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Mayor Melvin Carter: St. Paul Is on the Cusp of Its Big Moment

Often overshadowed by its neighbor Minneapolis, the other twin city has survived the pandemic and racial tensions and is ready to move on. Governing talked to Mayor Carter, early in his second term, about the city’s new momentum.

St. Paul Mayor Melvin Carter is a fifth-generation resident of St. Paul, and his mother served as a politician while his father was one of the city’s first Black police officers.
As protests swept the nation in 2020 after George Floyd’s murder in Minneapolis, just down the river the national spotlight swept on to St. Paul Mayor Melvin Carter.

The first Black mayor of the city, which is over 55 percent white, he was elected at the same time as Minneapolis Mayor Jacob Frey and on similarly left-of-center platforms. But unlike his counterpart, who first saw the Twin Cities as a marathon contender, Carter’s history in the region is deep. He’s a fifth-generation resident of St. Paul, and his mother served as a politician while his father was one of the city’s first Black police officers. (Police use-of-force guidelines were one of Carter’s targets of reform, early in his first tenure.)

During 2020, Carter gained a national profile, speaking with then-candidate Joe Biden and getting interviewed on major media platforms. As the aftermath of Floyd’s death rocked Minneapolis politics, terminating many political careers and giving Frey a heated re-election race, Carter cruised into his second term.

After securing a series of progressive economic policy wins in his first four years, including a $15 minimum wage, Carter’s second term will be dominated by questions of housing affordability, rent regulation and the persistent question of public safety. While his first-term reforms of policing have their critics, under his watch no-knock warrants were eliminated — a practice at the heart of the police killing of Amir Locke in Minneapolis last year.

As part of a larger forthcoming package of articles on the Twin Cities, Governing sat down with Carter in his makeshift office in a St. Paul skyway. As office workers begin to move back into downtown, Carter and his team have moved out of City Hall to lead by example — adding more light and eyes to the system of sidewalks in the air that have been too quiet during the pandemic.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Governing: People I’ve been interviewing for these articles describe you as someone who came up in the Democratic Farmer Labor Party (DFL) tradition of Hubert Humphrey, Paul Wellstone, all these nationally known progressive politicians. So, let’s talk about how you got involved in politics. 

Melvin Carter: I never saw electoral politics or government as all that relevant to making community life better. I wasn't a student government type. I was more likely through high school or college to go, say, volunteer at NAACP or Habitat for Humanity.

Then I went to college at Florida A&M University, one of the largest historically Black colleges in the country. We ended up there during election 2000. I was at one of the largest Black colleges in the country in the capital city of Florida. On Election Day, I was living with my older sister and her husband, and he made me get in the car and go vote. We stood in line for over an hour and a half and then he got turned away from the polls.

It was one of those don't-look-down moments. I wasn't planning on voting. But, then, wait, you're not going to let him vote? This is a problem! We came to find out that hundreds of our classmates got turned away from the polls. We were mad, embarrassed. I couldn't reconcile what I learned in my public school classes, that what makes America, the secret sauce, is that if you want a say, you get a say.

Governing: How long after that did you get involved in that DFL? 

Carter: The next year my mother first ran for school board, and I volunteered on her campaign, which led me to other campaigns and other grass-roots organizing. So, I came up in the grass-roots organizing tradition, which we're really proud of here in Minnesota, the state of Paul Wellstone, Hubert Humphrey, like you were saying.

So I was doing community organizing and helping volunteer for campaigns, and then the light rail came through the neighborhood that I grew up in. The route comes parallel to our freeway. Our freeway got built through a neighborhood called Rondo, where my father grew up and my grandfather lost half a dozen commercial properties when the freeway came. Long story short, I don't have half a dozen commercial properties today.

When it came time to build that light rail, we had a lot of members of my community that just said, “no, thanks!” A multimillion-dollar transportation improvement that's going to benefit everyone? Been there, done that, lost the properties. I felt we should think about it more deeply because transit equals economic opportunity. But then the first round of that plan came out and essentially the line was going to hopscotch our neighborhood.

We were reducing bus service to help pay for the operations of the line. Under the original plan, folks in my neighborhood would have experienced a net decrease in transit service because of a billion-dollar transit investment. That ended up being the fight that made me say, “no, I want to get off the bench right now. I have to be a part of this, we have to get these stations.”
"I came up in the grassroots organizing tradition, which we're really proud of here in Minnesota, the state of Paul Wellstone, Hubert Humphrey."
Governing: Cannibalizing bus service to pay for the light rail sounds very backward.

Carter: My neighborhood is the most transit dependent in the state! That's the area of our city where more people are on the bus there than anywhere else in Minnesota. These well-meaning, well-intended people are telling me this is just the way it is. But again, we're a community that's literally still impacted, still traumatized by Rondo. That just wasn't going to be acceptable. If what we experienced in Florida is the gasoline, the light rail was the match.

