Presidential candidate Mike Bloomberg (left) listens as Stockton Mayor Michael Tubbs speaks in December. Photo courtesy of Tubbs’ office

By Dan Walters | CalMatters Columnist

Last month’s election was unkind to mayors of three closely spaced cities in Northern California.

Stockton’s Michael Tubbs and West Sacramento’s Christopher Cabaldon lost to challengers who came out of nowhere, while Sacramento voters soundly rejected Mayor Darrell Steinberg’s bid to strengthen the power of his office.

If there is a common denominator it is that all three had received acclaim beyond their city limits and may have incurred what one could call a “too big for their britches” backlash.

That’s particularly true of Tubbs, a young first-termer who had received nationwide media attention for his experiment in giving cash stipends to some of Stockton’s poorest residents. Although Stockton is overwhelmingly Democratic in voter registration, Tubbs fell to another young Black man, Kevin Lincoln, a Republican pastor and former Marine.

Prior to the election, the Tubbs-Lincoln duel received scant media attention, but afterwards, the Los Angeles Times and other journalistic organizations delved into the upset and pointed to a local blog, the 209 Times, that pummeled Tubbs incessantly for his alleged shortcomings.

“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,” a Los Angeles Times post-mortem declared.

The post-election analysts also pointed to weak coverage by the local newspaper, the Stockton Record, which had undergone steep staff cuts in recent years.

So was Tubbs done in by a vicious internet smear campaign? Perhaps, but there must have been an undercurrent of resentment about Tubbs’ growing fame beyond Stockton for the smears to resonate.

Dan Walters

On paper, West Sacramento’s Cabaldon should have been a shoo-in for re-election after 18 years in the mayor’s chair. His small city had flourished with a new baseball park, massive private investment in retail business, including an IKEA store, and remarkable civic improvements.

Cabaldon, like Tubbs, had achieved widespread positive publicity for himself and his small city, which a former mayor of neighboring Sacramento had once dismissed as being “suitable only for warehouses.”

However, he fell to a first-term city councilwoman, Martha Guerrero, who subtly suggested that Cabaldon had lost touch with the city’s ordinary residents. Guerrero is a Capitol lobbyist for Los Angeles County and a key factor in her victory was support from public employee unions, which had long seen Cabaldon as an enemy.

The enmity dates back to Cabaldon’s previous career as head of EdVoice, an organization that jousts with the California Teachers Association and other school unions over charter schools and other elements of education policy. It took a while, it would appear, but the unions finally settled up an old score.

Like the other two mayors, Steinberg also had achieved much, even though the office has scant authority. He had seen a rebirth of Sacramento’s downtown with a new basketball arena, new hotels, a Kaiser medical center and other facilities. The city gained a major league soccer franchise, planned a new stadium to house the team and began confronting its vexing homelessness crisis.

Steinberg argued that if he was to be held accountable for what happened in the city, he should have the executive authority to deal with issues. But opponents saw his “strong mayor” proposal as a political power grab, and voters were unwilling to go along.

No one would be surprised if, having been rebuked by Sacramento voters, Steinberg took his political career in another direction.

CalMatters is a public interest journalism venture committed to explaining how California’s state Capitol works and why it matters. 

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