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In first speech as mayor, Melvin Carter celebrates — and challenges — residents of St. Paul

While praising what he termed the “greatest city in the world,” Carter also noted that it is “a place of deep inequity.”

Mayor Melvin Carter speaks to reporters after the swearing-in ceremony on Tuesday.
MinnPost photo by Peter Callaghan

Every mayoral swearing-in ceremony is a cause for celebration, especially for the mayor’s family, friends and supporters — and especially when it’s for a first term.

But what made the swearing in of Melvin Carter as St. Paul’s 46th mayor Tuesday at a packed Central High School gymnasium even more noteworthy — and celebratory — was the fact that Carter is the city’s first African-American mayor.

That fact was in evidence throughout the 90-minute ceremony. One of the two politicians invited to speak was former Minneapolis Mayor Sharon Sayles Belton, who claims the same historic superlative in St. Paul’s twin. Spoken word artist Tou SaiKo Lee said that Carter  “brings out the Rondo in us,” in reference to the historically black neighborhood where Carter grew up and that was mostly razed by the construction of I-94. And in his prayer, Pastor Steve Daniels Jr., one of three religious leaders to give the invocation, also took note of the historic nature of the occasion. “Dear Jesus, we thank you so much and we thank you for giving us the first black mayor of St. Paul — count it with me now — the first black mayor … Melvin Carter the Third,” Daniels said to loud applause.

In his own speech, Carter repeated the themes from his campaign: that he is the great-grandson of people who fled a racist and violent town in Texas; the grandson of a musician who lost property to I-94; and the son of a police officer and teacher who taught him the value of education and public service.

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While praising what he termed the “greatest city in the world,” Carter said, “We’re also a place of deep inequity, and I live that too. I know firsthand how it feels to live on a block devastated by foreclosures; to long for a teacher who looks like my child; and to be stopped by police, over and over again. “We have work to do to fulfill St. Paul’s promise for every person in every part of our city,” Carter said. “That work will center around three pillars: public safety, education, and economic justice.”

The speech both celebrated and challenged the city, praising its residents and acknowledging its flaws. “I’m honored to have St. Paul’s own Grammy-nominated Stokely Williams join us today to sing the national anthem,” Carter said. “But we cannot ignore the painful reminder, written into our anthem’s third verse, of just how deeply injustice is rooted in the American tradition:

No refuge could save the hireling and slave
From the terror of flight, or the gloom of the grave:

And the star-spangled banner in triumph doth wave
O’er the land of the free and the home of the brave!

“Our national freedom song is an ode to slavery. This is the American paradox, passed from generation to generation, dating back to the noble group of rich, white, straight male landowners who embedded into our founding principles a yearning for a set of God-given rights they sought to secure for only themselves.”

Carter praised city workers, describing how he learned what they did when serving his first term on the City Council.

“I never thought I’d be a mayor or even work in local politics at all – issues like garbage collection felt too small,” he said. “But then I learned what cities do. See, at City Hall, we don’t have time for prolonged debate or partisan gridlock, because the moment always demands action: When our families are snowed in, city workers plow us out. When our children get out of school, city workers help them with their homework. And in our most horrific moments, when everyone else runs away, city workers race to help.”

Carter then outlined a handful of policy priorities: support for a $15 minimum wage; a campaign to raise private funds to give every child born in the city a $50 start in a college savings account; and a review of the city’s use-of-force policy for police officers.

In addition to making history as the first African-American mayor, Carter, 38, is a generation younger than three-term mayor Chris Coleman, and he waded into some of the neighborhood disputes over development and equity that are sometimes viewed as generational.

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“In neighborhood after neighborhood, I hear that as excited as we are about our future we’re also afraid of what it might bring,” he said. “We’re afraid equity means turning our back on those who are doing well; that bikes, density and transit will change our neighborhoods; that supporting workers will hurt business, and supporting teachers will hurt students.”

“We’re afraid of having to choose – between preserving the traditions our parents loved and building the city our children deserve,” Carter said. “I understand those fears. That freeway cost my family everything, so I’ll be first to admit change can be scary. But we all exist in a long line of immigrants and refugees who’ve conquered incredible odds to find hope in St. Paul. This beautiful, diverse city they built for us is our ticket to the future.”

Finally, he challenged residents to take part in government and help make the city more inclusive and equitable.

“A mayor can draft a budget and sign policy into law, but the power to transform our city still belongs to all of us,” Carter said. “In a city where a child’s life outcomes can still be better predicted by her race than by her work ethic, we need a new approach to city-building.

“We must examine every law, every system, every policy and process to eliminate structural inequity and give every child born in St. Paul the opportunity to achieve her full potential. Building a city that works for everyone can only happen if everyone gets to build.”