One of the falsest criticisms of Mayor Michael Tubbs is his creation of three cushy positions in the Mayor’s Office. What an outrage, such extravagance, how dare he, etc.
In fact, Stockton’s last mayor, Anthony Silva (who already had one staffer, an executive assistant) asked for more staff; it went on the 2016 ballot; voters approved two more positions, passing Measure O with 56 percent.
Still you hear it echoed by some: Policy director Max Vargas and public information officer Daniel Lopez, less so perhaps, Tubbs’ lower-paid executive assistant, enjoy some kind of fat-cat sinecure emblematic of Tubbs’ nest-feathering.
You could spend all day debunking the falsehoods. But there’s a valid question in there: take Vargas, the policy director. What does he do to earn his six-figure salary?
I did a Public Records Act request for all documents relating to Vargas’ policy work in 2017. The Mayor’s Office responded with a 721-page doorstopper.
The documents reveal Vargas as a key team member, a busy bee juggling policy research, partnering with community organizations and national think tanks, organizing symposia with national figures, shaking loose state, federal and nonprofit grant money, spotting legislation in progress in Sacramento that could help or hurt Stockton, all to address Stockton’s crying needs.
I interviewed Vargas. He is a classic wonk, happier out in the weeds, unused to the spotlight.
“Having been around for years, but always behind the scenes, it’s rare to put ourselves in the foreground,” said Vargas, 30.
Vargas is no neophyte. He worked for Assemblywoman Cathleen Galgiani, D-Stockon and state Sen. Lois Wolk, D-Davis, and Galgiani again when she became a senator.
In the Mayor’s Office, Vargas helped organize the San Joaquin Valley Leadership Conference last year starring U.S. Sen. Kamala Harris, D-California. Harris’ pledge of support for the Valley was gratifying.
The bigger picture was unifying the fragmented and politically weak San Joaquin Valley by bringing mayors from here to Bakersfield, as well as state reps and key business figures.
“Strategizing for a Valley agenda,” Vargas said. “One in which Stockton is helping as a convener, a strong leader. I’m really excited about what that work can do long-term.”
Previous mayors didn’t host such conferences because previous mayors didn’t have the staff to organize them.
Vargas championed Advance Peace, the program to salvage lives of gun violence perps in Stockton. Other cities vied for it. Stockton got it.
And, in a city so often passed over by state appropriations and grantors, the funds to pay for it were donated.
Vargas is in wonk heaven over that one. “To bring new, innovative fully-paid-for programming, that’s outstanding,” Vargas said.
Critics have caricatured Advance Peace as “cash for criminals,” since it gives stipends to checkered characters.
Two things about the program:
1). Data shows it dramatically reduces firearm arrests and injuries in other cities.
2). A better idea.
“It’s so easy for folks to denigrate from that sort of cynical standpoint,” Vargas said. “It’s unfortunate because ultimately our interest is in reducing loss of life.”
Vargas helped devise the city’s cannabis policy. The Mayor’s Office brought Kiva to Stockton to make zero-interest loans to entrepreneurs. Vargas has a hand in Airport Way redevelopment, homeless reduction, a waterfront aquatic center, and pressing the California State University Chancellor’s Office for a Stockton state university.
He briefs the mayor with concise, digestible memos across a spectrum of issues. He evaluates policy and program pitches, such as one for a bike-sharing program in Stockton.
“A lot of times folks come to you with an idea, but there has to be a ‘there’ there,” Vargas said. “Digging deeper is part of what I do.”
Vargas questioned whether the money-losing Swenson Park Golf Course was where the city wants to spend its limited funds. I asked him if he ever cringes at the blowback.
He said, “Certainly I’ve gone home and said, ‘Oh, man, that’s an issue we didn’t think would be received this way.’ Why can’t people see that it is actually a big benefit?”
He works on restoring city pools, homeless strategies, rectifying the Office of Violence Prevention, coding classes for girls, upgrading the city animal shelter, trees for Little Manila, marina security, “under-banked” neighborhoods — you get the idea.
Vargas’ father was an attorney in Peru’s Justice Department. Menaced by terrorists with The Shining Path, he sought refuge in the U.S. Because his law degree was not valid here, he had to work several jobs.
The Spanish-speaking young Vargas attended a dual immersion language class. It proved tremendously helpful for his educational attainment.
Both Peru’s instability, rooted in social inequity, and the class gave him a sense of the importance of a fair society with smart policy.
“I remember how politics and policies can impact people on the ground,” he said. “So finally, you’re going to make it but all those programs … somebody somewhere along the line fought to have those programs in place.”
Contact columnist Michael Fitzgerald at (209) 546-8270 or firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him at recordnet.com/fitzgeraldblog and on Twitter @Stocktonopolis.