Melvin Carter already knows where he wants St. Paul to be in 2021.
Over the next four years, he plans to raise the minimum wage citywide, expand early childhood education, encourage more transit, match job vacancies with job seekers and institute his plan for “community-first police reform.” Throughout his successful candidacy for mayor, the 38-year-old St. Paul native offered a big vision for the city.
“My hope is to help to lead us to look at St. Paul in a different way,” Carter said Friday. “To invest in things that really address the core causes around many of our public safety, economic and even educational concerns in the city.”
Carter has already made history as the city’s first black mayor, and his election reflects a growing constituency of younger, liberal, diverse St. Paul residents. But whether he can achieve the promises he made to those voters depends on his relationships with the City Council and community partners, his ability to work with a tight budget and how well he navigates factors beyond his control, including the economic and political climates.
Carter will become mayor in January shortly after a particularly complicated budget process. Mayor Chris Coleman proposed a 2018 budget that changes how the city pays for street maintenance and shifts costs from assessment bills to property taxes, resulting in a 24 percent tax levy increase. The city is also staring down $57 million in deferred parks and recreation capital maintenance.
“The temptation is to do something that is very visible and very exciting and shiny and new early on for a new mayor to lay claim to,” Council Member Rebecca Noecker said. “But our biggest needs are ones that are more under the surface, those long-term planning and capital needs.”
Nonetheless, momentum is already building for one very visible change: a $15 minimum wage. Carter promised to raise the minimum wage for all workers, including those who get tips. It is likely one of the biggest changes Carter will institute and is expected to come early in his mayorship.
Businesses aren’t completely opposed to the $15 minimum wage but want to be part of the discussion and would like a gradual change, said Chad Kulas, executive director of the Midway Chamber of Commerce. His chamber did not endorse anyone. But the St. Paul Area Chamber of Commerce backed one of Carter’s opponents, Pat Harris, who had broad support from the business community.
“As a new administration comes in, I hope he understands being proactive and showing support for the business community, and that the city wants them there, is helpful,” Kulas said.
Expanding early childhood education, another of Carter’s top priorities, has also progressed independently of him. Noecker and city staff have been working with the school district and Ramsey County on a prekindergarten project, and she wants to move forward on it “just as soon as Mayor-elect Carter gets his sea legs.”
Carter, who has deep family roots in Rondo, said he looks forward to getting involved with that project.
He plans to tour every ward in St. Paul with each of the City Council members and will also visit and assess all the city’s recreation centers. Infrastructure basics — ensuring libraries, recreation centers and parks are well-equipped to serve residents — are the “building blocks” for his vision for St. Paul, he said.
Carter’s critics during the campaign questioned how much he accomplished at past jobs. Carter countered that he helped expand early childhood education as the leader of Gov. Mark Dayton’s Children’s Cabinet and created the St. Paul Promise Neighborhood, which supports families and fights poverty in his former council ward.
Former St. Paul NAACP President Nathaniel Khaliq echoed Carter’s accomplishments and said his public speaking skills have been evident since he was a track star at Central High School and delivered a speech at the national NAACP convention. His election as the city’s first black mayor has brought a lot of people hope, Khaliq said.
“I’m a lifelong resident of St. Paul. I’ve had my doubts about our city and its commitment to fairness and equality, and being somewhat colorblind in valuing our humanity as they do others,” he said. But after Carter’s election, “I just could never be prouder of St. Paul.”
Preparing for City Hall
When Carter ran for office, he pulled together a young, energetic campaign staff. Khaliq said their success — Carter earned 51 percent of people’s first-choice votes while Harris, his closest competitor, got 25 percent — shows Carter has an eye for talent.
“The most important thing is for him to put the right people in the right place to achieve the goals that he’s seeking,” Khaliq said.
It’s critical to get that team in place as soon as possible, Coleman said.
Past city leaders overhauled the mayor’s office staff and department directors, said Dan Bostrom, who has been on the City Council for more than 20 years. But Coleman and Carter are more politically aligned than past mayors, and he expects less change.
Carter has already moved into an office in City Hall and said he will announce his transition team next week.
Coleman and Carter had lunch Friday at W.A. Frost with their spouses. Coleman, who has led the city for 12 years, said they talked about staffing and balancing family with the job.
“You want to get in there right away and tackle some of those big visions you have,” Coleman said he advised. “You’ll never have more ability to accomplish those things than being fresh off a rather resounding victory.”