Melvin Carter III roiled the St. Paul political waters last month when he announced he would step down from his Ward 1 City Council seat July 5 to take a post in the state Education Department.
That set off a dizzying round of insider activity. Potential candidates hurried to apply for the temporary council spot, and speculation increased about which candidates would file to run in November to fill out the term.
Carter, 34, is nearly halfway through a second four-year term and has faced crucial issues in his ward, including the lengthy construction of the light-rail line along University Avenue, which kept customers away from many businesses.
He’s become known for his early education efforts, which caught the eye of state Education Commissioner Brenda Cassellius.
So starting next month, the former high-school and college track star will be director of Minnesota’s Office of Early Learning.
MinnPost talked with Carter last week about his new position and the council seat he’s leaving behind. Here’s an edited transcript of the conversation:
MinnPost: What attracted you to the new job?
Melvin Carter III: It was quite a surprise call that I received from Commissioner Cassellius. I’ve turned down a few jobs over the past few years because I’ve felt my job at City Hall wasn’t done. The paradox she presented was: Much of the work I have left in the St. Paul Promise Neighborhoods program is centered around early learning, as I’ve come to the conclusion that early learning is a good starting point to address all the disparities and gaps that we experience in Minnesota.
So I saw the new job as an opportunity to prioritize and invest from a place where I’d actually have some authority.
MP: How long did it take to decide?
MC: A couple weeks. It was really a tough decision because we’ve got so much going on in City Hall.
MP: Did you confer with people, advisers, family?
MC: I spent a lot of time talking to my mother [Ramsey County Commissioner Toni Carter] as well as the folks it impacts the most, my staff at City Hall, to make sure they didn’t feel I was pulling the rug out from under them. My colleagues on the council and the mayor himself all provided some helpful thoughts.
MP: Did anyone say, “Don’t do it”?
MC: Inside and outside City Hall, the unanimous voice I heard was: We hate to see you go, but how cool.
MP: Did it matter that you were leaving midterm?
MC: Had it not required leaving my office midterm, it would have been a really easy decision. I’m getting a chance to work in an area I’m really passionate about, with a Legislature and governor who are investing more in early learning that ever, and with an education commissioner who is second to none.
I asked my 7-year-old, Maylena, for permission, and her advice was: Next time you run, if you lose, you can do it then. She and Naomi, who’s 5, aren’t big fans of me leaving. They like coming into the office [at City Hall] and going downstairs to see their grandma.
MP: You have a cute story about a meeting with Cassellius, after she’d been named education commissioner in 2011.
MC: We were at a breakfast together, looking at each other, like, I know you, but from where? Finally she asked me: “Did you go to Benjamin Mays?”
I said: “No, Capitol Hill,” but they were in the same building.
She said: “I was your teacher.”
I said:”’No, I never had a Dr. Cassellius.”
She said: “I was Brenda Austin then.”
“Wait, you’re Miss Austin?”
My memory of her in junior high was this cool, African-American teacher, a single mom who on occasion would bring her son to school. She was the one who’d help calm the young girls who’d stomp into her room after they’d gotten into it with another student or mad at a teacher.
MP: What will you do in the new job?
MC: The Office of Early Learning works collaboratively with Department of Health and Department of Human Services to wrap around young people in a good way. Students who are struggling often come from families who are challenged, who come from neighborhoods that are economically challenged, too. If we try to address those separately, we’ll always be behind.
This office coordinates ways to give kids an early jump-start on life … One of the things I’m really excited about is early-childhood scholarships in poor neighborhoods around the state.
It’s really amazing. Just by attending preschool, a child is more likely to graduate, more likely to go to college, less likely to have kids early, less likely to go to jail — more likely to experience the good things in life and less likely to experience the bad things.
MP: How can you make that happen?
MC: There’s been lot of understanding in education that we can’t just address our students [at school]. We have to address the child [at home and in the neighborhood, too].
After college, I coached track at Central [High School] for a couple years, and I had a kid who was homeless. We found out he rode the city bus for a few hours each night because it was the only warm, lit, safe place he had to do his homework. So, maybe we could give him some chemistry tutoring, or maybe the best way to improve his grades is to actually find a roof for him.
There’s a realization that we have to address whole children, and their parents and their siblings and their neighborhoods. This partnership between the departments of education and health and human services is important.
