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‘The biggest surprise is the number of big surprises’: a Q&A with St. Paul Mayor Melvin Carter on his first year in office

The mayor talks affordable housing, public safety, and learning to code.

Mayor Melvin Carter
Mayor Melvin Carter: "We have to start building our city now for thousands of more families who will call our city home — children in our schools, families on our streets and sidewalks."
MinnPost photo by Jessica Lee

Melvin Carter is wrapping up his first year as St. Paul’s 46th mayor.

Born and raised in St. Paul, Carter moved to Tallahassee, Florida, for college. After graduating, he returned to the Twin Cities to attend the University of Minnesota’s Humphrey School of Public Affairs and then began dabbling in local politics. Voters elected him to two terms on the City Council, representing St. Paul’s Ward 1 (which includes the Frogtown, Summit-University, Lexington-Hamline and Snelling-Hamline areas), before he stepped down to take a job in Gov. Mark Dayton’s administration in 2013.

That was his last gig before being elected to St. Paul’s top job in November 2017, becoming the city’s first black mayor. MinnPost caught up with him this week to discuss his first year in the office: about the biggest challenges facing the city, and what is in store for 2019. This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

MinnPost: What were the main issues of 2018 for you?

Melvin Carter: It’s been quite an incredible year for us. We’ve been learning so much. We put quite a bit on our plate to start the year off, and I have to tell you that as we close the year, the work that this team has done and I say “this team”: the staff, but also all the people from this community who have come and just chipped in every step along the way has really outpaced my biggest expectations.

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Obviously, getting the minimum wage passed is really important to me. And the combination of that and the budget that we just passed through the council, I think, puts St. Paul on a really exciting course.

MP: Just like in Minneapolis, two really big subjects rose to the forefront of policy discussions this year: housing affordability and public safety. How did you approach those issues?

MC: Very similarly [to Minneapolis], really. So many of the core challenges that St. Paul faces are at the root because people are struggling to get by. That’s why raising the minimum wage was important. Frankly, I tell folks all of the time, I think the most important things we’ve done for public safety in this past year was raising the minimum wage and investing in housing. Because when people are stable, our neighborhoods are more stable.

And so I see those [issues] as very similar. We’re going to obviously continue to dive into both in the next year both continuing to stand up with our Affordable Housing Trust Fund that we just funded, and continuing to push on our “smart on crime approach that we’ve been talking to folks about for the last year.

MP: People talked a lot about the size of the police department this year; your budget proposal did not boost the number of sworn officers, but then the City Council decided to add nine positions in the final budget. What do you make of that decision?

MC: What’s most important is that we have to have a balanced city. My mantra has been that a public safety strategy that’s a “police only” is like a health strategy that’s “ambulances only.” It’s far too reactive. It doesn’t give us the chance to be really proactive and think about the type of stability that we really want to be focused on. And so, my insistence, from day one, has been that we won’t be able to build our city for the future by just putting all of our money into hiring police officers and using the leftovers to fund our rec centers and our libraries. The budget we just passed makes a critical investment in St Paul: our children, our families.

MP: What are some other initiatives under way to improve policing in St. Paul?

MC: We started the year by working with our police department to rewrite the use-of-force policies that govern our department. We are the only department I’m aware of, in the world, that has established a use-of-force policy through a two-month, two-way conversation with residents. That’s something that’s really critical and important, I think, for us. Continuing to build out that [mental health] co-responder model is important; continuing to build out our community engagement division, and all of the work that they do, is something that I know our chief [Todd Axtell] is focused on.

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It’s important that our residents know that we hold ourselves to a high standard of professionalism, transparency and accountability. … Those things are really important to continuing to build, and rebuild, trust.

MP: If there is another person injured or killed by police, is there anything you would do differently, whether it be how you address the community or release footage of the incident?

MC: Every one of those incidents is different. It’s hard to speculate how I’d approach something.

MP: Anything else you want to say about public safety?

MC: Our focus on public safety is building out this “smart on crime” approach. For me, the “smart on crime” approach, really, is about “people, places and policing.” We know that people who trust that they’ll be treated fairly by police are more likely to obey the law and call 911, and they’re more likely to provide witness testimony or witness statements that help us investigate and follow up when something happens. That’s the “policing” piece.

[For] the “places”  we know that there’s a lot of research that shows that the design and the aesthetic quality of a place has a large influence on the type of behaviors and activities that occur there. So, thinking about how we invest in the physical realm within our city especially in those places where we have the most public-safety concerns is going to be important.

And the “people” piece is critical. When people face stability challenges, that’s where we find ourselves with concerns. Public safety has to start with identifying the people in our community that have the most challenges, and helping those people who provide the support that they need to be stable. That’s why we’re raising the minimum wage. That’s why we’re investing in housing. That’s why we’re investing in mental-health support, and that’s why I’m investing in our Office of Financial Empowerment. That’s why we tripled the free programming in our rec centers and made sure our libraries are accessible for children, so that they have something to do out of school time. All of that has to work together.

