Coffee with Jack

Meet Jack Tibbetts, the new kid on the Santa Rosa City Council

Jack Tibbetts was once an angsty teenager with blue hair. But earlier this month, he was the top vote getter for the Santa Rosa city council. A product of Catholic school, he embraces the church’s mantra “to serve the greater good.”

The Santa Rosa native joins the seven-member council with a head full of ideas, but says his top three priorities are housing, housing and housing. He’ll keep his job as executive director of St. Vincent de Paul, whose priorities, he says, will complement his work on the council.

Tibbetts went to St. Eugene’s Catholic school through seventh grade and transferred to Montgomery High School, where he dyed his hair blue, listened to punk rock and became a world-class skier. He is an only child who identified with the geeks and outsiders.

Over coffee at Peet’s on Fourth Street in Santa Rosa on a recent afternoon, he looks every bit the millennial American of the hipster-farmer, Sonoma County variety in semi-faded Wranglers, tan cowboy boots and a red flannel shirt, tucked in with a wide belt and the collar buttoned down.

Tibbetts recollects a Santa Rosa youth where he couldn’t play any of the traditional team sports, so fell into skiing and excelled at it to the point that he was considered an Olympic prospect. He trained at the Park City Olympic camp as a big-mountain skier, but an injury led him to reevaluate—”What do I want to do?”—and a roadside interaction in Taos while he recuperated, with a wise, low-income man sealed the deal. The Taos encounter gave Tibbetts a direct awareness of poverty, and he went to bed that night thinking, “There’s so much more to do in life than ski.”

Tibbetts set out to dedicate his life to civil service and public engagement. He wound up working for a welder in Healdsburg. A valuable experience, but as Tibbetts describes the post-skiing immediacy of his young life, he says, “I floundered for a bit.”

In 2010, he enrolled at Santa Barbara City College, where big cuts and a doubling in tuition (from $100 to $200 per credit) triggered his inner political activist.

“This is no longer ‘college for all,'” Tibbetts recalls thinking as he details the urgency of the great recession and how it was destroying the dreams of his fellow students. Tibbetts won an office in the student senate and immersed himself in the details of the community college’s annual budget, seeking areas where “we could make cuts, identify cuts that would make things more efficient” without further harm to students.

Tibbetts transferred to UC Berkeley to complete a political science degree and to set out on a career path that highlighted his interest in the nonprofit world. At Berkeley, he took a class with former United States labor secretary Robert Reich, interned for U.S. Rep. Mike Thompson, worked for a high-powered consultant in Sacramento and interned at the United Nations.

Tibbetts learned that the “nonprofit sphere of influence is smaller than in politics,” but no less important. In 2013, he leveraged his tuition-spike activism to take up the fight for the California Modernization and Economic Development Act, which would have enacted a well head oil tax to fund an endowment for student tuition.

Reich and a handful of Nobel laureates endorsed his proposal, but the oil companies hated it. They spent $1 million to kill it, Tibbetts says.

“We were a bunch of kids,” Tibbetts says, but the organization behind the act had a very grownup name: Californians for Responsible Economic Development. Tibbetts, then a 21-year-old senior, says he was spending two-thirds of his time lobbying his bill and one-third in the classroom. “Nobody knew we were students.”

Tibbetts moved back to his hometown after college and got a job working for the Sonoma County Economic Development Board, which he describes as a “wonderful experience” that involved a lot of idea generation and finding creative solutions to chronic problems—housing being at the top of Tibbetts’ list. He suggested that the county take unused county property and utilize it as a tiny-house program for the homeless. The pilot program got off the ground in May.

Tibbetts supports current city efforts at developing mixed-income housing and rent control, but says that the broader problem is that people can’t save money and many city residents, despite a generally robust economy, are sadly accustomed to lowered expectations.

“Everyone wants predictability,” he says, and for city renters that means a “pathway to homeownership.”

Tibbetts is exploring a revolving loan fund where the city would buy debt from a lender in order to keep a local home from being foreclosed. He says he is trying to work out the legalities of a plan that would make the city the mortgage-backer of last resort for families—especially in two-income households where one person loses a job.

He laughs and folds his arms in the bustling noontime crowd at Peet’s. “That’s the utopian vision for how I think housing should be done.”

But it’s no laughing matter for Tibbetts, who embraces a role he sees for himself on the Santa Rosa Council, as its youngest member by a long shot.

“I want to be that person who might be out there,” he says. “‘That kid is at it again!'” As a younger politician, he sees great value in not being “beholden to traditional ways of thinking about what’s possible.”

Still, Tibbetts describes himself essentially as an introvert, as he folds his arms again and talks about how people come up to you on the streets of Santa Rosa: “Hey! I voted for you!”

And yet it wasn’t long ago that Tibbetts was a lonley kid standing on his skateboard on the drama-wing steps at Montgomery High School.

“When I was in high school I was not popular,” Tibbetts says. “I couldn’t play sports. I had no identity. I was truly the smallest kid in high school.” Tibbetts got into skiing and skateboarding, he says, “and the culture and music found me. There was a time in my life when there was anger, confusion—I was angsty.”

Now he’s an elected official, tall and poised and informed, and says “I’m the oldest 26-year-old” you’ll ever meet. “I go to bed early and I listen to NPR.” People may come up to him on the street, but he’s still the introvert in the room. At political events, “I’m always the guy at the back of the room. Please come talk to me.”

Tibbetts also loves Claude Debussy’s “Clair de Lune,” digs Bach and Tchaikovsky, and says he also loved Operation Ivy back in the day, and when he worked for the welder, he got into old country music and Americana folk—the Highwaymen, George Strait.

Failing the arrival of the 82nd Airborne under a pot-unfriendly new president, Tibbetts will join
a council that will take up Proposition 64 at the city level. Tibbetts, perhaps surprisingly, takes a moderate and cautious view on the cannabis question and whether Santa Rosa now becomes the New Age Amsterdam.

Tibbetts does support medical and recreational cannabis, and highlights that there are economic opportunities for the city, especially in lab testing of various commercial strains—”But being young has nothing to do with it. I push back a lot on the concept of a ‘New Amsterdam,'” he says, noting constituent concerns and “serious water issues” because of pressures on groundwater resources already stressed by the beer and wine industries. Tibbetts highlights that he is a member of the Santa Rosa Board of Utilities and that his cannabis views are “not based on my image as a young person. . . . I am focused on the environment.”

Tibbetts will be joining a Santa Rosa council that will decide on who is going to be the next mayor of the city. John Sawyer’s term ends in 2017, and the council will chose a new mayor from its ranks. It’s not lost on Tibbetts that he is the young man in the middle of a council that is split between moderate and progressive blocs—a split that has played out, for instance, in differences between council members over the city’s rent-control efforts.

“I carry the torch as the swing vote on controversial issues. And that is a very political question coming out of the gate: Who is the next mayor?”

He folds his arms again at Peet’s and laughs a little. “Right into the fire.”

Sonoma County Library