endorsed, the blog said he had been “caught again campaigning out of state for Bloomberg.” Another night, when Tubbs was out of town to give a TED talk in Vancouver, British Columbia, the headline read, “Mayor Tubbs Ditches City Council Meeting for Personal Trip Out of Country … Again.”
It wasn’t fair — and it wasn’t meant to be.
“No,” said Sanchez. “But that’s the thing. We have never tried to hide our intentions.”
Sanchez, 44, was driven by the special fury of the politically disappointed. He said he had supported Tubbs when he first ran for council, drawn to him in part because of similarities in their upbringing. Like Tubbs, Sanchez was raised by a single mother in what he described as the “exact same circumstances … I literally came from the proverbial gutter of Stockton’s underbelly.” His view of Tubbs went south, he said, once Tubbs was on the council, during a controversy surrounding funding for a shuttered library in a poor part of the city. Tubbs opposed a plan to reopen the branch immediately, saying the city didn’t have enough money. Sanchez said it was a sign that Tubbs had forgotten communities he was supposed to serve.
Sanchez, too, had tried breaking into Stockton politics, but fell short in multiple campaigns. Running 209 Times gave him a platform, and Tubbs gave him a foil. Sanchez described his anti-Tubbs enterprise as “Operation Icarus … a calculated, four-year, sustained campaign with tactics that represented an overall strategy to remove [Tubbs] from office.”
“This dude is so out of touch, and all we have to do is show people how out of touch he is,” Sanchez said. “While he was out trying to conquer new lands, we were out taking over his home base. And he never saw it coming until it was too late.”
Sanchez said he knew he had tunneled under Tubbs’ skin when, on Election Day, Tubbs was tweeting about “209 Times,” calling it a “political misinformation site” that is “vile, Deceitful, divisive, and is contrary to our community values. And racist.”
In another city — or at another time in Stockton — the presence of 209 Times might not have mattered. But the guardrails of civic discourse have eroded in recent years. The local newspaper, The Record, has been butchered by budget cuts, with the newsroom listing just five reporters on its website, for a city roughly the size of Pittsburgh. The newspaper’s building is for sale, and San Joaquin County supervisors last month were considering buying it to turn into a homeless shelter. TV stations based in nearby Sacramento do little to fill the void.
In a “media desert,” said former state Sen. Michael Machado, a Democrat from nearby Linden, “there’s no fact check there, and [209 Times] have got a big following because they talk red meat.” And Stockton—with relatively low rates of literacy and educational attainment—is especially vulnerable to what it has to say.
“It seems like every community I’ve worked in … there’s always a small minority that for whatever reason are motivated to tear down the city,” said Bob Deis, a former Stockton city manager. “What’s not common is that they burrow into the information source for a community and get the readership that 209 [Times] gets. That’s not common.”
Deis called it a “recipe for weird anomalies.” And Lincoln, though not the perpetrator, was the beneficiary. His supporters suspect the blog was responsible for significantly wounding Tubbs, dropping him to within striking distance of a challenge. In a race in which just over 100,000 votes were cast, swaying even a few thousand votes can have an impact.
But the 209 Times was far from the only thing working against Tubbs. What Deis called a “recipe for weird anomalies” is putting the dysfunction in Stockton’s political landscape mildly. And it goes beyond any blog. When Deis arrived at City Hall in 2010, the city and its police officers union were embroiled in a labor dispute so bitter that the union had erected billboards around the city with body counts, blood splotches and the warning, “Welcome to the 2nd most dangerous city in California—Stop Laying off Cops!” In a move that city officials said smacked of intimidation, the union bought the house next door to his. The councilman whom Tubbs unseated in 2012 has been involved in secession talks to split his south Stockton neighborhood from the rest of Stockton. And Tubbs’ predecessor as mayor, Anthony Silva, pleaded no contest last year to a conflict-of-interest charge resulting from a long-running investigation of his handling of public money. He brought a mace and a gladiator helmet to his State of the City address one year, putting on the helmet and urging the crowd to “come to war with me” on the city’s behalf.
Though Silva wasn’t on the ballot this year, in addition to Tubbs and Sanchez, there were six other candidates, including Ralph Lee White, a former councilman who, demonstrating his willingness to take a drug test back in the 1980s, urinated in a bottle in front of reporters in the mayor’s office before a council meeting and left it on the press table.
