Michael Tubbs, 22, grew up in the working-class port city of Stockton, which… (Al Seib, Los Angeles Times )
STOCKTON — While Michael Tubbs was winning over Oprah Winfrey, interning at the White House and picking up a Stanford degree, he kept a close eye on home.
Now the 22-year-old, who fought to make it out of the rough part of the city, has returned — and he's running for City Council.
On a recent Saturday at campaign headquarters, Tubbs grabbed a piece of cold pizza and posed for photos with 13-year-old twins Selena and Sabrina and 12-year-old Alise — ignoring the advice of political consultants who have told him to avoid being in pictures with children because it emphasizes his youth. (He did, however, grow a mustache.)
The girls' foster mother, Francis Hilliard, looked on in serious appraisal.
Over the years she's raised 25 children. She's fought for a public swimming pool to stay open during the hot delta summers ("still working on that") and served in numerous community organizations.
She's walking precincts for Tubbs.
"My husband and I are underwater on our house — like everyone else," Hilliard said. "The city is bankrupt. The gangs are getting more violent. What else are you going to do but get out the door and be very active in helping this young man change things?"
When Tubbs launched his campaign last spring, this city's old guard said he didn't have a chance. He was too young, too inexperienced and didn't know the right players. A tete-a-tete with the talk-show queen might raise his profile, but it wasn't going to sway the vote in this working-class city.
Then Tubbs won his June primary by 14 percentage points. In the history of Stockton, there's only been one candidate who lost the nonpartisan citywide November election after winning the district vote.
If he wins Tuesday's election, said longtime Stockton political columnist Michael Fitzgerald, the big question becomes: "Can he effect change, or is Stockton where a promising young man's dreams go to die?"
Times are dark in this port city of almost 300,000.
In June, it became the biggest U.S. city to file for bankruptcy protection. There have been 62 homicides this year, surpassing the city's record of 58 in 2011. Violent crime is spreading into leafy neighborhoods that once were spared the gunfire of the urban core.
The violence is not new to many of the people supporting Tubbs. Patrick Martin, 18, a polite young man who works the candidate's phone bank, went to the funerals of two friends who were shot this year.
"It almost didn't faze him. Which was the scariest part," said Tubbs' field manager, Lange Luntao, a 22-year-old Harvard graduate who was also raised in Stockton.
Tubbs grew up on the south side of the city, thinking gunfire was just a part of life.
"I didn't even know I was from a bad neighborhood until I left and went to Stanford," he said. "I had to get away to see this isn't normal."
Tubbs was 12 when he first met his father, a man in a prison jumpsuit. When Tubbs asked him what he was in for, his father said that for a black man it was either prison or death.
Young Tubbs walked out vowing his life would be different.
At 15, he said, he came home from school one day to find his mother sobbing. She'd been turned down again for a promotion at her clerical job because she didn't have a college degree. Tubbs held his mother and made a promise to her, and himself, that lack of an education would never hold him back.
In high school, an essay he wrote recalling those moments won first place in a contest judged by novelist Alice Walker.
Despite that honor and a 4.3 grade-point average in an advanced studies program, Tubbs' high school counselors suggested he apply only to nearby Sacramento State or a community college. He was accepted to Stanford with a full scholarship.
"I'm figuring I am going to be surrounded by all these national scholars, and I better just listen and keep my mouth shut. But then I saw there's no monopoly on intelligence," Tubbs said. "Don't get me wrong, I met some smart people at Stanford. But my peers in Stockton were just as smart and imaginative and more able to navigate."
Tubbs started speaking up in class, adding the stories of people he knew to discussions of poverty, education and government.
"From the beginning, he was a standout Stanford student," said Jan Barker Alexander, associate dean of student affairs. "But he wore Stockton. He never forgot, or let anyone else forget, where he came from."
When Winfrey brought girls from her Leadership Academy in South Africa to Stanford in April, Tubbs — who had studied in South Africa — led a tour.
The Stanford dean mentioned to Winfrey that Tubbs was campaigning for City Council in his hometown.
"Oprah asked Michael about Stockton, and Michael started talking about the city with such love. He didn't downplay the problems, but it was with a passion like a parent speaking of their child," Barker Alexander said.