Jim McDonough was a tradesman scaling Twin Cities skyscrapers when he decided he wanted to advocate for his home turf — St. Paul's East Side — on the Ramsey County Board.

Toni Carter was a St. Paul teacher, nonprofit leader and school board member when she decided that running for the County Board would better position her to solve problems confronting children and families.

McDonough, 67, and Carter, 68, are both retiring from the seven-member board this year, taking with them institutional knowledge and political power built over years representing the capital city. In their time on the board — McDonough has served for 22 years, Carter for nearly 18 — they've overseen hundreds of millions of dollars in services that touch residents' daily lives in Minnesota's second-largest county, including roads, libraries, elections, social services, public health, transit and corrections.

Their tenures have included the renovation of St. Paul's Union Depot, the opening of the Green Line light rail line and the closure of Boys Totem Town, the county's century-old juvenile detention facility. In recent years, they've navigated the COVID-19 pandemic and the aftermath of George Floyd's murder.

Though the board — currently all DFLers — has encountered opposition from some suburban City Councils for projects including affordable housing and transit, commissioners say their work has been grounded in a "Residents First" mantra.

"We are really a cohesive board. We have strong personalities and strong opinions but they complement each other in a good way," said Board Chair Trista MatasCastillo. "We don't always agree, but we really respect each other."

McDonough and Carter will leave the board when their terms expire at the end of the year.

McDonough's journey

McDonough was born and raised on the East Side. His father died when he was 12, so he started work early. After graduating from Johnson High School he worked as a glazier, installing and repairing windows. His wife, Carol, stayed home with the couple's four children, later working in a school cafeteria.

In 2000, unhappy with the candidates for the County Board seat representing his side of town, McDonough filed to run 30 minutes before the deadline.

"I don't think he viewed politics as his end goal," said County Manager Ryan O'Connor. "He found his way into politics and he realized he could have an impact in ways he hadn't thought about in the beginning of his career."

Over decades in elected office, McDonough became a vocal advocate for the underdog. In 2015, after the Legislature temporarily lifted the statute of limitations on sexual abuse cases, he revealed publicly that he had been abused by a Boy Scout leader as a child.

"I'm stepping up," he said at the time. "I could do something that actually made a difference."

On the board, McDonough has worked to expand affordable housing and services for unsheltered people. He was chair in 2017 when Catholic Charities replaced its cramped shelter with a $100 million campus — funded with the help of county and state dollars — that includes an emergency shelter, apartments and other support services.

"Jim was just a tremendous leader," said Tim Marx, former CEO of Catholic Charities. "He was leading the charge."

At the height of the COVID-19 pandemic, the county used federal aid to establish a network of temporary shelters and fund long-term affordable housing options.

In recent years, McDonough has increasingly advocated for the county's equity efforts. As he's watched the East Side diversify, he said, he's felt compelled to speak up — even as some in his district questioned his support for initiatives that they didn't see as directly benefiting the East Side.

"My response to the community was, 'For the East Side to do well, St. Paul has to do well. For St. Paul to do well, Ramsey County has to do well. For Ramsey County to do well, the region has to do well,'" McDonough said.

Carter's tenure

Carter was born in Bessemer, Ala., to a family of teachers and moved to southern Minnesota to attend Carleton College.

She married now-retired St. Paul Police Sgt. Melvin Carter Jr. They settled in St. Paul and had three children, including the younger Melvin Carter, St. Paul's first Black mayor.

The Carters, who both worked with children and families, lamented how people in crisis often ended up embroiled in the criminal justice system instead of getting the help they needed. It prompted Toni Carter to run for the board in 2005, representing portions of western and central St. Paul.

"She has a passion for young people and making things better for them. She's spent her life doing that," said daughter Alanna Galloway, who ran one of her mother's re-election campaigns.

Carter was the first American American to hold a county board office in the state. When her peers elected her Ramsey County board chair and president of the Association of Minnesota Counties, those were also firsts for Minnesota.

Carter has been a vocal advocate for juvenile justice reform, including closing Boys Totem Town and pivoting to more community-based programs for teens — changes that entailed years of work with prosecutors, public defenders, judges and county agencies.

"She was laser-focused on reforming the juvenile justice system. That was her passion from day one," said Commissioner Rafael Ortega. "She has worked hard on it and led the board on many of those issues."

The county has changed how it engages with community members because of Carter. When Summit-University residents said they felt unheard as county officials planned to replace the Dale Street Bridge spanning Interstate 94, Carter and county staff went back to the community and the drawing board and redesigned the span with artwork reflecting the culture of the Rondo neighborhood, signage and better amenities for pedestrians.

Carter aims to keep the county's work focused on how government can improve residents' lives, O'Connor said.

"We need to be thinking through the lens of families and how to support them as they raise communities," he said.

Carter was board chair from 2020 to 2021, a tumultuous period that included the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic and the summer of civil unrest following Floyd's killing by Minneapolis police. In her leadership role, Carter led difficult conversations and created space during board meetings for her colleagues to speak frankly.

"We can criticize ourselves without tearing down the work we are doing. We can be critical of how we are doing the work and build it forward," Carter said. "We are doing so much in Ramsey County, looking at ourselves, looking at what we are doing and taking responsibility for the transformation we need to make as government."