One former senior administrator said that if he ever wrote his memoirs, “it would have to go in the fiction section.” Another called Stockton a place where rivals “kick you in the nuts.” And the city is particularly hard on incumbents. Frustrated with perennially high crime rates and poverty, the electorate is so restless that the last mayor to win a second term, Gary Podesto, did so 20 years ago.
In some Democratic-dominated cities, Tubbs would have won just by virtue of his party affiliation, but not in Stockton. The Democratic but working-class city is less progressive than cities along California’s coast, and also less progressive, on balance, than Tubbs. Earlier this year, Tubbs was the lone advocate of a mask ordinance to address the spread of the coronavirus, which was rejected by the council 6-1. His supportive comments on a proposal by a friend, Lange Luntao, to eliminate the local school district’s police force angered law enforcement, a powerful political force in Stockton. Critics derided the gun violence intervention program Tubbs supported as “cash for criminals.”
And in his own city, the initiative that made Tubbs famous nationally may not have helped him politically at all. Across the country, the idea of a universal basic income has gained some purchase, with Andrew Yang thrusting it into the presidential primary and the coronavirus pandemic leading Pope Francis to suggest that “this may be the time to consider a universal basic wage.” It’s one of the few policies that knits together progressive and free-market think tank intellectuals. But in Stockton, the program was a pilot that involved only about 125 recipients. It was easy for critics to dismiss it as a vanity project, or a strange new kind of handout that—unlike bigger public works programs that take political work to build—never benefited enough people to create a constituency.
Luntao, who lost his seat on the school board last month, said Tubbs was “fighting for bold, progressive ideas that people in Stockton are just beginning to wrap their heads around,” and that it’s possible “we moved too fast for Stockton … that there was an understandable or predictable backlash to change.”
But it’s also possible that, on the things that mattered most, change did not come quickly enough. The number of homeless people in the city tripled from 2017 to 2019, with encampments in the city’s sloughs and beneath the city’s overpasses—the smoke from fires sometimes billowing over the roadway. Crime is down this year about 20 percent over the previous year, through October, but murders were up, and the city, per capita, is consistently one of the most violent in the nation.
“There was like a beta test character to some of his initiatives,” said Michael Fitzgerald, a retired longtime columnist for The Record. “And meanwhile, Stocktonians were preoccupied with the same old issues: crime, gun violence, blight, the homeless. They wanted to see progress on those fronts.”
It wasn’t just the big things that hurt Tubbs. In north Stockton, lawn signs that read, “Save Swenson, Stop Mayor Tubbs,” went up after Tubbs objected to public subsidies for a city golf course and the city considered—before abandoning—the idea of turning the land over for development. On the Miracle Mile, near the University of the Pacific, Tubbs became a focal point for frustration surrounding a drawn-out code enforcement case that kept a theater building and surrounding businesses closed.
Nothing Tubbs did could have solved crime or homelessness in Stockton. And it was easier to pin ulterior motives on him when his own prospects looked brighter than the city’s. Mario Gardea, president of the Stockton Professional Firefighters Local 456, which along with the police union supported Lincoln, said, “I don’t know a person who has been around Michael Tubbs who doesn’t think that this is just a steppingstone to something else. And in all honestly, we would have loved to have gotten behind Tubbs and championed him to bigger and better things, but you’ve got to take care of things here first.”
Ever since Tubbs had been told by his incarcerated father, at 12, that for a Black man in America, “it’s either prison or death,” he had resolved to “defy expectations.” And he had. But expectations of a mayor—as almost any mayor of a major city will tell you—are almost impossibly high. And in an election that was primarily a referendum on Tubbs, he fell short.
“I think there are a lot of people in Sacramento and in Washington who forget that voters in some of these places care about core issues, and we fall in love with some of these big-ticket ideas,” said Andrew Acosta, a Democratic strategist in Sacramento who has run races in Stockton, including former Mayor Ann Johnston’s. “Universal basic income probably didn’t matter to a ton of people in Stockton because they weren’t benefiting from it. It was good in academic circles to kick around, but I’m not sure that was the No. 1 issue that voters in Stockton were talking about.”
For a mayor, he said, “It’s potholes and bullshit, right? Now you’re in potholes, COVID, bullshit, wear a mask, all of this stuff that becomes a toxic brew … It wasn’t like Tubbs had a series of scandals that were front-page news. It wasn’t like the litany of tried-and-true hits on an elected official. It was a ‘death by a thousand paper cuts’ kind of deal.”
