Melvin Carter is busy — and he isn’t even St. Paul’s mayor yet.
He starts answering e-mails before dawn. He meets with members of St. Paul Mayor Chris Coleman’s outgoing administration. He weighs staffing decisions for the mayor’s office and candidates vying to lead city departments. He attends news conferences and ribbon-cuttings. And with just days left before he takes office, he’s preparing to launch an ambitious policy agenda and make major changes to how the mayor’s office interacts with the people it serves.
It’s a daunting task, but the mayor-elect is more excited than anxious.
“The work ahead of us is huge,” Carter said on a recent Monday morning at City Hall, where his transition team has set up a makeshift office. “The focus for me is saying, ‘I don’t have to do that work by myself.’ ”
Carter will become the city’s first new mayor in 12 years at a swearing-in ceremony Tuesday at Central High School, his alma mater and a site that highlights his community connections. His inauguration comes after almost two years spent making his pitch to voters and a heated campaign that turned contentious in the weeks before the election.
The 38-year-old has already made history. A former council member and executive director of Gov. Mark Dayton’s Children’s Cabinet, Carter’s decisive Election Day win makes him the first black mayor of St. Paul. He put forward an agenda that includes implementing a citywide $15 minimum wage and pledged to involve residents in making decisions — beginning with the hiring process for city department directors that included input from a group of about 100 community members. Carter announced his choices Friday, keeping four directors who served under Coleman and choosing six new department leaders.
But Carter will have to tackle issues beyond his own wish list, from overseeing the development of the 135-acre former Ford site and the Minnesota United soccer stadium to managing the rollout of citywide trash collection and making sure the Police Department is equipped to handle the rising number of 911 calls.
And he’ll have to push, sometimes, to advance plans that differ from the ideas of his predecessor.
“How do you build off the great work that’s been done by Mayor Coleman without just doing more of the same?” said Kathy Lantry, public works director and former City Council president. “You have to make it your own.”
St. Paul is a different city — a bigger, busier and more developed city — than it was when Coleman took office in 2006.
On Coleman’s watch, downtown St. Paul got CHS Field and the Palace Theatre, University Avenue got the Green Line light rail, and a surface parking lot in the Midway neighborhood began its transformation into a soccer stadium. Meanwhile, the city’s population has grown from less than 280,000 people to more than 300,000.
“There’s no question the city’s in a better place than we were 12 years ago when Chris Coleman came into office,” Carter said.
But Carter envisions going further. The campaign platform he will carry into the mayor’s office includes a slew of initiatives from expanding bicycle and pedestrian infrastructure to making it easier for St. Paul residents to open businesses.
Still, not everything Carter wants to do is new. Some of his proposals, including expanding access to prekindergarten programs and reforming the Police Department, are already in the works.
Policing came to the forefront of the mayor’s race in the final weeks of the campaign, after the St. Paul Police Federation sent Carter an open letter asking questions about the theft of two handguns from his home. Days later, a political action committee funded in part by the police union sent out a political mailer tying the theft of the guns to an uptick in shots fired in the city.
After the election, union President Dave Titus congratulated Carter in an e-mailed statement.
“We know this campaign brought out raw emotions, but we all share in the same long-term goal of a safer and brighter future for St. Paul,” he said.
Police Chief Todd Axtell said he has met with Carter and found that the mayor-elect’s ideas for police reform fall in line with the department’s ongoing efforts to reduce gun violence, increase the diversity of the force and boost resident engagement with the department, including regular community meetings across the city.
“I’m encouraged by the conversations,” said Axtell, who worked alongside Carter’s father when the elder Melvin Carter was a St. Paul police officer. “It’s clear to me that we have many of the same goals and priorities for public safety in St. Paul.”
Leaning on the community
When Carter talks about what he wants to accomplish over the next four years, he’s quick to add that he wants to keep residents apprised of what’s happening at City Hall and factor in their ideas as changes are made.
There’s not much of a precedent for that, Carter said.
“Traditionally speaking, a mayor’s office and an administration is set up to amplify the voice of the mayor,” he said. “Setting up an administration to amplify the voice of the city is an entirely different thing.”
Carter’s inauguration will be a weeklong affair, with lots of opportunities for the public to interact with the new mayor. The oath of office ceremony Tuesday will be followed by a few days of community events around the city and capped off with an inaugural ball at Union Depot.
And then he’ll be mayor, and the responsibility for keeping the city going will be his.
Outgoing Deputy Mayor Kristin Beckmann, who worked on Dayton’s gubernatorial transition team in 2010 and co-led Minneapolis Mayor Betsy Hodges’ transition team in 2013, said the switch from campaigning to governing can be a difficult one.
“Those are two very different things — you’re out on the campaign trail and then, boom, you’re mayor,” she said.
But Beckmann and others at City Hall say they’re looking forward to seeing what the new Carter administration does.
Incoming City Council President Amy Brendmoen said council members set their 2018 agenda without knowing who the new mayor would be but aware they would be responsible for providing continuity in city leadership as that person adjusted to a new role.
Many of their priorities — from boosting neighborhood economic development to reducing gun violence — match Carter’s, she said.
“Obviously, there’s been some anxiety because change is change,” Brendmoen said. “I think that in spite of that anxiety and in spite of all the ‘what-ifs’ and all the questions that we’ve been bandying around, that people are really excited and ready to get to work.”