Mayor Melvin Carter could hear the gunshots from his house in St. Paul's Summit-University neighborhood last weekend.
Seven people were injured in three separate shootings. The next day, he listened to distressed neighbors make competing demands, some for more police, others for alternative approaches to preventing violence.
With the police chief at his side, Carter condemned the shootings but made no new commitments. "We have a lot of work to do," he said in response.
So far, that approach has paid off for the 42-year-old first-term mayor of Minnesota's capital city. With no high-profile opponents, Carter, who became St. Paul's first African American mayor in 2018, is sailing toward a second term at the city's helm.
On policing, housing and other issues, the mayor has staked out a relatively centrist position in liberal St. Paul. While the murder of George Floyd and the response to the ensuing unrest have politically damaged Minneapolis Mayor Jacob Frey, Carter has seen his profile rise nationally as he talks about race and policing in American cities.
Still, Carter has found himself at odds with a City Council moving left, as well as facing criticism about his response to rising crime.
Some point to the "community-first" public safety programs he frequently touts and question why St. Paul saw 34 homicides in 2020, which tied 1992 for the city's deadliest year on record. Other residents say Carter is not doing enough to reform law enforcement or prevent gentrification.
"What I've said since the beginning is these programs aren't magic wands that are going to instantly transform the city of St. Paul," Carter said of his public safety proposals. "This is long-term work."
But even some of Carter's supporters, who are helping with the suite of crime-prevention initiatives, say they think the mayor's big ideas have at times led to too much talking and not enough action.
"If your roof was leaking, you wouldn't call together a roofing committee, would you?" said Tyrone Terrill, president of the African American Leadership Council. "You know the roof needs to be fixed. You're not going to sit around and talk about it. Fix it."
A mixed record
Carter first ran for mayor in 2017 on promises to address the root causes of crime by investing in communities, arguing that those with stable family lives would be less likely to offend. Many saw this son of a police officer, and fifth-generation resident of the historically Black Rondo neighborhood, as bringing credibility to conversations about public safety reform.
Since taking office, Carter has revised St. Paul's use-of-force and K-9 unit policies, launched a mental health unit and created a commission exploring alternate responses to low-priority 911 calls. In the past two years, the city has budgeted more than $2 million for a slate of community-first public safety initiatives that officials say have been slow to roll out due to COVID-19.
Cory Spencer, a regular at Tin Cup's restaurant in St. Paul's North End, said he thinks the city should be investing in more police officers before youth employment programs or violence prevention groups. He's noticed a significant increase in crime, including a fatal shooting outside the nearby Foundry Pub last month.
"It's like, what the hell is going on in this neighborhood?" said Spencer, shaking his head.
Carter said that unlike last year, St. Paul plans to hold a police academy for new recruits this fall. He also indicated that some of the $172 million in federal American Rescue Plan money the city anticipates could be used to fund additional community-based public safety projects.
Some City Council members have expressed frustration with the programs' slow starts and called for more evidence that they work before spending more money. A spokesperson for the mayor declined to give data on progress over the last six months but said an update will be given to the council on May 19.
"I am really losing my patience," Council Member Jane Prince said at a meeting Wednesday.
Carter and council members also have clashed over a proposed development near St. Paul's Frogtown neighborhood.
Neighbors and activists have opposed the $57 million apartment and retail project, saying it will speed gentrification. Carter disagreed and used a rare veto to give the developer the go-ahead.
"If I just listened to his campaign talking about affordable housing, I would think he was out here grinding for this neighborhood," said Cosandra Lloyd, board chair of the Frogtown Neighborhood Association. "He is not."
Trevor Burns, on the other hand, applauded Carter's decision to push for more housing, which he says is desperately needed.
The nonprofit employee voted for the mayor in 2017 but said he's become even more impressed with Carter's work since then, despite criticisms he hears.
"If he was everybody's friend, I wouldn't think he's doing a good job," he said. "He's not a status quo guy."
Spotlight on St. Paul
Since Floyd's death sparked worldwide protests, Carter has become a spokesman of sorts for Minnesota as the state became an epicenter of a national reckoning over racial justice and the proper role of police.
"I feel like he voices and speaks up to a lot of issues in an intelligent sort of way that seems refreshing and correct to a lot of people in St. Paul," said Warren Gregory, who works as a wine consultant in the city's Cathedral Hill neighborhood.
"At the same time, it makes you wonder," he said, "does he have his eye on something else other than his job right here?"
Many residents have speculated about Carter's political ambitions, musing that he could one day run for governor.
As other former mayors, like South Bend's Pete Buttigieg and Boston's Marty Walsh, made the leap from City Hall to the White House Cabinet, some wondered if Carter was plotting a move to Washington.
The mayor, who appeared in campaign ads and participated in virtual roundtables with President Joe Biden, said the administration hasn't tried to get him on board.
"I like to think that's because I told them early on I wasn't interested in a role," Carter said. "There's no job I want other than the one I have."
The mayor has publicly said St. Paul's ability to reform policing in the city has been "stifled" by a lack of action from state and federal lawmakers. He sees the attention focused on the Twin Cities in the last year as an opportunity to get that help.
"We are right at the cross section of having an incredible body of work, a nation-leading body of work, while also seeing clearly now more than ever how much more work we have ahead," Carter said.
Chauntyll Allen, a St. Paul School Board member, is the leader of Love First, an organization doing youth outreach in Minneapolis and St. Paul to address recent gun violence. Allen thinks the mayor's efforts will move the city closer to peace.
"The problem that we're dealing with is 400 years old. We've been dealing with violence in the Black community since Black folks came to this country," she said. "It was never something Melvin Carter could step into office and change immediately."
Katie Galioto • 612-673-4478