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Stockton’s pathbreaking former mayor has learned a few lessons about storytelling

Stockton’s pathbreaking former mayor has learned a few lessons about storytelling

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Michael Tubbs. (Photo by Nick Otto/AFP via Getty Images)
Michael Tubbs, the former mayor of Stockton who gained wide recognition for his pioneering experiment in offering residents a universal basic income.
(Photo by Nick Otto/AFP via Getty Images)

You might say that the political education of Michael Tubbs bears a striking similarity to that of many ambitious young journalists. An early faith in the power and rigor of data is gradually absorbed into an even greater belief in the power of storytelling. All the best numbers fizzle without a story that makes you feel their human weight.

When Tubbs became Stockton, California’s first Black mayor in 2016 at age 26, the narrative surrounding his native city was one of bankruptcy, poverty and crime, a Central Valley city so gutted by the Great Recession that it became known as America’s foreclosure capital. It led the cruel list of “America’s Most Miserable Cities.” But Tubbs had the boldness of youth and new ideas: He seized his mayoral powers to roll out what has become his signature political initiative — a universal basic income for some of Stockton’s poorest residents, as well as new programs targeting gun violence and homelessness. The city was ranked among the top in the nation in fiscal health by 2017, and it led the state in its dramatic drop in officer-involved shootings in 2019.

Despite those successes and the wave of national attention that followed the city’s income experiment, none of it came easy for Tubbs. He’s a former mayor now of a city known for what one local columnist has described as a “witch’s brew of potentially poisonous politics.” In a keynote talk via Zoom to journalists taking part in the Center for Health Journalism’s 2021 California Fellowship this week, Tubbs sketched his own political journey from chart-carrying data wonk to a converted disciple of the powers of narrative. He recounted, for instance, just how badly he underestimated the opposition to a proposal that would have shut down two city-subsidized golf courses to save money. The financial argument seemed like a no-brainer to him. Not to others: “It became like literally World War III,” he said, with residents fiercely protective of a place tied to memories of childhood and better times.

“I spent four years as a council person just thinking that just data would drive decision-making,” Tubbs said. “I realized towards the end of my term as council person that being right wasn’t enough. Having the numbers, having the data wasn’t enough. I had to do a better job at narrative.”

Ironically, Tubbs own powerful story is part of what propelled him so quickly to political office. After growing up in a hardscrabble south Stockton neighborhood and attending Stanford on scholarship (earning both bachelor’s and master’s degrees), he returned home and ran for city council after his cousin was gunned down at age 20. His remarkable story, especially when combined with his bold embrace of a universal basic income (“the UBI mayor”), made him an ascendant political star in recent years, capturing the attention of everyone from Mike Bloomberg to Oprah. He had two documentaries made about his political journey by the time his ill-fated reelection campaign staff gathered to watch ballot returns last fall.

“I spent four years as a council person just thinking that just data would drive decision-making,” Tubbs said. “I realized towards the end of my term as council person that being right wasn’t enough. Having the numbers, having the data wasn’t enough. I had to do a better job at narrative.”

Just what went wrong in Tubbs’ reelection campaign has already been the subject of compelling reporting by Politico and others. The breezy version is that he was the target of a prolonged and relentless misinformation campaign from a hostile local blog in a city long known for a peculiarly vitriolic brand of local politics, all amid the backdrop of devastating cuts to the local newspaper, which might have provided a corrective.

But as much as Tubbs reviles “pink slime” style news outlets and the racist tropes his opponents employed, he reserves plenty of criticism for his own failure to tell a more compelling story about all the big policy ideas that garnered him so much attention nationally, if not at home.

“I wish I had realized, like I do now, that there has to be a very intentional effort not just to change the narrative on a particular policy, but also, how do we change the narrative or how do we tell a story about how all these things work together… and about how all these things in and of themselves aren’t going to solve everything.”

The early data on Stockton’s universal income experiment, which gave 125 randomly chosen residents $500 a month in no-strings cash for two years, are promising. A study released last month found “that the unconditional cash reduced the month-to-month income fluctuations that households face, increased recipients' full-time employment by 12 percentage points and decreased their measurable feelings of anxiety and depression, compared with their control-group counterparts,” according to NPR.

Telling that story remains a work in progress, for Tubbs, for New York City mayoral candidate Andrew Yang, and others. But mayors across the country have since launched a host of guaranteed income pilots, thanks in part to Tubbs’ pioneering work in Stockton. His bold policy moves led California Gov. Gavin Newsom to name Tubbs an adviser on the state’s economic mobility and recovery in early March.

The proliferation of universal income experiments in cities from Atlanta to San Francisco to Long Beach is part of a broader realization that the economic status quo is failing many Americans, according to Tubbs. That has opened a door for policies that would have been non-starters a decade ago.

“And that's not because of data. It’s not. It's because … the narrative around poverty and the economy changed in this country. In part, because of storytelling, because we're able to amplify and lift up the stories of people who look like everyone else, who are working incredibly hard but the economy wasn't working for them.”

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