Melvin Carter was barely 27 years old when he started working for newly elected St. Paul Mayor Chris Coleman, joining an ambitious staff new to the work of running a city.
Twelve years later, Carter is surrounded by a similar group with dreams of transforming St. Paul. This time, he's the one whose vision they're charged with carrying out.
Three months into his mayoral term, Carter has hired a diverse staff, including a trio of "chief officers" focused on his banner issues of equity, innovation and resilience. They'll be responsible for turning his campaign promises into reality, including his pledge to make sure every voice in St. Paul is heard.
"We needed people who shared that goal, who kind of understood that core philosophy, people who are connected to both demographic and issue communities across our city and people who lead with both a passion and a capability that will allow us to really drive this work forward," Carter said.
Of Carter's 16 staff members, 10 are women and 11 are people of color. Their résumés list work experiences ranging from musician to adjunct professor to governor's office intern. Some came from other jobs at the city, including in Coleman's office, while others have little or no government experience.
His communications director previously ran Walker West Music Academy. His policy director worked for the city's human rights department before going on to St. Paul Public Schools, nonprofits and a consulting firm. One of his policy aides and his constituent outreach coordinator are recent college graduates.
The most recent hire, Jason Sole, was Minneapolis NAACP president and will serve as director of Community-First Public Safety Initiatives.
Carter said the range in experience is intentional. He wanted to hire people who understand exactly how city government works, he said, as well as people "who have no allegiance to the way things have always happened in the city."
"I've been in City Hall and around City Hall for so long that I need people in this space who haven't to come and ask critical questions and help us push our thinking about the way that we approach the work," he said.
It's typical for mayors to hire fresh faces, said Ann Mulholland, who led Coleman's transition team and worked as deputy mayor. For one thing, she said, government pay is lower than in the private sector, and so more experienced candidates may not apply. For another, new mayors want staffers who are passionate and motivated to advance their agenda.
"There's always an interest group and therefore a logical candidate for these positions," Mulholland said. "If you really want to shake things up and get a new point of view, bringing in new voices and new faces that have talent is a really good thing."
Carter has diverged from his predecessors by not hiring a chief of staff, and by adding the chief officer positions.
All three chief officers have worked at City Hall before. Chief Equity Officer Toni Newborn worked in human resources. Chief Innovation Officer Tarek Tomes was the city's chief information officer. Chief Resilience Officer Russ Stark was City Council president.
Together, their salaries total more than $385,000, according to salary data provided by the mayor's office. Tomes is the highest-paid staffer, with an annual salary of $156,270 — about $30,000 more than Carter.
In these early days, the chief officers are picking up work that's already in progress — from finishing the city's Climate Action Plan to creating a stand-alone sexual harassment policy — while also figuring out exactly what their roles are, how to work together and how to make their mark on the city. They spend plenty of time in each other's offices.
"I'm really approaching all of my work with — it's sort of a cheesy way to say it, but with Toni sitting on one shoulder and Tarek on the other, in my ear," Stark said.
When Coleman took office in 2006, he created an environmental policy adviser role and hired longtime environmental activist Anne Hunt to fill it. Hunt said she met with at least 75 people to get a sense of what she should focus on, and went on to work on projects including reducing energy use in municipal buildings and creating a citywide inventory of greenhouse gas emissions.
"In a strong mayor system like we have in St. Paul, if a mayor puts a focus on a particular issue, you can really make some impact on it," she said.
Carter has made his general goals clear. He wants departments to work together. He wants residents to have a say in how the city operates. He wants to incorporate equity, innovation and climate resilience into everything the city does — even into filling potholes.
He's also charged his staff with more specific tasks, including passing a citywide $15 minimum wage and creating a college savings account for every St. Paul child.
Now, he's stepping back and letting them get to work.
"If we're in a meeting, even if I'm in that space, that doesn't necessarily mean that I'm the one talking," Carter said. "I expect everybody to be able to really bring their voice to the table."