Rising Star Mayor Who Championed Guaranteed Income Loses Hometown Race
Michael Tubbs pushed an ambitious agenda for Stockton, California. Four years later, a blog campaign against him fanned criticism of his national profile.
Stockton Mayor Michael Tubbs came into elected office on a high in 2016, winning 70% of the vote. Since becoming mayor, he put himself and his economically distressed hometown on the national map through his advocacy for progressive programs, including one of the first guaranteed income experiments in the U.S. The subject of documentaries and Daily Show appearances, particularly as cash assistance programs gained momentum during Covid, Tubbs had been a rising political star.
But this November, Tubbs’ star fell in Stockton: The 30-year-old mayor conceded the race to his Republican challenger, Kevin Lincoln, who was leading by 12 percentage points (though the tally isn’t final yet).
What changed? Some residents resented his national profile, viewing him as more committed to his own reputation than to giving attention to the city. Others objected to his progressive policies, choosing instead the candidate who was supported by the local police union and ran on a campaign to reduce homelessness and make government more efficient.
But Tubbs and his supporters also point to another factor that has become an increasingly common suspect in national and local races alike: A targeted misinformation campaign, in this case led by a local blog called the 209 Times. The blog has published damaging and often misleading or false articles about the mayor, including misstating the impact of a scholarship program he spearheaded and inflating the amount of funding the city had received to address homelessness.
“I think when you spend four years unchecked with no real counter, just blatantly making things up every single day, there’s an impact,” said Tubbs of 209 Times’ influence. “I wish I had a crystal ball to foresee that, but I was too busy doing the work.”
Motecuzoma Patrick Sanchez, one of the founders and a writer for the blog, rejects the idea that any of his stories were fabricated. But he gladly takes responsibility for eroding the community’s trust in Tubbs.
He dubbed the unofficial anti-Tubbs campaign “Operation Icarus,” after the Greek myth about the boy who flew too close to the sun. “The more he buys into his own sense of political celebrity, the more he’s neglecting the fundamentals of why he was elected,” said Sanchez. “All we have to do is show the community what he’s doing and what he is not doing.” (Sanchez ran for mayor in the primary but lost to Lincoln.)
Since its launch in 2017, the 209 Times has amassed nearly 100,000 followers on Facebook and 119,000 followers on Instagram. Its website gets about 100,000 hits a month. In a city of 300,000, that’s a substantial reach. The Los Angeles Times reported that the blog’s influence grew in Stockton in the vacuum left by the city’s local paper, The Record, which has been depleted by layoffs and budget cuts.
“A lot of people are susceptible to this information without a strong local newspaper,” said Daniel Lopez, a spokesperson for Tubbs. “In replacement of that, people have been getting their news online through comments, through shares.” And what sticks, he says, are the negative stories that drum up controversy.
Not all of voters’ misgivings about the mayor were fanned by the site’s biases. While Tubbs made it his goal to reach out to “people that feel they’re disenfranchised by the system,” some residents of the city’s wealthier North side feel that they’re being ignored, said Kurt Rivera, a News reporter for ABC10 Sacramento who grew up in the city and moved back as an adult to cover it. Eviction protections passed unanimously through city council relieved renters but alienated landlords. An unfounded fear that affordable housing would replace a golf course on the North side of town inspired homeowners to band against Tubbs. And advocacy for some criminal justice reforms have splintered the electorate.
Nationally, Tubbs has drawn a much warmer shade of attention. He grew up in Stockton, and, after graduating from Stanford University and spending a stint interning at the White House, returned in 2012 to run successfully for city council. Winning the mayoral seat in 2016 at 26 years old was a historic victory, making Tubbs the city’s youngest and first Black mayor. Once in office in January 2017, Tubbs formed the Reinvent Stockton Foundation and launched a series of progressive programs, most famously the first major guaranteed income pilot in the U.S. Funded by private donations, the Stockton Economic Empowerment Demonstration has provided $500 a month to 125 residents for nearly two years. It’s set to end in January, but Tubbs has been leading a national effort to bring similar experiments to other cities — and next year, places like Pittsburgh, Compton and San Francisco plan to start their own pilots.
