Melvin Carter will be the next mayor of St. Paul, scoring a definitive and unexpectedly early win in what many had predicted would be a close race Tuesday night.

Carter, who is black, will be the city's first mayor of color. He secured the more than 50 percent of votes needed to win the ranked-choice race in the first round of voting, and emerged from a fiercely competitive field of 10 candidates in the city's first open mayor's race in 12 years.

"I'm thrilled. I'm elated. I'm humbled," Carter, 38, told a crowd of more than 200 supporters Tuesday night.

Carter, a former City Council member and executive director of Gov. Mark Dayton's Children's Cabinet, campaigned on promises of reducing educational and employment disparities and improving police-community relations. He has been a strong proponent of denser development and transit.

He celebrated the win at Union Depot in Lowertown, in a room dedicated to the Red Caps, a group of black baggage handlers. Carter's grandfather was a Red Cap.

Toni Carter, Melvin Carter's mother and a Ramsey County commissioner, was in the crowd. She said her son was driven by an intense desire to get to know St. Paul and has an ability to help connect people.

Carter started campaigning nearly a year before the other candidates, and said Tuesday night he spent that year hearing voters' visions for St. Paul.

"We've built what I'm excited to say is a big, bold, bad vision for the future of St. Paul," he told supporters.

Seemingly tight race

Pat Harris won the second most first-choice votes, with nearly 25 percent.

(See St. Paul election results here.)

Harris, also a former City Council member, has a background in municipal finance and community service. He presented himself as the best person to manage the city's budget and support local businesses.

Many St. Paul residents expected Harris and Carter to run neck and neck in the first round, and the results were expected to come out later this week after people's ballots were reallocated based on their second, third or even sixth choice.

But Carter received broad support from across the city, including voters in the Highland Park and Macalester-Groveland neighborhoods, where Harris lives and where many of his donations came from.

Individual donors and political action committees have channeled more than $1 million into the race.

A controversial mailer from one of those PACs late in the race may have helped Carter clinch the victory.

The PAC, called Building a Better St. Paul, supported Harris. It was publicly rebuked after it recently sent a mailer attempting to connect a burglary of Carter's home, during which two guns were stolen, with increased gun violence in the city. A St. Paul Police Federation letter said the same. The political attack on Carter backfired, political experts said, and likely cost Harris votes.

Harris called Carter to congratulate him on the win Tuesday night.

"It's not looking good for our effort tonight," Harris told supporters gathered at Mancini's Char House. "I'll never stop being in this community and making a difference for people."

He declined to say whether the controversial mailer hurt his campaign.

"I don't know," Harris said. "It could be a lot of reasons."

Ideological differences

Ideological differences among the pack of largely progressive candidates emerged around the issues of development and policing. Both have been high-priority topics for voters as St. Paul struggles with increased gun violence and plans for the future of the massive former Ford assembly plant site.

Harris was more cautious than Carter about density at the Ford site and proposed 50 more police and new prosecutor positions to deal with crime. Carter said instead of adding 50 officers, he would invest in city services to support families and prevent young people from getting involved in crime.

Candidate and City Council Member Dai Thao walked a measured middle ground between the two candidates on those issues. He proposed adding some police, though not as many as Harris, and voted against the city's Ford site plan, saying more study and some adjustments were needed.

Thao, who described himself as an underdog, secured about 12 percent of first-choice votes. "No matter what, Dai Thao's going to continue to be the regular people's champion," he said Tuesday night.

The three candidates have spent the past seven months facing off at dozens of mayoral debates, along with environmental activist and health lobbyist Elizabeth Dickinson, who received about 5 percent of the vote, and former school board member Tom Goldstein, who got 4 percent.

Carter's campaign has received support from many high-profile politicians, including Dayton and U.S. Rep. Keith Ellison.

City Council President Russ Stark, who door-knocked for Carter, was at his election night party and called the city's next mayor an "innovator."

Mayor Chris Coleman, who opted not to run for a fourth term, also showed up at Carter's party. He had not endorsed a candidate during the race, but said Tuesday it is important that children of all races in St. Paul see a mayor who looks like them, and said Carter's message resonated with voters.

Surrounded by family, supporters and city officials Tuesday night, Carter told the crowd, "With you at my side, I'm ready to get to work."

Star Tribune staff writers Nicole Norfleet and Chao Xiong contributed to this report.

Jessie Van Berkel • 612-673-4649