Melvin Carter III feels like a steward of his name, worn first by a jazz musician, then a police sergeant.
The elder Melvin Carters were amused and shocked that their name could next end up on the St. Paul mayor’s office door. Carter’s grandfather, a recently deceased trumpeter, lost half a dozen properties when the creation of Interstate 94 tore apart St. Paul’s historic black Rondo neighborhood. His father was among the city’s first black police officers.
“In a lot of ways, having a mayor who is a product of Rondo, I think there are people who see that as kind of an opportunity for redemption for our city,” candidate Carter said.
He said his goal is to address not just past pain, but a lingering injustice: that two children in St. Paul can lead drastically different lives depending on their ZIP code, color of their skin or parents’ education.
But first he would have to get the job.
Carter, 38, a former City Council member who spent the past four years working on state early childhood programs, is one of 10 candidates running for the city’s top job. Chris Coleman, who has been mayor for nearly 12 years, is stepping down to run for governor. Carter is a dynamic speaker with strong name recognition, and he earned the most support at the city’s DFL Convention.
He faced strong competition from Dai Thao and Pat Harris, however, and could not secure the party’s endorsement. He started fundraising and spending early and has received a lot of support from educators and fellow state employees. But he has less cash on hand than the other two for the final push before the Nov. 7 election.
Banker, Olympics or politics?
A decade ago, Floyd G. Smaller Jr. took a gamble on Carter. The Central High School track and field coach stuck his star athlete in four events at the state tournament.
“That was his stamina, that was his strength, that was his ability to stand up when the chips were down and the pressure was on,” Smaller said.
When Carter headed to college in Florida on a track scholarship, Smaller thought the self-motivated kid was bound for some kind of community or collaborative work. Toni Carter thought her son would be a banker or corporate executive. Melvin Carter wanted to be an Olympian.
His interest in politics was born out of the 2000 election, Carter said, when he watched Florida poll workers turn away his brother-in-law who should have been eligible to vote. The next year he gave the endorsement speech for his mother’s school board campaign. After that, Toni Carter said, people asked if he was going to run for office, and “that might have seeded the thought.”
But first he worked in finance, as a community organizer and as a policy aide for Coleman in the mayor’s office.
Coleman has not endorsed anyone in the mayoral race. He also has ties to Harris, who served on the City Council with Coleman.
The Green Line was a top priority when Carter first ran for City Council in 2007, advocating for more light rail stops in his community. He beat the incumbent and spent six years representing the First Ward, where he grew up. He decided to run for City Council and mayor for similar reasons, he said.
“I’m not who I am without the city of St. Paul and the way it invested in me personally, through our rec centers and through our libraries,” Carter said. “Just the opportunity to pay that forward excites me.”
Much of his policy work at the council focused on children. He helped ban candy cigarettes and required restaurants to display information about food allergens, an effort prompted by his daughter’s peanut allergy. He is particularly proud of the St. Paul Promise Neighborhood, which pools resources to address families’ needs and fight poverty in the Summit-University and Frogtown neighborhoods.
His work propelled him into his post leading Gov. Mark Dayton’s Children’s Cabinet, advising the administration on early childhood initiatives and helping families get state resources. Carter left the city partway through his second council term to take the state job. He was recently divorced with shared custody of his two young daughters and said he needed a “reset.”
A city ‘ready for change’
He took a leave of absence from the state this summer to focus on the campaign. If elected mayor, Carter plans to continue that early childhood focus at City Hall by expanding pre-K opportunities and support services for families with young children. He also supports establishing a citywide $15 minimum wage.
Carter’s critics have said they are not confident he could make a big difference in office.
Both Thao and Carter have long histories with the progressive advocacy group TakeAction Minnesota, Executive Director Dan McGrath said. But the organization endorsed Thao because of his courage on controversial City Council issues like police accountability and paid sick leave, he said.
“They have very different styles of governing,” McGrath said. “Dai has remained very engaged with people at the grass roots. … That was not always the case with Melvin.”
Traces of a high school athlete are still evident on the campaign trail. Carter takes parades at more of a jog than a march, his smile big and his speech fast. And he was first off the blocks.
He started campaigning for mayor in December 2015, about a year before other candidates. He created a detailed spreadsheet of people to meet with, issues to discuss and neighborhoods to visit that year.
“St. Paul is ready for change,” Carter said. “People all over the city, in every neighborhood of our city, know the status quo won’t get us ready for the next 50 years.”
The city needs more housing, jobs and transportation options to prepare for the future, he said. He firmly backed the city’s Ford site redevelopment plans and said they would help achieve those goals.
City Council President Russ Stark has worked with the three current and former council members running for office: Carter, Harris and Thao. Stark said he backs Carter because he would not just manage the city but push it forward on issues like pre-K education, climate change and police-community relations.
Carter said he is uniquely positioned to deal with the last issue. He grew up with his father on the police force but said he also knows what it’s like to “drive while black.”
If elected, he would be the first St. Paul mayor with that experience. The city’s past mayors all have been white men.