Governing: Let’s fast forward to these last two years. Minneapolis was a fulcrum in so many ways, where George Floyd was murdered, where the civil unrest was hottest, where defund the police got closest to reality. How did that play out here?

Carter: We did have some significant unrest, not to the extreme that Minneapolis had, but to a much further extreme than anything we've ever experienced. We had about 300 businesses damaged or destroyed.

Then it's also personal for me as a kid, because I grew up in a police family. In 1972 or ‘73 there was a lawsuit here that ultimately required St. Paul to integrate its police department. They brought on a class of African American officers that included my father. I grew up around this class of Black officers that my father came along with. Super Bowl parties, fight nights, birthday parties, intramural softball league. We saw these guys as superheroes. It was cool to see the ways in which they would solve problems, because they had the tool of the badge, that other people couldn't solve. But they knew where the problem was, because they are from the community in ways that other people who had a badge could never find.

Then I turned 16, and I met a whole lot of other St. Paul police officers. I came into this role knowing what it feels like to see some horrific news on TV and to be terrified on behalf of the officer who I was sending into it. And I came to this role, knowing what it feels like to get pulled over, over and over and over and over and over again, for reasons that have absolutely nothing to do with my driving. That's informed my public safety politics and policy work since the beginning.
"Part of my message to people right now is the pandemic changed everything but it also changed nothing. "
(Jeff Wheeler/Star Tribune/Star)
Governing: How else did the pandemic ripple through St. Paul?

Carter: In summer 2019, we had about 29 people sheltering outdoors. We had this big meeting in my conference room, and I'm overstating a little bit, but half the people in the room are saying let's put in port-a-potties and help people get comfortable. The other half are saying we should send in bulldozers and handcuffs. Are those our only two options for people?

Less than a year later, that number went from 29 to over 380. We have closed a significant number of tent encampments, but we haven't removed a single person by force or arrested a single person. Every time we close a tent encampment, it's because we have a safe, warm place to sleep for every single person. We haven't solved homelessness here, but we've been able to help transition people indoors.

That's really important because last winter, we lost five people in St. Paul just because they didn't have a warm place to sleep. When people are homeless down south or out west, it's unacceptable. When people are homeless here, it's fatal. This winter, as far as I'm aware, the number is zero.

Part of my message to people right now is the pandemic changed everything, but it also changed nothing. What we saw in the pandemic was people whose whole lives were impacted by a disease that they didn't have the resources or medicine or health care to be able to defeat. We saw people losing their homes, losing their jobs, losing their businesses to forces that were completely outside of their control. That's not new. We saw in the pandemic a Black man die at the hands of law enforcement, which God, I wish was new.

We know that when our neighbor doesn't have a place to sleep, when it's time to quarantine, we're less safe. We know that if one of the kids at school, their parents can't take a week off of work, my kids are less safe. My hope is that the easing of the pandemic numbers don't lull us back to sleep.

Governing; St. Paul is currently in the midst of a debate around rent regulation. How much of that was inspired by the surge in homelessness?

Carter: Our city is at an all-time high population, right, with two decades of growth projected. It's exciting for people to see our city as a desirable place to live, work and play. But we've already got a shortage of housing. It also means that if we fail to build housing, we will make that crunch even greater. Pre-pandemic, we saw housing costs going up because of the housing shortage. Children switch schools, literally a half-dozen times in one school year because of housing instability. Lives lost because people didn't have a warm place to sleep.

But then it also hearkens back to the conversation about light rail and about our Old Rondo neighborhood. This question of who we build our cities for. Where economics is concerned, we look to Miami or Wisconsin and, better yet, Minneapolis to find promise and potential and people we can lure here with some money. Move your business, your career, your family to St. Paul. It ends up creating this vicious cycle that causes us to bet against our residents. We're always looking inside our city for problems and outside our city for potential. It's not just St. Paul. It's the model of the city we've inherited.

The thing that links everything we're trying to do — raising the minimum wage, eliminated late fines in libraries, launched college savings accounts, a guaranteed income pilot — is to build our local economy to benefit the people who already live here. To me, the rent stabilization policy that our voters adopted this past November is a response both to the squeeze that we felt during the pandemic but also to a more grandiose conviction that when we develop our city, when we build our city, when we add to our macroeconomic opportunity that exists in the city, we ought to be intentional about building for the people who live in the city.
Mayor Melvin Carter. “In many ways, the job these past two years has been different, harder, more stressful, more traumatic than the job I signed up for. At the same time, the crises that we've experienced have birthed opportunities that we've never experienced before.”
(Elizabeth Flores/Star Tribune)

Governing: You’ve emphasized that in tandem with rent regulation you want to incentivize more housing construction. What kind of policies are you pursuing to incentivize more construction?