Acosta was one of several people who described Tubbs’ loss as an expression of the crabs-in-a-bucket theory about a place trapped by its own low self-image. Once someone pulls himself up, “everybody grabs their tail and pulls them back in,” Acosta said. “It’s hard to say there wasn’t a little bit of that here.”
Or as Fitzgerald put it: “It’s not just that Tubbs was gone a lot or that the 209 Times was characterizing him as not being there, him looking past Stockton and all that. I think there’s that envy factor in this town. I mean, shouldn’t people look up to you when you graduate from Stanford and you have all this wonderful, innovative stuff going on in the city with such a focus on the economically disadvantaged? But a lot of people didn’t … Stockton has a culture of mediocrity, and it’s really difficult to transcend it.”
He said, “Stockton is a witch’s brew of potentially poisonous politics, as Tubbs just found out.”
Tubbs might have seen it coming if he’d looked more carefully. His internal polling, he said, suggested he was winning by about the same margin by which he ultimately lost. But other Democrats who were polling Tubbs’ favorability saw weaknesses early on, and the result of the primary, in which Tubbs handily beat Lincoln but failed to hit 50 percent of the overall vote, was a clear sign he had a problem.
Podesto, the former mayor, noticed it. “If you’re an incumbent and you don’t have 50 percent in the primary, you’ve got to start wondering why there are so many people who don’t support you,” he said.
Machado said Tubbs failed to sell his projects to voters, “playing to another audience rather than realizing what he should be looking at at home.” And Bob Benedetti, a retired political science professor at University of the Pacific in Stockton who has studied that city’s mayors for about 20 years, said Tubbs suffered from the pandemic’s sidelining of a door-to-door campaign.
“Tubbs had an external network—these people who thought he was an up-and-comer, but he had no internal network, and he never created one,” said Benedetti, now a research associate at the Center for California Studies at California State University, Sacramento. “He didn’t put together a team of local clubs or local organizations who would trumpet his success.”
After his concession, Tubbs blamed “the impact of misinformation.” He had been portrayed as a corrupt thug, he said, and “I think just the pace of change was disorienting for a lot of people, particularly who was doing the change.” Looking back, Tubbs said he “100 percent didn’t” take the 209 Times seriously enough, saying, “I still think the site and the people who run it are jokes, but it’s effective. I underestimated how effective it would be.”
Even if he had recognized the peril,
it’s unclear what Tubbs would have done. When he pushed back, it was an asymmetrical exchange. To engage, he said, “would be unbecoming of a mayor of a city. What mayor argues with a Facebook blog?”
“Do you want to spend all your time convincing people what truth is and what fact is, or do you want to do work?” Tubbs asked. “And I made a very intentional decision that I wanted to do work.”
It was not as though Tubbs didn’t campaign. The more than $800,000 he raised was nearly three times what Lincoln mustered. He blanketed the city with mail and digital ads and operated a paid phone bank. The Working Families Party, out of New York, spent more than $60,000 attacking Lincoln, hitting him in three mail pieces for a past bankruptcy. Don Parsons, the Republican strategist in Stockton who ran Tubbs’ opponent’s campaign in his first council race, said Tubbs and his campaign “just did a really crappy job of marketing themselves.”
After the election, Tubbs fielded calls from Democrats around the country. Bloomberg asked him, “What happened?” and told him to “keep my head up,” Tubbs said. He scheduled a Zoom call with Lincoln to begin the transition.
The weekend before conceding, Tubbs had helped build a playhouse for his 1-year-old son, Michael Malakai Tubbs Jr. He said he was proud of the work he did at City Hall and could think of no decision he made on the council or as mayor that he would do differently.
“There’s no moping around,” he said. “It’s time for something new. There’s no sadness in that.”
Last week, Tubbs attended his last City Council meeting. As for his future, he said, “I am lucky enough to be 30 years old with a résumé that includes mayor of a major U.S. city, and leaving it with a surplus and leaving it with less crime and leaving it with more opportunity.”
Tubbs said he is “super open” to opportunities but is sure whatever he does, he’ll be “working on the work I started in Stockton” as it relates to social justice.
He added, “I’m not sure what that looks like in terms of a job, but I am 100 percent certain that’s what I’ll be doing.”