St. Paul runs in Melvin Carter III’s family.
He’s a fourth-generation St. Paul resident and graduate of St. Paul Central High School. His grandfather was a longtime janitor at St. Paul Humboldt High School. His mother is a Ramsey County Commissioner and former teacher. His father is a retired St. Paul police officer.
Now Carter, 39, is St. Paul’s first mayor of color and one of the youngest since the Minnesota capital’s founding in 1854.
In November, Carter won by a landslide, defeating his opponents by earning more than 50 percent of the vote on election night. He previously served as a St. Paul City Council member from 2008 to 2013, as director of the Minnesota Office of Early Learning and as executive director of the Minnesota Children’s Cabinet, advising Governor Mark Dayton.
During college at Florida A&M University in Tallahassee, Carter’s passion for civic engagement began when his brother-in-law was turned away from Florida voting polls in the 2000 Presidential Election.
Since then, Carter has focused on strengthening equity, innovation and resilience in St. Paul. Two of Carter’s early initiatives as mayor include raising the minimum wage to $15 dollars per hour and creating a $50 college savings account for every student born in St. Paul.
I spoke to Carter in January, after he’d given a speech at the University of St. Thomas, about his upbringing, his vision for St. Paul, how young people can play a role in his vision and more.
Melvin Carter III, a fourth-generation St. Paul resident, was elected in November as St. Paul’s first black mayor. Carter, a St. Paul Central graduate, is a former city council member. (Photo courtesy of Benny Moreno)
Q: I heard you were a student at St. Paul Central High School and your grandfather was a janitor at Humboldt High School. What was it like growing up in Saint Paul?
A: It was a unique experience. I love this city, and in many ways, I grew up in our schools, our recreation centers, our libraries, just kind of as a community child. We have a saying, and in the African-American community in particular, that it takes a whole community to raise a child, and I always felt like that child. I was simultaneously surrounded by caring adults who just poured a whole lot into me from literally every direction, and in a community where I would hear stories about old Rondo [a neighborhood in St. Paul], where our historic African-American community was destroyed to build a freeway.
I was in a community where my father is a retired St. Paul police officer, so we’d go watch the Super Bowl or go watch the big boxing match with police officers – and I grew up getting pulled over by some of those same police officers when I turned 16 and started driving around our community. In many ways, it was a beautiful childhood in this city, and this is the city that poured a lot into me, which is why I came straight back after college. And it was an illustrativeexperience in how far we have to go toward this promise in building a city that works for everyone.
Q: Was it always your dream to become mayor?
A: No. I ran track. I went to college on a track and field scholarship, and Plan A was to go to the Olympics, and I think Plan B was to just go to the World Championships, and it went down from there.
But as I really got involved as a college student I got really involved in social kind of stuff, like community activism. I went to college in the capital city of Florida and during Election 2000, which was my first chance to vote in a presidential election, we ended up kind of in the middle of something of a constitutional crisis of democracy.
We went to vote in Florida and my brother-in-law, who I was living with at the time, got turned away from the polls. We found out later that hundreds of our classmates had gotten turned gotten turned away from the polls. The Florida recount ended up being in the Supreme Court and we found ourselves at the center of it.
At that time, as a student, a lot of us really committed ourselves to changing the world. The student who was our student government president at the time is actually currently the mayor of that city, Tallahassee, and he’s running for governor in Florida right now. There’s lot of those kind of young folks who came up in that same era who are just committed to service in different ways across the country.
Q: What does it mean to you to be the first black mayor of St. Paul? And also, you’re 39. How do you think being a young person of color is going to impact your time in office?
A: In every way. We talk a lot about building a city that works for all of us, and in the Twin Cities metro area, and in Minnesota in general … we face some of the worst disparities in the nation. And so often, we talk about that as it’s coincidental to the fact that no person of color has ever held our city’s top office. Our focus is that true representation is bringing just not my voice and my experience, which is different than anyone who’s ever held that office, but bringing yours as well. I can’t bring yours, which is why we’re so focused on this Serve St. Paul initiative. We’re asking people to come do the work with us, and say we have to build this city together. It’s just not the job of the mayor, it’s all of our job to build this city together.
