Meet the 26-Year-Old Running for Mayor and Trying to End Police Brutality

Michael Tubbs, just 26 years old, is running for mayor in Stockton, California, and focusing on police reform.

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Complex Original

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"The thing I keep telling people," Michael Tubbs says, "is when we talk about police-community relationships, it's not a one-time thing. One event is not a relationship -- it takes time."     

For the past four years, Tubbs, a 26-year-old black man, has led the often-fraught conversations between police and the people they serve as a city council member in Stockton, California. Now he's running for mayor, and after winning the most votes in the city’s June primary, he enters a November runoff as frontrunner against beleaguered incumbent Anthony Silva. If he wins, Tubbs would become Stockton’s first black mayor, and among the youngest in the country. In a time when countless controversial officer-involved shootings—including a recent one in Stockton—have sparked a national conversation about race and policing, Tubbs is particularly focused on local police reform. As a young man who emerged from a notoriously tough Stockton neighborhood, his candidacy also serves as a powerful reminder that sometimes the revolution starts at home.

“It means a glimmer of hope for a lot of people,” Bobby Bivens, Stockton’s NAACP president and a Tubbs supporter, says of his candidacy. “There are a lot of people that have felt left out.”

“Whenever a life is lost, there’s mourning, anger, and questions,” Tubbs tells Complex. “I just want to make sure if I’m out in public, I can say, ‘This is what I know thus far.’”

Tubbs’ own rise to would-be-mayor of Stockton—a troubled central California city of 300,000, roughly the same size as Pittsburgh—is nearly folkloric. He was born to a 17-year-old mother and an incarcerated father and grew up in the rough South Stockton area. The women who raised him—his mother, grandmother, and aunt—always did their best to provide a stable environment, but the family was sometimes forced to bounce between shelters and hotels. young Michael was keenly aware of his tough circumstances. “I remember opening the fridge and seeing a block of government cheese,” he says. “I remember hearing gun shots at night.”

By the time he entered Franklin High School, Tubbs says, he had something of a chip on his shoulder, and  challenged his teachers. But his mom had always put an exceptional emphasis on education, and Michael was incredibly motivated. He put away some of his lunch money each week to save up for SAT preparation books, served as student council president, and chaired a youth advisory panel.

Tubbs’ efforts earned him a scholarship to Stanford, and he began to think about an eventual career in business or law. By 2010, he had already emerged as a campus leader and landed an internship at the White House. But his definition of success, he says, was still largely centered on himself: “What was Michael’s GPA? What job was Michael doing?”

In the fall that year, when Tubbs was a junior, his cousin Donnell James was murdered at a Halloween house party. James’ death, Tubbs says, “literally shifted everything.” Instead of merely writing papers about the problems of Stockton–which was plagued by violent crime, a broken educational system, and a looming bankruptcy—he shifted his focus to what he could actually do for his community.

“‘What’s the lesson here?’” he remembers thinking. “‘How could this tragedy be used for something greater?’”

In February 2012, a few months before he would graduate with a bachelor’s and master’s in Policy, Leadership, and Organization Studies, Tubbs announced his candidacy for District 6 of the city council—South Stockton, where he grew up. From the gym floor of a local community center, wearing a loose-fitting dark suit and red tie, Tubbs addressed a crowd of supporters and media as a band backed him up. He spoke with a preacher’s energy, relaying the lengthy story of David, the biblical patriarch who defeated Goliath, and promised to fight for his community. “We’re not just facing one giant in Stockton,” he said.

That November, after scoring an endorsement from daily newspaper the Stockton Record and a surprise $10,000 donation from Oprah Winfrey—Tubbs impressed the mogul at a Stanford luncheon—he beat incumbent Dale Fritchen by roughly 20 points. Tubbs was 22-years-old. “The age thing never really kind of hit me,” he says. “I was just so focused.”

As a council member, Tubbs established the Reinvent South Stockton Coalition, which focuses on “improvements in safety, education, housing, job creation, and health.” He’s also served with Bivens on a task force aimed at reducing racism in the justice system, and points to his collaboration with the police department on initiatives like securing officer body cameras “before it was even a national thing.”

He also has started a program of biweekly meetings between officers and residents. At first, the meetings were often tense, Tubbs says. "But now it's almost like a family's become very collegial."

Stockton’s police-community relations were put to the test in August when a 30-year-old black man named Colby Friday was shot multiple times by a police officer outside a shopping center in the city. Conflicting accounts of the shooting raised doubts among Stockton residents, however, and Friday’s killing ignited a firestorm in the city. Many of Stockton’s young black residents have been leading protests in the city since Friday’s death.

As a city councilman, Tubbs met personally with the city’s police chief to follow up on the department’s investigation of the incident. “Whenever a life is lost, there’s mourning, anger, and questions,” Tubbs tells Complex. “I just want to make sure if I’m out in public, I can say, ‘This is what I know thus far.’”

The investigation into Friday’s death remains ongoing; Tubbs says he’s looking forward to seeing the results. If elected mayor, he would have a stronger, more direct working relationship with the 400-member police department, and says he would prioritize the reduction of racial profiling and increasing the department’s percentage of officers of color. “Diversity matters,” he says. “You want your city departments to look like the city.”

Tubbs also wants to make the city more business friendly and tackle homelessness, among other initiatives. It’s a lot, and Tubbs says he is more than ready to get work. But he doesn’t like talking about his mayoral campaign’s chances: “I don’t want to jinx it!”

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