Sizing up the capital city's next hurdles
Melvin Carter, who recently started his second term at the helm of the capital city, sat down with Star Tribune reporter Katie Galioto to discuss crime, the voter-approved rent control ordinance, new pandemic restrictions and his plans for the future. The interview has been edited for length and clarity.
Q: What are your key priorities as you kick off your second term?
A: At a really basic level, pandemic, public safety, rent stabilization. The pandemic isn't over. We've got to maintain our public health guidance, our public health measures, while figuring out and finding brand new ways to help one another. Public safety — we're launching our Office of Neighborhood Safety. We just approved our alternative response model with the hiring of social workers through the budget process this year. … And we've spent a lot of ink now on rent stabilization and what the future is going to be. And in the same way, as with every other conversation that we've had, our challenge is to bring together a diverse set of stakeholders from different backgrounds with the promise and requirement … to really listen to one another and really spend the time necessary to work through some of these challenges together.
Q: Your recent inauguration speech painted scenes from your first four years leading St. Paul — masked first responders caring for those in need while the world was on lockdown, neighbors gathering in the streets to sweep up debris from a night of violence after George Floyd was murdered. Looking back on your first term, what was the biggest challenge you faced?
A: The biggest challenge, hands down, was the pandemic. And I would say that's sort of a cheating answer because the pandemic wasn't one thing, right? The pandemic was a health care emergency that filled our hospitals. It is a housing emergency … that increased by a factor of 10 the number of unsheltered individuals living in our community. The pandemic is an economic and food crisis. The pandemic is an increase in violent crime across the country. … That all together is one big mountain of what, I think, goes down as the biggest challenge of our last four years.
Q: It sometimes seems crazy to look back and remember you had a full two years in office, almost, before all that started happening.
A: It feels like we should have a normal year coming soon. But every one of the last four years — every moment has been a moment in crisis. Although there was one day — [my wife] Sakeena and I were laughing about this — there was one day where our biggest problem was a raccoon climbing a building. That seems like a thousand years ago.
Q: Last year ended up being the deadliest on record for St. Paul, with 38 homicides. The city is not alone. Its peers across the country have seen similar trends, but —
A: Can I put a pin in something there? As we've seen these national stories about large cities that have broken homicide records, we hate to be on that list. Yet — and this is one of the things I've been saying for a couple of years now — the two truths about public safety in St. Paul are that, one, we experience public safety outcomes far better, frankly, than some of our peer cities around the country. … And two, that they're still not good enough. … We have to blaze a new trail. We have to blaze a new road. I will tell you — and I've had this conversation with people this morning — who asked me, 'Why are we changing our approach to public safety?' And the response is because we just experienced our most deadly year on record. That's my answer before you even asked your question!
Q: What are you doing to make sure we're not seeing 39 homicides in 2022, or 40 in 2023?
A: We have invested heavily in our police department, and we continue to do that. … But the conclusion is that if our police department is as well-funded as they are and is performing as well as they are, and we're still not seeing those public safety outcomes that we want to see, then that in and of itself, to me, is all the evidence we should need that says we need a broader portfolio to address this issue. … If we're being most honest, none of us know the answer. We're trying to solve a problem that no one has solved ever. So at the end of the day, all we know is what will happen if we keep doing everything the same way we always did.
Q: What is your message to the people who, right now, we hear saying they don't feel safe in their city?
A: That we're hearing them. … I would guess I personally have had to tell my children in my living room, 'Get on the floor if you hear gunshots outside,' more than every one of my predecessors combined. So I hear people saying they don't feel safe. And I hear people saying we need a fundamentally different approach to this because we didn't feel safe last year, we didn't feel safe the year before that. We've never felt safe. … And so what I say back to them is that we are working every day in City Hall to build policy and investments that reflect what our residents have been saying to us for too long.
Q: I'm going to move on to rent control. You announced your support for this activist-led movement about three weeks before Election Day, saying the policy needs some tweaking. Can you talk about how and why you arrived at the decision to speak out in favor of the ordinance?
A: The first thing I have to note is that if this is a law that cannot be amended, it's probably the first one in American history. … The whole point of governance by the people, for the people is that our social contracts are all constantly evolving. … All I have to say is this: We have developers who develop in the city who I sort of have to fight against, to give them money to build affordable housing. And where I landed was thinking I'm either going to oppose this ordinance with the promise that we're going to do something better. … Or that I'm going to support this ordinance with the promise that I'm going to push to change it quickly. And the magnitude of the housing crisis that we face did not seem to justify a wait-and-see approach.
Q: Some residents have said they're starting to feel the impacts — developers pausing projects, renters starting to see preemptive hikes in their bills. Do you think the policy will work as intended?
A: By state law, it can only be passed by the voters. So passing it a different way wasn't really possible. Had I drafted it on the front end, it would be fundamentally different. And I'm hoping to work with the City Council to help craft a policy that actually advances what I've heard the [council] say their goals for the policy are. We can advance an exemption for new housing construction in a way that will take all of those projects off of pause and help them move forward, and immediately address one of the core concerns that we heard. … And while I know that all of us, myself included, would love to have had all of the answers the day after the vote passed, working through all of those details is going to take longer.
Q: You recently signed executive orders reinstating a mask mandate and instituting vaccine-or-testing requirements for certain businesses. What is the primary objective you hoped to achieve?
A: Our goal is to stop the spread of this virus. Our goal is to ensure that we're protecting our residents [from the pandemic], both the physical aspects of it, but also the emotional and economic aspects of it as well. And as challenging as vaccine requirements, as challenging as mask requirements are for our community, I don't know that anything was as challenging for us as the type of economic stoppages we saw two years ago as a result of the pandemic at a time when we did not have the tools that we have right now.
Q: You've worked with the state government; you interact with the federal government in your current role. Do you have any aspirations to run for higher office?
A: I don't know of a higher office than being mayor of St. Paul. That is not a blow off. … What excites me about city government is we have the ability to impact people's lives so intimately, so directly, so immediately — we can do it within a matter of months. …. So I am absolutely in love with the job that I have being mayor of this city. Can't imagine wanting to do anything else.