It informs my perspective on the city, it informs the way I look at our community, it informs my ability to see promise and potential where other people might see problems and challenges, and it probably informs other people’s perspective of me, for better and for worse.
Q: What are some major challenges you face as mayor and how do you plan to overcome those?
A: This is a big city and I really think there’s an incredible set of opportunities in front of St. Paul right now. There’s also an incredible set of challenges, and as we build this kind of big vision for the city and work around big things like putting $50 away for college for every child born in our city, we also have to stop to clear the snow when we get 12 inches in one day, like we did last week. There’s just a whole lot to juggle and manage, and the secret to success in this role is building a really good team and trusting the team to kind of help do the work. I’m actually really excited about the team we’ve got coming together because it’s a fantastic group of people who is doing that work together.
Q: How do you envision young people playing a role in your vision for the city?
A: Young people oftentimes aren’t specifically invited in and young people often times end up waiting to get engaged, right? We wait till we’re 18 and then we turn 18, and then we wait until we get out of college and then we’re out of college, and then we wait until we’re set in our career, and then we wait until the kids get out of the house or whatever it is, and there’s this perpetual ‘I’m going-to-get-involved-at-some-point-in-time.’
The truth is, and I share this with folks at the time, is that if you look at any era throughout history that’s been transformational and that’s changed the course of this country for the better – whether it’s civil rights or labor rights, or women’s rights, or whatever it is – if young people had waited, it wouldn’t have happened.
So I think right now is one of those moments where we just don’t have the luxury of waiting, where we have to be engaged and be involved. Our focus is on high school and on college students. Our focus is on the young workforce who is kind of moving into the city. They’re demanding a different of city-building. As we debate over whether bike lanes are okay and whether transit is okay and whether … density is okay, the now 50 percent of our workforce that is millennials is demanding more bike lanes and more transit.
Providing those microphones and those spaces for folks to get engaged and to get involved has got to be critical, and so a part of our Serve St. Paul work that we’ve launched is going to be inviting young people, in particular, to serve on the different task forces and commissions that I appoint people to, to serve as board members on their district councils or on their local nonprofits, to come serve as volunteers and mentors in our schools and tutors in our libraries and coaches in our rec centers, and just to get plugged in to the process, and to come to the Capitol and advocate for some of the change that we seek in the Capitol with us as well.
My hope is that as our young people graduate from high school, as our young people graduate from college or at St. Thomas right now – I have no doubt that this spring a bunch of young people are going graduate from this space, brilliant and prepared to make an impact on some community – I want them to have an investment in St. Paul, to know that we’re invested in them. And I want them planting their impact on the future right here in St. Paul
Q: So you’re working toward raising the minimum wage to $15 per hour. Why is this important to you and what can Minnesotans expect happening in their communities if this goes through?
A: We have families who work full-time, who work overtime jobs and are still stuck living in poverty. There’s an author who talks about families that have too much month at the end of their money – as opposed to too much money at the end of the month, there’s too much month at the end of their money. And that’s a problem for all of us.
As a community, we spend a lot of time and we spend a lot of resources managing poverty. And the truth is, our economic development conversations, our education conversations, are public safety conversations, all of our conversations are conversations about trying to manage the impact of the fact that we have so many just deeply poor people in our community. Right?
In St. Paul, 72 percent of our children in our public schools qualify for free or reduced lunch. If children show up to school not knowing where they’re going to sleep tonight or how they’re going to eat tonight, then of course our social studies scores are going to fall, our math and reading scores are going to fall. And so, our focus is to raise the minimum wage to $15 an hour so people can afford to just live in our community with dignity and know that that’s going to have really strong, positive impacts on every other aspect of life in our community.
