The Building a Better St. Paul political action committee — which had raised nearly $150,000 in support of mayoral candidate Pat Harris — unraveled Friday after the group sent a mailer to voters the day before attempting to connect gun violence in St. Paul with the burglary of opponent Melvin Carter’s home.
Criticism of the PAC’s actions mounted until the group announced it was ceasing all activity and donating its remaining funds to a nonprofit.
Building a Better St. Paul expressed regret about the mailer, calling it “misguided.” The postcard highlighted the increase in gun violence in St. Paul and noted that two guns were stolen from Carter’s home. It included the line, “Over 100 shots have been fired since August 15 when Melvin Carter’s guns went missing.”
“We believe public safety is [a] critical challenge for the city, but our effort to make sure this was part of the election conversation clearly failed,” the political group said.
Within 24 hours of the mailer’s appearance, both the Carter and Harris campaigns and many of the political group’s donors denounced it. Mayor Chris Coleman and Harris also called for the board of the St. Paul Police Federation, one of the principal donors to Building a Better St. Paul, to resign. On Friday, Police Chief Todd Axtell issued a statement trying to distance the department from the actions of the federation.
“We have a great police department made up of exceptional women and men who care deeply about the people they serve. I know the public recognizes this fact, and I am disappointed that a small group of people put our community trust in jeopardy,” Axtell said.
Carter said the federation is doing a disservice to the community and other officers. He said it’s incumbent on police officers and other influencers to push for change in the union’s leadership.
“What happened this week was disappointing and alarming. It wasn’t shocking,” Carter said.
Postcard called ‘racist attack’
The Ramsey County attorney’s office charged Larobin Scott last week with one count of first-degree burglary for allegedly breaking into Carter’s home in August and stealing items, including two handguns, a video game system and a duffel bag with ammunition.
Police Federation President Dave Titus was quoted in the mailer, and the union also sent Carter a letter this week questioning him about the burglary. Campaign staff for Carter, who is black, said the letter was a “racist attack,” and many joined him in condemning the union’s tactics.
Coleman and police-endorsed candidate Harris, who is white, on Thursday called for the police union’s entire board to step down.
Titus said in a statement Friday that the union’s executive board had “little to no involvement in the political activities of the past week.
“I take full responsibility. I regret the distraction this has caused during such an important mayoral race and period of violent crime in our city,” Titus said, and added the federation would cease “all political activities” for the rest of the election season.
Building a Better St. Paul Chairman Brian Bergson said he accepts full responsibility for the organization’s actions and the direct-mail postcard.
Harris said Friday he is appalled by the mailing.
“I don’t know who specifically crafted it, but it was clear leadership of the federation was part of it,” he said.
Harris said he would not reject the union’s endorsement, which the Carter campaign called for.
“This particular incident is serious and it is abhorrent and I think the leadership should be held accountable for it,” Harris said. “But let’s be sure to respect the people that are out there every day in the St. Paul Police Department on behalf of our community. Let’s be sure we’re not dragging them into what was an irresponsible decision in leadership.”
Dianne Binns, president of the St. Paul NAACP, said she doesn’t blame the candidates for the controversy because the candidates didn’t create the mailer.
“I think it’s a sad state of affairs that we have to resort to these kinds of things,” said Binns, who said she is not picking sides in the mayor’s race. “They shouldn’t be doing that. In the long run it’s definitely hurting Pat Harris more than it’s helping him.”
Elizabeth Dickinson, another one of the 10 candidates vying to be St. Paul mayor, said she had recently commented on the race’s relatively positive tone so far.
“Sure enough, somebody lost it two weeks before the end — and it wasn’t a candidate. It was the police federation,” she said. “It just makes me sad because it throws up a lot of dust when there’s a lot more substantive, beneficial things we can be talking about in terms of making the police more responsive to the community.”
Donor groups join critics
The St. Paul Police Federation, St. Paul Area Chamber of Commerce PAC and Teamsters Local 120 were among many groups that donated to Building a Better St. Paul.
The Teamsters were the first donor to publicly repudiate the postcard Friday morning. The organization said it did not have advance knowledge of the content of the mailer and was withdrawing from the political committee. They asked that Building a Better St. Paul donate the money it received from the Teamsters to a charity.
Chamber of Commerce President B. Kyle issued a statement Friday in which she apologized to Carter, Harris and the business community for not having greater oversight over the political committee’s efforts.
“Negative campaigning is in violation of the specific direction this group received from chamber leadership regarding use of these funds,” she said. “… The PAC will cease further contributions to Building a Better St. Paul and chamber leadership will be reviewing our strategic approach to this process moving forward.”
The chamber was the second-largest donor to Building a Better St. Paul after the police union. As of this month, people had contributed $147,900 to the political committee.
Many smaller donors also expressed outrage over the use of their money.
Mark Lakosky, president of the Firefighters Local 82 in Minneapolis, which gave $6,600 to Building a Better St. Paul, called the flier “disgusting” and “poisonous.”
“Besides just being the wrong thing to do, just strategically, I don’t know what you’re trying to accomplish there,” Lakosky said.
Carter said he has received a lot of support this week: Many Minnesota politicians spoke out on his behalf, and Axtell and a number of police officers called him to say they are sorry for what happened and to note the mailer doesn’t speak for the department.
In a statement Friday, Axtell said the “divisive” rhetoric the federation used only represents a few members of his approximately 600-member force.
But Carter said the letter and mailer show that there needs be a cultural shift in how the city serves people of color.
“This isn’t a feud between me and Dave Titus. This is a symptom of a much larger issue that we have to address,” Carter said.
Staff writers Adam Belz and Chao Xiong contributed to this report.