Forbes may not consider her the most powerful celebrity on the planet (that honor was recently bestowed to Jennifer Lopez), but whenever Oprah Winfrey does anything, it's definitely a big deal.
And when the billionaire media mogul makes a completely unexpected move--like getting personally involved in a central California election and donating $10,000 to a 21-year old underdog yet to graduate from college--it's guaranteed to upend virtually every corner of said contest.
The race in question is for the seat on Stockton's city council representing the southernmost district of the 300,000-person metropolitan area. The position is currently held by incumbent 52-year old Republican Dale Fritchen, but is being contested by Stanford senior Michael Tubbs.
Tubbs said he gained Winfrey's attention in April when she visited Stanford University, where Tubbs will graduate in June. During a luncheon, somebody mentioned to Winfrey that Tubbs is a City Council candidate back at home.
"She looked at me and said, 'How old are you?'" Tubbs recalled. "She kept coming back to Stockton. 'Tell me about the city.' I told her about the homicides, how the city is broke and the disconnect."
Winfrey apparently told Tubbs that she had only twice contributed to political campaigns in the past, once to Barack Obama and once to Newark Mayor Cory Booker.
The young Democrat is the Executive Director of The Phoenix Scholars, a mentoring program for college-bound low-income high school students. He has also interned at Google and the White House.
Stockton was one of the hardest hit cities in the county by the collapse of the housing market (only Las Vegas had a higher rate of foreclosures) and has subsequently seen its deficit skyrocket. In February, the city began taking the first steps toward declaring Chapter Nine bankruptcy. If the bankruptcy goes through, Stockton would become the largest city in the country to default.
The city is currently undergoing a legally-mandated, two-month mediation process with its creditors in an attempt to stave off bankruptcy. "The city needs to tighten the belt and start crawling our way out of this hole," City Manager Bob Deis told Bloomberg Businessweek.
Tubbs's opponent Fritchen is the leading voice on the city council fighting the bankruptcy. He has barely held any campaign events of his own, instead focusing virtually all of his efforts on preventing Stockton from reneging on its debt.
"The people in Stockton need to stand up and take their city back," Fritchen told his audience at a town hall meeting last week. "I think bankruptcy will take away a lot of the potential the city has for success."
Tubbs, on the other hand, is centering his campaign around public safety. "Bankruptcy is one thing, but you look at the crimes that have been happening," Tubbs said in an interview with the Record. "We really have a choice in this election to decide where we go as a community."
Reeling from the realities of its fiscal situation, Stockton has been forced to significantly scale back its police and fire departments, a decision that's played a large part the city's surging crime rate. The Huffington Post reported in March:
To plug gaping deficits, the city council slashed the police department budget, shrinking the size of the force and cutting the pay and benefits of officers who remained. Stockton dismantled a narcotics force, scaled back community policing efforts--and killings soared. Eight murders in January and February in 2012 put Stockton on pace to break the 2011 homicide record.
The causes of crime trends are notoriously difficult to measure, but criminologists say the police cuts almost certainly played a role. "When you make those kinds of drastic cuts, you have to believe that there's an effect," says Michael Jacobson, director of the Vera Institute of Justice in New York. "It’s unimaginable that something like that couldn't make a difference."
Despite its dour economic history of late, Stockton did recently receive some good news. University of the Pacific's Business Forecasting Center reported that Stockton is currently experiencing the fastest rate of job growth of any city in the state. Even so, the city has a long way to go. Stockton's unemployment rate currently sits at a staggering 15.2 percent.
Due to California's recently passed "Top Two Primary" law, Fritchen and Tubbs will square off in a primary on June 5 and then, no matter what happens in June, go at it again in November.