It’s a new frontier in a way. Nobody’s yet figured out how to make sure that every child has access to a high-quality education — the opportunity to have resources and a team. I’m really excited. It’s a little scary, like a big, new roller-coaster. It looks fun, I told the commissioner, like I’m standing in front of a typhoon with my surfboard. Gonna be a heck of a ride if I can figure out how to stay on my feet.
MP: When you first ran for the City Council, what issues did you want to work on, to resolve?
MC: When I asked for the DFL endorsement, I noted that in Minnesota we’re really proud of lot of things: We’re an education state, a healthy state, with high employment and high home ownership. And I reflected that a lot of those things we plant Minnesota’s flag on, don’t always make it into areas like Ward 1. So that’s where my passion for eliminating disparity came from.
Specifically, I was really focusing on light rail transit and the Central Corridor; there were a lot of us just infuriated that the plan was to hop-scotch our community and we had quite a fight to get the three extra stations for the neighborhood. We got that done, and it’s exciting to see light rail move from a bunch of pieces of paper to actually seeing it now.
And my first year in office I was really concerned about the disparity study and audit that showed we weren’t doing a good job making sure we did business with women-owned and minority-owned firms.
MP: Have you made progress on light rail and disparity?
MC: Absolutely. Luckily, I haven’t had to do any of it myself.
MP: Have new issues arisen in the past six years?
MC: No surprising new issues. The recession has hit Ward 1 pretty hard — people struggling to stay in their homes and keep jobs and find jobs. What’s arisen are new opportunities. We see folks interested in investing in University Avenue in a way they haven’t before. But it’s something we have to guide, to be sure it’s the avenue we want to give our children and grandchildren. There’s a lot more interest in Selby Avenue now, too, and whoever takes over the Ward 1 office, I hope they’ll continue to invest in Selby.
And the Legislature just gave us the LGA [Local Govrnment Aid] back. Why am I leaving now?
MP: What needs to be done when someone else takes over?
MC: The biggest iron in the fire now is the Frogtown Farm, [an inner-city park and farm on 13 acres in the Frogtown neighborhood on the Wilder Foundation’s former headquarters property] which is so important, and it’s so not done.
We’ve gained a lot of momentum over the past two years, but there’s a lot of work left and money needed. So it needs a sponsor in Ward 1. Also we need to keep a close eye on University Avenue, so as we build there, we preserve and maintain space for people who’ve planted their lives and their fortunes. Make sure there are opportunities for local business people and opportunities for high-quality affordable housing. Gentrification is always a concern, but we want to welcome everybody who wants to move into this community — but not at the expense of those who want to stay, businesses and residents.
MP: How hard has it been for businesses during light-rail construction? Did the city do enough to help them?
MC: It was really hard. Some did just fine, some did better, but a lot of them had a tough road during construction. They took one for the team. We did everything we could think of to do, and we found some significant resources. I’m sure if you walk up the street, you’ll get different opinions of whether it was enough or not. We need to continue to support them.
Now that we’re through construction and close to getting the line operating, hopefully a much brighter day is on the horizon.
MP: So, on a list of successes, you’d have Promise Neighborhoods [a collaboration to build stronger neighborhoods] high up there, and what else?
MC: This is where it starts to feel like a eulogy. Recently I was introduced at an event and they said they were sorry to see me go, but that I was going to a better place. I said: ‘Whoa, they tell me it’s not fatal. I feel fine. I’m 34 years old and I played tennis yesterday.’
But successes: Promise Neighborhood, working on light rail, getting those three stations back, building the Department of Human Rights and Equal Economic Opportunity and helping Frogtown Farm as far as it is.
MP: Are there things that didn’t work out the way you planned? I hate to use the word failures …
MC: Oh, we can probably say failures, but I haven’t spent as much time reflecting on the failures. I’ve certainly learned a lot, especially that “well done” is better than “well said.” The things that I’ll do if I want a great headline and folks shouting for me are rarely the same things I’ll do if I want to move change in a practical way.
MP: If you had a second chance, is there something that you’d do differently?
MC: I had a food allergy ordinance a few years ago. We had some process hiccups there. It turned out to be less far-reaching than I’d hoped, but far more impactful than I’d thought. [One of his daughters has a severe food allergy; the original plan was to require restaurants in the city to have a handbook listing recipes and ingredients, but after much blowback from the industry, the final result was to require allergy-awareness posters that alert servers to potential problems.]
MP: Have you thought of running for higher office?
MC: Sure. But not for the next several years.
MP: Are you planning to endorse someone in the race for your council seat?
MC: I’m going to wait and see how things play out.