The Reinvent Stocktown Foundation also runs the Stockton Scholars program, which gives scholarships to college-bound high schoolers. The program received a boost with a $20 million donation from Snapchat founder Evan Spiegel’s philanthropic fund. In all, between private donors and government grants, Tubbs has brought in more than $100 million to the city over his four-year term.
Tubbs’ story and accomplishments inspired an HBO documentary, “Stockton On My Mind”; as part of its promotion this summer he appeared on national television shows and did interviews with celebrities like Killer Mike. He endorsed Michael Bloomberg’s 2020 bid to become the Democratic candidate for President, and appeared at campaign events on the former New York mayor’s behalf.
(In 2018, Tubbs also graduated from a Harvard mayoral training program sponsored by Michael Bloomberg, founder and majority owner of Bloomberg LP, the parent of Bloomberg CityLab. The next year, Bloomberg’s philanthropic foundation donated $500,000 to a Stockton education reform group.)
All those national commitments may have distracted Tubbs from the issues on the ground, critics say — an attack that’s similarly been lobbed at other charismatic mayors with higher ambitions, like Cory Booker, Pete Buttigieg and Eric Garcetti.
“When people see him in San Francisco or in Washington or in New York they feel that he’s neglecting his own people here,” said ABC10’s Rivera.
“This guy thinks he’s a big shot nationally,” said Sanchez. “While he’s out on TV talking about macroeconomics, the community is struggling with rampant violent crime, with a homeless crisis that has increased 200%.”
Experts note that because of Stockton’s governance structure, the city manager rather than its mayor actually controls a lot of its operations and policymaking. The role of the mayor is as an ambassador, a fundraiser and a go-between with other government entities and representatives.
Still, there are problems that continue to plague Stockton and have only been made worse by the pandemic. Homicides dropped 40% in 2018, but as of October, the rate was up 40% from last year, mirroring the trajectory of many cities affected by the economic distress of the pandemic. Total rates for violent and property crimes, meanwhile, have dropped nearly 20% this year. The city had been recovering from the unemployment spike it experienced after the 2008 recession, but the coronavirus has left 11.4% of the population jobless. Stockton’s rate of homelessness has tripled between 2017 and 2019, and its poverty rate is about 20%.
As to the impact of global and national media appearances, Lopez and other supporters say they served to elevate Stockton as much as Tubbs. For years, the city was known as the largest to declare municipal bankruptcy in the U.S., or the one with the most foreclosures, or simply the most “miserable.” With Tubbs in charge, Stockton’s star rose, too: No longer neglected, it had become a small city to watch. Funders with deep pockets may be less wary to take a chance on Stockton, Tubbs told Bloomberg Businessweek. Steadying the city’s financial health was also a priority: Stockton will end the year with a $13.1 million budget surplus.
For the community groups Tubbs worked with — like the 125 SEED participants who received monthly cash payments, and the students who got the first round of college scholarships — his rising profile was a reflection of the life-changing effect his tenure had.
“I personally am astounded, for lack of a better word. I am perplexed, it doesn’t make sense to me,” said Janae Aptaker, the director of the Stockton Scholars Program & Strategy, of Tubbs’ loss. “As somebody who works at the foundation I understand the depth of the work that we’re doing. It’s driven by the needs of the community and some of our most needy folks in the community. It is kind of heartbreaking.”
Coverage by the 209 Times of the Stockton Scholars program is one example of how the blog has misrepresented Tubbs’ record. The blog claimed that the initiative has only given out $44,000 in scholarships to kids, using as its proof a 990 form from 2018, when the program was in its pre-launch phase and only giving out mini-grants. As of this year, the foundation has spent $750,000 on scholarships of up to $1,000, for 879 students who are eligible to keep receiving grants for four years, according to the foundation. Another 1,420 students are eligible this year, and the foundation plans to support a total of at least 10 graduating classes. But the articles have led school administrators and counselors to doubt the program, said Aptaker; she’s heard of students who were “unsure if they should apply because they’re not sure it’s real.”
Stories like this spread fast. “It also begs the question: What was so scary, what was so threatening, what was so bad about giving kids scholarships? Or putting the city in a healthy fiscal position?” said Tubbs. “It’s a sad commentary on information, misinformation, education and the need for an informed citizenry that’s given accurate information to make choices.”
