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Rising Democratic star Michael Tubbs risks reelection defeat, thanks in part to a Stockton blog

Mayor Michael Tubbs poses for a portrait in front of a map of the city of Stockton in his office
Michael Tubbs made history when he was elected mayor of Stockton at age 26. His reelection campaign this year has been hounded by a local website slinging harmful accusations, often without proof.
(Kent Nishimura / Los Angeles Times)

Stockton Mayor Michael Tubbs, a Democratic rising star with a national reach, is trailing in a reelection bid to an upstart Republican contender — a potential upset driven in part by a local social media page that has become a kingslayer if not a kingmaker in this San Joaquin Valley city.

Tubbs, the city’s first Black mayor and a favorite in progressive circles for championing ideas such as universal basic income, trailed Republican Kevin Lincoln 52% to 48%, though county officials said many mail-in ballots remained to be counted, leaving the possibility of a reversal.

Though Tubbs won his first mayoral election in 2016 with 70% of the vote and an endorsement from President Obama, this time he has been dogged by a social media page whose founder acknowledges he harbors a grudge against Tubbs — and which has hounded the incumbent, and other local political figures, with years of accusations of corruption and misdeeds.

As the city’s local newspaper, the Record, has struggled with staff cuts in recent years, the social media page, the 209 Times, named for the local area code, has amassed nearly 100,000 followers on Facebook and 118,000 on Instagram. Motecuzoma Patrick Sanchez, one of the founders of the 209 Times, said it has millions of interactions with viewers on its website and social media pages every month, making it one of the area’s most popular sources of information.

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San Joaquin County has about 760,000 residents, with roughly 310,000 in Stockton. About 50,000 voted in the mayor’s race.

Local political pundits said the 209 Times has clout with voters and damaged Tubbs’ reputation by attacking him with relentless, and unfounded, allegations of corruption.

“He was wounded by the 209 Times,” said Michael Fitzgerald, a former metro columnist for the Stockton Record who has followed local politics for three decades.

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It “just created this false narrative about Tubbs, and they just kept pounding that narrative,” he said.

The 209 Times has run articles, often with no proof, alleging that Tubbs has misappropriated millions of dollars earmarked for city programs, lied about his involvement with an unpopular idea to use the county fairgrounds as part of a state-funded site for homeless people, and put personal interests ahead of his elected role.

Daniel Lopez, Tubbs’ spokesman, said the allegations were “outright lies.”

“209 Times is a perfect example of what you are seeing in the country. It’s ‘pick your own news,’” Lopez said. He took particular issue with recent allegations that Stockton had received and misused $60 million in state funds meant for reducing homelessness.

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“To address our challenges we need an informed public,” he said. “How can we have a dialogue around homelessness, for example, when the 209 Times persuades residents that we’ve been given $60 million for this issue, when in reality we only have $6.5 million? I’m sure a good number of Stocktonians reading this article will learn for the first time that the $60-million number is fake, yet some will still believe regardless.”

Sanchez, the 209 Times founder, said the goal of his publication isn’t to be fair or balanced, though it identifies itself as a news and media company on Facebook. It also sells political and other advertising.

“We are not journalists. I looked at it like we were a guerrilla group up against the mainstream army,” Sanchez said. “We are not asking their side of it. We are telling you what we know. We never tried to hide our bias.”

Stockton observers say Tubbs also faced other obstacles to reelection — including opposition from police and firefighters unions. The local police union gave $25,000 to Lincoln, according to campaign filings, and its president, Charles Harris, said the union thinks Lincoln will be better at “actually tackling the issues at hand of homelessness and quality of life in Stockton.”

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Tubbs also received blowback involving a plan to build housing with low-income units on a closed golf course in a wealthier part of Stockton.

At the same time, Tubbs’ profile has grown on the national political stage, and he is considered an up-and-comer in Democratic circles. Though he grew up on Stockton’s poor south side with a single mother and an incarcerated father, he attended Stanford University and returned to Stockton after graduation.

He successfully ran for City Council in 2012, receiving a $10,000 campaign contribution from Oprah Winfrey, becoming Stockton’s youngest council member at age 22. Four years later, he ran for mayor and won, becoming both the city’s first Black mayor and its youngest. He is known to have ties with vice presidential candidate Sen. Kamala Harris and Gov. Gavin Newsom, and he was recently featured in an HBO documentary.

Young, sincere and raised on the edge of poverty, Sukhi Samra has a mother who worked two minimum-wage jobs when she was a kid — days at a gas station and nights at a Subway.

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Helped by a philanthropy, Tubbs has also launched a basic income experiment in Stockton and brought in $20 million in nonprofit grants to fund a scholarship program to increase the number of local high school graduates who attend college. He pushed the city to start a chapter of Advance Peace, a violence reduction program. The 209 Times has alleged corruption in all those endeavors, though there have been no official indications of wrongdoing.

Lincoln, Tubbs’ challenger, is a former Marine who serves as a pastor and identifies as Latino and Black — his grandfather emigrated from Mexico. He has never held political office, though he ran for an Assembly seat in 2016.

Lincoln said the 209 Times “definitely strikes a chord with the readers in our city and provides more insight with regards to the issues,” but he believes it was his message of “bridging the gaps of division of our city” and voter outreach that has put him ahead.

“I have done everything I could to engage the people of Stockton,” Lincoln said.

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Sanchez said that he decided to target Tubbs in the 209 Times in part because Tubbs opposed him when Sanchez, a local organizer, lobbied to reopen a library branch that had been closed because of the city’s financial troubles. Tubbs voted against the idea when it came before the City Council.

Two photos of Kevin Lincoln, posing for a portrait and speaking with a man at a store
Republican Kevin Lincoln, a pastor and a former Marine, has a chance to unseat Michael Tubbs as Stockton’s mayor.
(Kevin Lincoln)

“It was a personal promise that I told him, ‘Anyone who votes against this library opening, I am going to vote against you.’ So four years later, it’s a promise I kept,” Sanchez said. “The way that we see it is basically we are the primary reason Michael Tubbs is losing.”

Though Sanchez concedes his site is one-sided, he disputed that his stories include false information, pointing out they sometimes include documents obtained through California Public Records Act requests, though often without response from the targets of their accusations. Sanchez said he’s “created a new way to deliver news, which is a crowdsourced form of information.”

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Another activist involved in the 209 Times, Frank Gayaldo, said “truth can be very controversial.”

Tubbs is not the first politician Sanchez’s site has gone after. In 2018, it helped unseat San Joaquin County Sheriff Steve Moore, who faced multiple scandals involving his role as coroner and sexual harassment complaints in his office. It has also been repeatedly critical of San Joaquin County Dist. Atty. Tori Verber Salazar.

Recently, the 209 Times posted pictures of a Tracy mayoral candidate from a gay dating app, implying that the app was associated with human trafficking and that participation on it was problematic.

The candidate, Dan Tavares Arriola, is now a City Council member and the first openly LGBTQ elected official in Tracy. Arriola said associating the dating site with human trafficking was homophobic.

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“For organizations like the 209 Times to spread disinformation is incredibly concerning and hurtful to our community,” Arriola said.


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