Toni Carter was a middle school teacher, and her husband was a St. Paul police officer. At night, they would talk about youngsters pulled into the criminal justice system for missteps like skipping school or violating curfew.

Once that system got its hooks into children and families, particularly people of color, it rarely let go.

"That trajectory they were on led to deeper and deeper systems involvement," Carter said.

It prompted her to run for office. After decades of methodically fighting inequities, Carter last week was reelected chairwoman of the Ramsey County Board by her fellow commissioners. It's the second time Carter, 66, has made Minnesota history as a Black leader — in 2005, she became the first African American to serve on a County Board in Minnesota.

Her fellow commissioners and staff say her measured, unflappable approach, coupled with her lived experience, is exactly what the county needs as it confronts unprecedented challenges including the COVID-19 pandemic, surging unemployment and homelessness and a national reckoning around policing and race.

"There is no one better to have been chair this year as we have struggled with what does racial equity look like, and our response to both a pandemic and unrest," said County Commissioner Trista MatasCastillo. "Having a chair that understands it personally, who lives it, has been a huge strength for our board."

Carter is quick to credit her colleagues, saying she leans on them to cover the large waterfront of county government. Under her leadership, commissioners have been allowed more discussion at board meetings.

"She has allowed us that space," said Commissioner Nicole Joy Frethem. "She really recognizes that need and doesn't want to stifle anyone's opportunity to speak."

An oft-misunderstood layer of government, the county oversees a $747 million budget and controls a wide array of services including roads, parks, public health, elections, probation, child protection, libraries and services for the unemployed and homeless.

All those systems affect families, and that is what motivates Carter, said Commissioner Mary Jo McGuire.

"She is passionate about healthy families and our kids," McGuire said. "She's been fighting for our kids at all levels."

Carter was born in Bessemer, Ala., to an extended family of teachers whose classrooms served as a backdrop for her early childhood. When she was five years old, the family moved to Cleveland, where her father was a mechanic and manager in the auto industry.

Carter made her way to Minnesota after Carleton College in Northfield, Minn., recruited her. She studied teaching but left before graduation to pursue a corporate career in Minneapolis. She fell in love with a St. Paul guy, now retired St. Paul Police Sergeant Melvin Carter, Jr.

They married and settled in St. Paul and had three children, including the younger Melvin Carter, St. Paul's first Black mayor. Toni Carter completed her teaching degree at Concordia College and worked at Crosswinds Middle School.

Carter served on the St. Paul school board and went on the join the County Board, at a time when talk of equity and criminal justice reform wasn't as commonplace as it is today, said Commissioner Jim McDonough.

"There was some chewing around the edges but there was no champion," he said. "She became the champion every single day to make sure it didn't fall off the radar."

Though Carter said her equity work extends to every area of the county's business, her colleagues note that she has been a constant drumbeat for criminal justice reform — work that resulted in the 2019 closure of Boys Totem Town, the century-old youth detention campus that was the punishment for a disproportionate number of teen boys of color.

Last fall, county leaders unveiled data showing that Ramsey County has reduced the number of people sent to prison by nearly half in the past decade as part of a focused strategy to end mass incarceration.

"Toni has been working on this for years and building on small successes and on partnerships," Frethem said. "She was always asking, 'Should we really be locking up kids? Is that the right way to do this? Are there better ways to do this?' "

The seven-member board has followed Carter's lead, often supporting reforms unanimously — a lack of dissent that at times has generated criticism.

Last year, commissioners supported a range of pandemic responses directed at the county's most vulnerable residents, from no-questions-asked COVID-19 testing clinics at neighborhood sites to directing $72 million of a $96 million CARES Act allocation to food programs, small business grants, rental, mortgage and utility assistance and more shelter options for people experiencing homelessness.

Commissioners also reversed course on a 4.5% property tax levy increase, instead approving a 0% increase in response to the pandemic's economic fallout. That budget austerity has created a flap with Sheriff Bob Fletcher, who is now challenging budget cuts in court.

County Manager Ryan O'Connor said Carter understands that her strongly held beliefs are not enough to make change.

"She believes you have to have your partners at the table," O'Connor said. "You can't take the sledgehammer to the system."

Her leadership in this time of uncertainty is critical, said Ramsey County Public Health Director Kathy Hedin.

"It absolutely makes a difference that she is a strong woman of color who has earned her way into this role. She is a role model for a lot of people," Hedin said.

Melvin Carter, the St. Paul mayor, said he admires his mother's patience and ability to see the long game, noting it took more than decade of groundwork to close Totem Town. He said he's also awed by her ability to listen to residents — even when confronted with anger and emotion.

"My mother is a complete diplomat who is always focused on thinking through a situation, seeing it through someone else's perspective and figuring out how to communicate through it," he said.

Commissioner Victoria Reinhardt said Toni Carter is the right leader as equity efforts are accelerating in the wake of the Minneapolis police killing of George Floyd, which prompted days of protest and unrest in the Twin Cities and across the country.

"She was the right person at the right time to address these issues. She's a natural born leader," Reinhardt said. "Normal is not good enough because normal is not equitable. We need to come back even better."

Shannon Prather • 651-925-5037