Mayor Melvin Carter is happy to help at a Habitat for Humanity build in St. Paul
photos by nate ryan
St. Paul mayor Melvin Carter is dressed in a navy-blue suit when he arrives for an interview at his City Hall office. Earlier that day, he was in work gear building a new playground in Boyd Park. The morning’s task, by chance, tapped into his current hobby: carpentry. When Carter’s wife, Sakeena Futrell-Carter, owner of a women’s health practice in St. Louis Park, requested a bench for their back porch, he built one himself.
Now, building things is one more hands-on skill the father of five claims: He also played football, basketball, and hockey growing up, became a star runner, and plays piano in his spare time—not that he has much. Since his election last November, the native of St. Paul’s Rondo neighborhood has worked to rewrite the police department’s use-of-force policies, triple the free programming in recreation centers, invest in affordable housing, double the budget for dilapidated roads, and establish the city’s first-ever dedicated bike lane fund. Other decisions and proposals included upping police officers’ pay instead of increasing their ranks, waiving library late fines, raising the city’s minimum wage to $15 an hour, and scrapping Independence Day fireworks to focus funds elsewhere.
Minnesota Monthly sat down with the Renaissance mayor to take stock of his first full year on the job, and to learn how he balances the personal with the professional.
What are you most proud of from your first year in office?
Maybe the thing I’m most proud of is that our goal has been to rewrite the compact between our residents and our city government. We have set out to open the doors of City Hall and invite people into the policymaking, invite people into the budget setting.
You actually had residents try setting the budget in a summer event series. What surprised you about the results?
The biggest surprise for me was that 60 people would come to a brewery on a 94-degree Sunday afternoon to talk about the budget—and then thank me for it. The other pleasant surprise was the way people really jumped in and took their jobs seriously. I think their number-one answer was: This is hard. Number two: There are no easy options.
As mayor, what has been your biggest challenge?
When I’m standing at the bottom of 300,000 pounds of rock that have landed on one of our busy streets, I go, “I didn’t major in that.” We have to rely on people, on our Public Works Department and state geologists [in that case]. But the biggest surprise for me, and in many ways the biggest challenge, is how hungry people are to help. My wife and I walk through Target, and people ask what they can do, where to sign up. One of our challenges, which is a good problem to have, is figuring out how to harness all of the energies that exist in this city right now.
Your father was a St. Paul police officer. What did you learn about that job from him?
My father worked as a police officer in a neighborhood where he grew up, went to high school, and, at the same time, raised his children. What I saw in him was the importance for our officers to be a part of the community. My dad always says, “Community policing is a redundant and repetitive phrase.” Because if it’s not community, it’s not policing. He encountered people on the job he knew from his personal life, and people in his personal life he knew on the job. I learned that decisions matter, how you treat people matters, that the relationships you build with people really matter over time. I learned from him that knowing what’s right about a community is the best way to be able to help fix what’s wrong in a community.
Since getting older—and, you’ve mentioned, getting pulled over multiple times by police—has your view of that job changed?
I’ve always viewed that job through the lens of my father, because I saw him work the job for all of my childhood and into my adult life. I went on a ride-along earlier this week and just saw officers helping people, officers engaging people well, and connecting with people. One thing we know about trust—whether it’s the trust between police and neighbors, the trust in a relationship, the trust in a family, or between friends—is that it takes 100 years to build and can be utterly destroyed in a moment. I believe we owe it to ourselves, our neighborhood, and our police officers to do everything we can to hold that trust sacred.
How did your upbringing impact your public safety plan, which prioritizes kids’ access to positive activities?
Growing up in the Carter household was like a full-time job. I remember joking with friends who wanted to get into trouble, “You have no idea what I have to do tomorrow—I don’t have time to do this.” Our parents had us in recreation centers, in libraries, with teachers, and on sports teams. Any parent can tell you the best way to stop a child from doing something you don’t want them to do is to give them something you do want them to do.
So, our public safety strategy says that we have bought into a false narrative and a false promise that the more police officers we hire and the more people we put in jail—the tougher prosecutors and the bigger jails we can build—that our neighborhoods will be safer. That logic has failed us over and over and over and over again, but for lack of a better theory, we just keep doubling down on that logic.
Our community-first public safety strategy centers on three things: It’s people, connecting children and families to opportunities, ensuring that people who are experiencing mental illness or crisis can connect to resources and help, and ensuring that our community is a safe and promising place for people returning from incarceration.
Then, it’s places: There’s a concept called CPTED (crime prevention through environmental design) that says some of our biggest public safety challenges are a function of environmental and aesthetic cues. Are there enough lights? Are the trees overgrown and blocking the lighting from the street? How far back are the buildings from the street? I’d like to see us do an environmental analysis of some of the places where we feel like we have the most pronounced public safety challenges.
Mayor Melvin Carter lent his hands at the Habitat for Humanity CEO Build in St. Paul this past October
What were some activities your parents had planned for you?
Name the season! [My siblings and I] were on the baseball team, in fall we were on the soccer team at Highland Grove Recreation Association, and in winter I was on two hockey teams and a speed-skating team. In the spring and summer we’d take tennis lessons, we’d go up to the Martin Luther King Recreation Center in my neighborhood for their after-school program, I played football for Jimmy Lee Recreation Center, and I ended up just falling in love with track and field. By the time I graduated high school, I was running about 10 months out of the year, having started out running laps around the Martin Luther King Center, and it ended up paying for college for me to Division I.
What’s an activity you’ve done for yourself recently?
Yesterday, I crammed my afternoon schedule into the morning and went home and played piano for a couple hours. It helps me center my brain. I play jazz standards. My grandfather was a pretty prolific jazz musician, and he taught me some songs. We lost him last summer. And [laughs] yesterday I was working on songs that I always used to mess up and would irritate him. So, it’s like I’m making amends with Grandpa by getting them right.
I suppose it’s presumptuous to assume you have free time.
You can’t wait to have free time to spend with your children and your family. You’ve got to put it on the calendar first, and you’ve got to defend it. The way I approach it is, every resident in the city, every business in the city, every employee in the city deserves for me to come to work with my full self completely focused. If I don’t exercise and spend time with my children, if I don’t get out of this building every now and then, if I don’t live a full life, then I won’t be able to sustain my full self in this space.
I have to bring up Fourth of July fireworks. Any plans for next year?
We’ve worked hard to raise the minimum wage to $15 an hour so nobody working full time is living in poverty. We have a college savings accounts proposal, which will put $50 in the bank to start every child born in our city on the pathway to college. We’ve got an affordable housing proposal, and a budget to pass, and all those things are what we’re focused on. I’m hopeful that some of the folks who have said they’d be willing to partner with us on fireworks—maybe we can put something together next year. We just don’t have anything specific to share yet.
You waived public library fines, so what’s a book you recommend?
The autobiography of Nelson Mandela, Long Walk to Freedom. I read that in grad school, and it was probably as critical as any. There’s a part where he is in prison, and the government wanted to negotiate with him. He talks about how non-negotiation was the African National Congress’s policy, and that he knew if any of the prisoners who were there with him knew that he was negotiating with the government, he would likely be shunned. But the government wanted to negotiate with him, and he saw an opportunity to potentially end apartheid and set his country free. He reflects on the difference between values and tactics and determines that non-negotiation was a tactic and not a value. Values are the things that are core in my heart, what I hold dear to and will almost never change, right? And tactics are the vehicles through which I advance those values in the world, which should almost be constantly changing, because the world is constantly changing. He determined that non-negotiation was a tactic, and he could feel OK about changing his tactics to advance his values. That, to me, continues to be a profound notion.