MP: You and the council decided to boost the city’s spending on affordable housing. Where, exactly, will that money go?

MC: We are in the midst of an affordable housing crisis in our region right now, particularly in St. Paul. Our population is growing fast. We’re nearing an all-time high population and projected to just keep on growing for another generation.

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We have to start building our city now for thousands of more families who will call our city home children in our schools, families on our streets and sidewalks. We have a challenge to really start retooling St. Paul for this future. Affordability is so important because rents are going up; our vacancy rates are very, very low right now, and people are already having challenges finding units. So our goal, working with the City Council, was to invest a major amount of money into affordable housing.

The total investment we’ll make in affordable housing over the next three years will be $71 million. That includes a $10 million one-time push in, and also a creation of $2 million ongoing in our base budget.

Our perspective is to invest that in three areas:

The production of new housing units — we just need more units, really, at every level, but particularly at the lowest income levels.

A preservation of existing units, because we have aging units and aging subsidies that are scheduled to go offline. We want to preserve both the brick-and-mortar structure, but also affordability of those spaces.

Our work with the council on a suite of fair-housing protections, or policies, to help us prevent displacement and housing discrimination in our community.

MP: A large homeless encampment grew in St. Paul’s Cathedral Hill neighborhood this year. What’s your thinking going forward, if or when a similar camp grows in the future?

MC: That’s a great point because even as we make these major investments locally, we’re still scratching the surface. We don’t have the pockets deep enough on a local level. And I think it is important to note that this is a regional challenge. St. Paul and Minneapolis often end up carrying sort of a regional need. Obviously, many of the folks who were in both encampments aren’t from St. Paul. … They’re folks who are coming to St. Paul because we have resources that other communities don’t. So, we’ll be at the Capitol this year, asking our Legislature and our governor-elect to make meaningful investments in housing with the recognition that this really is a regionwide and a statewide issue.

MP: In other cities these big investments in housing take time to develop and show results, and so there’s still a lot of people sleeping outside in the meantime.

MC: We have to look ourselves in the mirror. When we’re a place where people when it’s freezing cold outside want to see sleeping outside in a tent as their best option, that’s something that we need to take really seriously. As we talked to some of the people who were living in our encampment here, some of those folks were explaining to me that they would rather be there than in some of the shelters, or some of the other spaces that we have. So, as we think about how to address potential challenges that could arise in the future, my challenge for our team is: Let’s not think about it in terms of how to get those people into shelter. But let’s think about it in terms of how to make the resources we provide better serve the people who [we want to help].

MP: What are you most proud of this year?

MC: It’s probably that St. Paul residents have just stepped forward. We’ve had a full year between all the things that we took on. And in the meantime, we had a slope failure on Wabasha [Street] and a raccoon climbing a building, and all the other kind of challenges that we’ve faced throughout the course of the year.

We’re going to keep checking back in with St. Paul residents and keep inviting St. Paul residents in to help us build the vision, to help us advocate for the policies. … I have a lot of reasons to be excited for this city.

MP: What’s a typical day like for you?

MC: It depends. I go and do ribbon cuttings at local businesses. I think later today I’m going to go hang out with a group of first-graders who wrote me some letters. Is that today? … I go visit local nonprofits or local businesses. I come in here and try to check in with both our mayor’s office team and our directors. As we move into the [legislative] session, I’m going to end up spending a lot of time at the Capitol. There’s not necessarily a typical day. Some days I stretch from 6 or 7 a.m. to 9 p.m.

My goal is to get to [my kids’] band concerts and volleyball games and gymnastics meets more often than not. That’s been one of my goals … to ensure that this work still enables me to be the dad I want to be, the husband I want to be. We go to marital counseling, and so we like to do that when we stick to our schedule, as far as those things are concerned, and those things help me …

MP: Do you guys cook?

MC: Yes! Yeah, we like to cook with the kids. So, we’ll do a lot of that over the holidays. They’re all learning how to do that.

I get different, like, hobbies. … I’m learning how to code right now.

MP: What surprised you this year?

MC: The biggest surprise is the number of big surprises. It’s the extent to which this is a different world than being on the City Council. I think [that] was more so than I anticipated, as well.

It’s not a surprise, but I mentioned being honored by the way St. Paul residents have stepped forward to help. And there’s not a day that goes by that I’m not amazed by some city employee, some frontline city employee who just does something incredible.

MP: Going into 2019, what are your priorities?

MC: We’re going to continue to focus on those three pillars that we laid out this time one year ago: community safety and security, lifelong learning, economic justice and inclusion. We have a lot of work to do to stand up this budget that we just passed.

The other thing that’s going to be a focus as we move forward is really building out “Serve St. Paul.” I laid out this vision last year for “Serve St. Paul,” which is this effort to institutionalize how we invite people to come build equity in the city through service. So, we’re working now to figure out how to flesh that out. And so our goal is going to be, in the new year, to really be intentional about building the annual calendar and building out the ways of communicating with people [and the ways] they can help build the city.