Another misleading narrative pushed by the 209 Times is that the city of Stockton had been given $60 million to address homelessness in the city, without results to match. The city has only been given $6.5 million to address homelessness, according to the mayor’s office. (Sanchez says the $60 million figure was cumulative and included money allocated at the county level.)
“The idea that Stockton alone would receive $60 million is outrageous,” Lopez wrote in a statement. “But nevertheless, 209 Times readers, influenced by their fake news, regularly ask where the money went.”
Most recently, articles alleged Tubbs was in on a plan to build a new shelter for unhoused people from within the county and across the state at the San Joaquin County Fairgrounds. Putting emergency services at the fairgrounds had been discussed as part of a homeless task force brainstorming session. But, Tubbs, City Manager Harry Black, and representatives from multiple state agencies said there was no “secret plan” to create such a regional homeless shelter. The Record ran a story saying as much, but it was too late, Lopez said. Readers believed it.
Sanchez also used the 209 Times to take issue with things like Tubbs spending city money to refurbish City Hall and buy a high-tech video camera, and his use of his own foundation to raise funds for the city. The blog fanned criticism of the city’s Advance Peace program, in which violent offenders are given mentorship and stipends to address poverty as a root cause of crime, saying it disrespected the families of victims.
The controversy over turning a golf course into housing — which ended in Tubbs saving the green and city resources by leasing it out to a private developer — and a debate over whether to cut district funding for school police were particular flashpoints, said Lange Luntao, the executive director of the Reinvent Stockton Foundation. “Those two issues in my mind really exposed the fact that places like Stockton, while they are in the state of California, are still deeply conservative places,” said Luntao, who has also been unseated from his position on the school board. They were also “proxies for racism,” he said.
Tubbs says he’s experienced “racialized” undertones from his opposition since his city council days, as he spoke his mind and refused to be “docile” as a young Black man. “We actually did things, we actually moved things, we actually changed things,” he said. “And there’s a price that comes with that.”
Tubbs' opponent is also a candidate of color, a Black and Latino man ten years Tubbs' senior who, like Tubbs, grew up in Stockton. It is primarily his politics and his age that provide a contrast. Although the race is technically nonpartisan, Lincoln is a Republican who ran on a platform of addressing homelessness, increasing public safety and expanding civic engagement. The pastor, former businessman and ex-Marine has said he does not support sanctuary city policies, has the endorsement of the police and firefighters’ unions, and in May, advocated for Stockton businesses to open up from Covid lockdowns, saying the state had “crushed the curve.”
“I believe that Mayor Tubbs came in with a huge mandate that I feel he may have squandered,” said Lincoln. Tubbs raised $662,842 for his campaign, much of it from outside the city. But Lincoln ran a successful local media blitz, raising a little over $299,000 and papering the city with flyers.
The foundation Tubbs started, Reinvent Stockton, is privately funded and run, and will live on no matter the mayor. But while Lincoln says that he hopes to continue to support some programs launched under Tubbs, like the Stockton Scholars fund, others will “have to die on the vine.”
Lincoln is not affiliated with the 209 Times, and was actually an early target of the site during Sanchez’s short-lived mayoral run. When the blog invited Lincoln to participate in a debate in January, he released a Youtube video explaining his decision not to attend. “I do not condone any person or media outlet using tactics that divide,” he said at the time, although he's tempered his criticism in interviews after the primary.
Sanchez is quick to say he is not a “traditional” journalist but rather a “guerilla” one. “We have to do a lot of translating, we connect the dots,” he said. “I designed something that’s brought things like politics and other issues to the masses in a community that was rife with apathy.”
Stockton ranks 99th of the largest 100 cities for college attainment, with only around 18% of residents age 25 and up attaining a bachelor’s degree or higher.
“In general, We’ve seen that when a social media outfit like this gets set up in a civically under-educated community, it can lead to confusion and doubt,” said Reinvent Stockton’s Luntao.
As Stockton’s new leader, Lincoln may soon find himself the subject of the local kingslayer’s scrutiny.
“If he starts getting out of line, we’re willing to hold him accountable the same way,” said Sanchez.