Melvin Carter became St. Paul’s 46th mayor Tuesday in a swearing-in ceremony at Central High School that celebrated his family’s Rondo neighborhood roots and the opportunities and challenges he faces as the first black mayor of Minnesota’s capital city.
In a passionate inaugural address that brought the crowd of several hundred to its feet, Carter laid out an ambitious plan to dismantle racial and socioeconomic inequities in the city — something that will only be possible, he said, with the help of the community.
“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,” Carter said. “Building a city that works for everyone can only happen if everyone builds.”
The sense of a new beginning was also present at Minneapolis City Hall, albeit in a quieter setting, as Mayor Jacob Frey and the 13 members of the City Council were sworn in before family members and staff. The council, which includes its first two transgender city elected officials and a total of five people of color, is the most diverse in Minneapolis history. A public swearing-in ceremony will be held Monday in the City Hall rotunda.
Frey and Carter, both former council members who are under 40, have promised to tackle their cities’ most pressing challenges, from housing affordability to police-community relations.
On Tuesday, Carter pledged to get to work immediately on his agenda, including the implementation of a citywide $15 minimum wage “as soon as possible,” working with St. Paul Police Chief Todd Axtell to reform the St. Paul Police Department and making City Hall more accessible to residents.
Amid the optimism and celebration, there was also a sense of gravity.
As St. Paul’s first new mayor in 12 years — succeeding Chris Coleman, who is running for governor — Carter will lead a diverse and fast-growing city. And unlike his predecessors, he’ll carry the weight that comes with being the first St. Paul mayor who is not a white man.
Former Minneapolis Mayor Sharon Sayles Belton, the first woman and only person of color to serve in that role, said the expectations Carter faces as the city’s first black mayor will be “absolutely great” and he will need strong community support.
“Trust me, I’ve been there,” she said. “No one gives you a magic wand. You don’t get any super powers. You can’t change anything overnight.”
The event attracted a who’s who of elected officials including Gov. Mark Dayton, U.S. Sen. Amy Klobuchar, U.S. Reps. Betty McCollum and Tim Walz and several state legislators. They were surrounded by a diverse crowd of all ages, many of whom greeted each other with hugs and wishes for a happy new year.
In his speech, Carter acknowledged the challenges that await him, and nodded to those he has already overcome. He talked about his family’s history in St. Paul’s Rondo neighborhood, which was torn apart by the construction of Interstate 94. He mentioned the nation’s legacy of slavery and racial segregation and the aftershocks that reverberate today. His voice rose and fell, and the crowd responded with murmurs of “yes,” as if he were a preacher.
“I am humbled by the work ahead and ready to stand shoulder to shoulder with you to guide this city forward,” Carter said. “We the people will build a city that works for all of us. We the people are the ones we’ve been waiting for. And we the people ain’t gonna let nobody turn us around.”
And then the crowd jumped to its feet, filling the gym with cheers.
New faces in Minneapolis
Moments after he was sworn into office Tuesday, Frey said he has “hit the ground running very hard” working on unity at City Hall, affordable housing, public safety and police accountability and “economic inclusion.”
One of his first moves was to give all City Council members key card access to the mayor’s suite of offices, a departure from recent administrations.
“If the mayor’s office has access to council chambers, council members should have access to the mayor’s office,” Frey said. “Now they do.”
Frey succeeds Mayor Betsy Hodges, who came in third in a pool of 16 mayoral candidates in the November election. Both Minneapolis and St. Paul use ranked-choice voting.
Frey and 13 City Council members were sworn in at City Hall Tuesday morning. After the public ceremony Monday, one of the City Council’s first tasks will be electing a council president.
The Minneapolis council has five new members, including transgender newcomers Phillipe Cunningham in the Fourth Ward and Andrea Jenkins in the Eighth Ward. Other new council members are Steve Fletcher in the Third Ward, Jeremiah Ellison in the Fifth Ward, and Jeremy Schroeder in the 11th Ward. Council Members Kevin Reich, Cam Gordon, Abdi Warsame, Lisa Goodman, Alondra Cano, Lisa Bender, Andrew Johnson and Linea Palmisano are returning after winning re-election.
Spouses, partners and children made a rare appearance in City Council chambers. U.S. Rep. Keith Ellison, D-Minn., stood with his son Jeremiah Ellison while he was sworn in to represent the North Side ward.
After the ceremony, Frey attended Carter’s midday inauguration and rode a garbage truck around in the afternoon. He also held a news conference at City Hall. On a busy day already full of the tough issues he’ll face for the next four years, Frey said he was “filled with a whole lot of hope.”
“We’ve got an extraordinary city with people that are capable of enacting the change that they envision, and as mayor I want to be a big part of that. Visible, present, facing the world hand in hand with the community to get things done that quite simply help people.”
‘I can be that guy’
Carter’s inauguration was a triumphant return to his alma mater, where 20 years ago his classmates voted him “Most Likely to Succeed.”
Central High Principal Mary Mackbee spent more than an hour outside the gym before the event, greeting members of the crowd as they trickled in. Her start as Central’s principal coincided with Carter’s four years at Minnesota’s oldest high school.
“He was a young man who made his presence known — both intellectually and athletically,” she said of the 1997 graduate who won state track championships and academic honors. “Arrogant? No. Confident? Yes.”
Joe Alton, one of many Central graduates who attended the inauguration, said he supported Carter because of their shared experiences embracing diversity — something they learned in their high school hallways. Carter’s celebration of the city’s racial and economic diversity “will be good for everybody,” Alton said.
As mayor, Alton said, Carter will also inspire generations of students to come — students who may have never before envisioned achieving that level of accomplishment.
“Hey, that guy looks like me,” Alton said black students now can say. “I can be that guy.”
Staff writer James Walsh contributed to this report.