Carter: We eliminated parking minimums last year. Parking costs a lot of money, and the truth is we've historically done it very poorly. At a time where land is at a premium and we're facing a housing shortage, eliminating those parking minimums was a really important step for us.

We need to exempt housing construction from rent regulation. Every American city that I can find with rent control in place has an exemption for new housing. We have thousands of units on pause right now waiting for this. All my conversations with developers say that once we get an exemption, we'll be able to get these projects moving again.

Minneapolis took a really bold step a couple of years ago, eliminating single-family zoning, and we have some staff thinking through and doing a community process around that. That's something that we need to be thinking about. Then there's a more fine-grained regulatory aspect. We can't be a city where the only ones who can build are those with a compliance team of accountants and lawyers to navigate the process. We can be on the front lines of making it easy for folks to navigate our city processes.

One of the things that we're on right now with American Rescue Plan Act resources is doing inspections for building permits online. We can increase our productivity and response times to be able to get there quicker and to be able to do more faster in a way that keep projects moving.

Governing: What are other ways you are using American Rescue Plan Act funds? 

Carter: We are getting $166 million. Our lives are saved because of what we don't have to do because we have it. I'm excited to have the conversation about all the things we're excited to do with it, but I also want you to know that we can count around $50 million in revenue losses tied directly to the pandemic. Maybe there's some cities where that's not that big of a number. But it's enormous for St. Paul.

There would be no mathematical way to absorb those losses without really, really deep impacts on our quality of life. In a city where half of our budget is police officers and firefighters, there would be no way to do that without impacting our ability to respond to emergencies. The American Rescue Plan funds are literally a life-saving investment in our country. I don't know that it always gets talked about in that way.

I’m going to further prioritize public safety. Sometimes when people call 911 it's because somebody's being harmed or there's a crime. We want a police officer, ambulance or fire truck there as quickly as possible. But most of the time, when people call 911, it's not because there's a crime being committed at all. It's because somebody has some concerns, or somebody is in crisis, or somebody is experiencing trauma. One of the things that we're building right now is our team of social workers to be able to respond in ways that bring the appropriate level of resource to actually solving the problem.

Our argument is that a public safety strategy isn't complete without proactive investments that will reduce the likelihood that something terrible happens in our neighborhood in the first place. That means youth jobs. That means after-school and summer programs for young people. That means community interrupters and interveners out in the community. That means physical investments in space. Do you know why we're here in this office?

Governing: Because the skyways are not fully back?

Carter: No downtown was built to be empty, but they emptied out during COVID-19. It's created a vacuum. You can see out here, this hallway is lit largely by the lights that come from these offices. When these offices are empty, this hallway is dark. Why is that dark, abandoned corner of downtown becoming a center of undesirable activity? Because it's dark and empty! One of the things that we've done is just turning the lights on in here. We’re here doing our jobs in a way that lights this space, that activates it, that puts your eyes on the hallway.

Those are the types of proactive investments we're making. We have a million-dollar process in our capital improvement budget where we ask neighbors to come together and bring us recommendations for relatively small investments in our public right away and our public assets that they think can make a difference. That might be saying let's trim the trees so the streetlights can make a bigger difference on the block. Let's add new lighting to this park. This is our grand strategy around public safety that goes behind just responding after somebody calls 911.
Downtown St. Paul, Minn.
(Gang Liu/Shutterstock)
Governing: I wrote an article during the peak of the pandemic in 2020, after George Floyd’s death, that simply asked “who is going to want to be a mayor after this?” We saw people like the mayor of Atlanta who decide not to run again. We’ve seen mayors, like in Minneapolis, receive tremendous backlash. Have you ever considered leaving politics in these past two years?

Carter: In many ways, the job these past two years has been different, harder, more stressful, more traumatic than the job I signed up for. At the same time, the crises that we've experienced have birthed opportunity that we've never experienced before.

The global understanding that exists around the need for evolved public safety strategies, the unprecedented investment, both in the American Rescue Plan and then also the infrastructure law. This massive investment that the Biden administration has led into literally every corner of our country creates a level of opportunity that has never existed in my lifetime to actually move the ball on many of the passions that brought me into this office.

That's why I decided to run for re-election, because it just feels like an enormous moment for us. I used to ask my grandparents and my parents, “Freedom Summer. Where were you? Account for your time!” This is one of those moments. Our children and grandchildren are going to look at you and say, “pandemic, war, George Floyd. What were you doing?” I don't know that there's going to be anything more important in our whole lives than having a compelling answer for them.
Jake Blumgart is a senior writer for Governing and covers transportation and infrastructure. He lives in Philadelphia. Follow him on Twitter at @jblumgart.
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