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Author interview: 'The Deeper the Roots'


Michael Tubbs made national headlines in 2016 when he was elected mayor of Stockton, Calif. He was not only the first African American elected to that office, he was only 26, making him the youngest ever mayor of a major American city. The attention didn't end with his election, as he became known for an ambitious and controversial agenda, launching an experiment in universal basic income or trying to curb homicides by paying people at risk of committing them to put down their guns.

But despite the Cinderella beginnings, a son of a single mom and incarcerated dad who goes to Stanford and comes home to make a difference, it did not have a fairy tale ending. Tubbs lost his bid for reelection after a vicious smear campaign by a former rival. He talks about all this in a new memoir, the people and places that made him, the challenges that awaited him, and what he still hopes to accomplish. It's called "The Deeper The Roots: A Memoir Of Hope And Home." And Michael Tubbs is with us now to tell us more about it.

Michael Tubbs, Mr. Mayor, welcome back. Thank you for joining us.

MICHAEL TUBBS: Thank you so much for having me.

MARTIN: So you open your book with a phrase your mother said to you each day before you went to school - don't tell nobody our business. That's one way to start a memoir.

TUBBS: (Laughter).

MARTIN: So what made you decide to disobey her, at least in this case, and tell everything?

TUBBS: I realized, particularly in the work as mayor, in the work on basic income, in the work on alternatives to policing, that narrative is what really changed people's ideas and perceptions in what was possible. I know my mom was very adamant about - that you don't need to tell people your business. But I think story and storytelling is what's going to help this democracy survive, in my opinion. And I thought it'd be useful to use my story as a lens to which to talk about policy, to talk about innovation, to talk about race and class and all those things.

MARTIN: Before we sort of move on to that bigger story, I did want to talk about your folks because your parents loom so large in your story and how you got to where you are. I mean, you - we meet the three women who raised you - your mom, your aunt and your grandmother. And something you're very honest about is not having your dad around. I just wanted to ask if you would talk about what effect that you think that had on you because I'm sure there are people right now who are experiencing the same thing.

TUBBS: Yeah. I - growing up with a father who was incarcerated and not knowing what he was incarcerated for but knowing he's going to be away for a long time, you immediately think it's like the worst-case scenario. So I was embarrassed because I was like, what if my father raped somebody? What if my father murdered somebody? Like, what does that say about me?

There's enough judgments already because my mom is young. There's enough judgment already because I'm Black. Like, I don't want to add this - another layer and sound like a stereotypical story. So I was just like, I'm not going to tell anyone this. But it was also a real sense of shame.

And also, I think it really gave me a chip on my shoulder to prove everybody wrong, to, like, prove to people, like, no, I'm not going to go - I'm not going to be in prison, that no, I can be smart. Like, no, I can, quote-unquote, "be successful." But I think it also created a lot of pressure I put on myself to be almost perfect or to just do everything right, to never mess up, to always be the best. And I think that led to some of the attitude that a lot of my teachers didn't appreciate.

TUBBS: You know, we've interviewed you over the years as you were taking on some of these programs. Like, I remember you are now internationally recognized for your efforts to spearhead a universal basic income pilot program, which you launched in 2019. We spoke with you about the program just after the pilot. And the outcome seemed positive. And one of the reasons I'm bringing that up is that I just think it was a shock to many people when you didn't win reelection because you had...


TUBBS: ...Put so many things into motion. And one of the challenges you faced as a mayor is disinformation. I mean, there was a local blog that fabricated stories, racist tropes. We've seen, just in the last election, the same thing happen in New Jersey. And people didn't - it's almost like they didn't even notice. And I just - you know, you're - you were dealing with then a lot of the things that people have observed now. How do you think about that?

TUBBS: Yeah. Disinformation, I think, it's a commentary on just the crisis of democracy that we're in around sort of how hypercapitalism and unfettered technological innovation without guardrails has created an environment where people are being fed poison every day, where we have people lining up thinking that John F. Kennedy Jr. is going to rise from the dead. It's a scary moment, I think, without a proper antidote because it's really about people are scared. Things are changing so quickly. People are looking for an explanation, a quick explanation to make sense of the world.

And at the same time, we have these local news stations evaporating. Like, towns - like, Stockton's a town of 300,000 people. We had one newspaper. And that one newspaper was gutted by 40% my first year as mayor.

And I think it's a real crisis. And people really have to wake up because people are using it to sort of consolidate power, to delegitimize authority and to cause chaos. So long answer to say, it's an - it's a huge problem.

And I had - I'll only wish, in 2017, I had the wisdom now of how impactful it is. Because when it was first happening, I saw it, but I thought, no one believes this stuff. This is clearly a lie. Like, clearly, the city did not pay for my wedding.

Like, clearly, I'm not under FBI investigation. Clearly, I haven't stole $66 million. And the people who are running it, I didn't find to be serious either. So this is not serious. Like, I'm governing. I'm leading. I don't have time for this. But no, you have to get in the mud a little bit and - to at least lift people out.

MARTIN: Well...

TUBBS: Like, you have - I know they say, when you - when they go low, we go high. But I think we also have to go low. We don't have to stay there. But we have to go low and at least lift people up with us. Because it's - staying high when everyone's in the mud is not going to work.

MARTIN: So now that you had a chance to kind of sit with all of it for a while, where do you come out? Because it's not exactly a secret that a lot of people are in despair right now about the toxicity of our political culture all over the country, not just in Stockton, right? I think there's a concern, even if people wouldn't necessarily express it this way, that there's a certain sort of toxicity, a certain unwillingness to believe in progress and unwillingness to believe that things can be better that has taken hold in a lot of quarters in this country. What do you think now that you've had a chance to kind of live with it for a bit?

TUBBS: Yeah. Nihilism is so real. And it's so deadly. This belief that nothing matters, that nothing's going to change - that despair is dangerous.

So even after losing reelection, I am more adamant than ever that we need people to go back to their communities and help improve them and help inspire hope, whether it's in electoral politics or not, because, I mean, what's the alternative? Like, we - there has to be the antidote. We have to do it.

And again, it's not easy. Trust me. I have the battle scars to prove it. Like, losing reelection was not - it was hard. I cried. It was crushing, right? And, like, it really hurt.

But from that, I recognize that the work still continues. And the work wasn't in vain, that now there's all these other folks who are inspired, who are in local government, who are still trying to continue the work. So we need people to engage with the messiness and engage with the difficulty and engage with the heaviness because that's the only way we kind of bring in more light.

MARTIN: That was Michael Tubbs, the former mayor of Stockton, Calif. His book, "The Deeper The Roots: A Memoir Of Hope And Home," is out now. Michael Tubbs, thank you so much for joining us.

TUBBS: Thank you so much for having me. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.