Q: You’ve mentioned also starting a college savings fund for every St. Paul student, and it’s sparked a lot of attention. Why did you make this an important part of your vision?
A: Oh, I don’t know if we even have time for me to say all of it. I’m so excited about it. We know again, children on the right start is important. There’s a lot of research that suggest that the experiences that a young child has in their first 3-to-5 years of life create a momentum that is most likely going to continue throughout the rest of their lives. We have a window at a time right there that we can really change the course for children and families in our community.
But we have very, very precious few public resources committed to that area. We think about our public education system as something that starts at age 5, right? When we know that 95 percent of brain development occurs before age 5, right? We have to do some really intense investment in young children. By saying we’re going to have a $50 college savings account, we’re telling every child born in this city that, ‘We believe in you, we’re invested in you, and we know that you can do great things in the future.’ Planting that seed in their minds is so important for the future of our community.
We’re saying to the parents, ‘You’re not here on your own, and we’re going to invest in you and your family,’ which gives them a reason to want to plug their child into our child development infrastructure as a city earlier, so we can start helping and engaging that child a lot earlier. …
And then beyond that, those low-income families I was just talking about, research shows that low-income families spend up to 10 percent of their income just on financial services. You can never get out of poverty if you bank at pawn shops and same-day lenders. At the same time, through this, we’re going to be introducing families all over our city to financial institutions that are reasonable, that are responsible and that are accountable. If you can save for college, you can save for retirement, or you can save it for a rainy day, you can save to buy a house. Connecting families to savings and real financial institutions is a part of this as well.
If you think about the $50 dollars a child each for the 5,000 children born in this city a year, – I can’t come up with anything that’s that cost effective, that we could do, that could have that profound an impact all across our city.
Geoff Canada, who was the founder of the Harlem’s Children Zone, which we patterned the St. Paul Promise Neighborhood after in many ways, I’ve heard him say many times, ‘Let’s stop helping kids beat the odds, and start changing the odds.’ So I see those college savings accounts as an odd-changing initiative.
Q: How did you react when you found out you were elected mayor? Describe how you really felt in that moment.
A: I was with my wife. We had poll watchers to go watch a set of precincts and bring back numbers, and our analysts, our number-cruncher folks … came up, and it was just my wife and I, Sakeena, and they came up and let us know that not only were we in the lead, but that we had really outperformed all of our expectations in every part of the city. It was humbling and overwhelming to not have only won, but to have carried the type of margins that we did, to have won all over the city in the way that we did.
I’m a fourth-generation St. Pauler, and our family’s experience and our community’s experience with this city, you know, if you have that long of a relationship, it’s not going to always be positive. And I think in a moment, I was thinking about my children and the fact that they get to see me lead this city forward. I was thinking about all of our communities of color who have felt locked out and kind of left out of our city’s prosperity for a long time, who we get to do this work with. I was thinking about my parents who have served this city, my dad as a police officer, my mom as a teacher, my grandparents – you talked about my grandfather sweeping floors at Humboldt High School, and losing their houses on old Rondo – and it’s a dream come true.
It’s overwhelming in all the most amazing ways. It’s just the honor of a lifetime that people in this city would entrust me with such an important role. It’s never lost on me the incredible privilege it is to be able to do this job. Or the weight of the responsibility because all of the work impacts people.
One of the challenges is, when I first got elected to the city council, I remember thinking on the day of my inauguration, that I never get to use the word ‘they’ anymore. ‘They ought to do this, they ought to do that.’ And it was like, we are the they. And we get a chance to do the things that we’ve been saying forever that they ought to do.
Honestly, it’s scary in a lot of ways. But it’s really helpful to know that we’ve got help from our staff, our team, to just the people all over the city who said, ‘We’re not electing you to send you to city hall, we’re electing to go with you to city hall and we’re here to help.’ It’s exciting.
THE CARTER III FILE
Name: Melvin Carter III
Occupation: Mayor of St. Paul
Career highlights: Elected as first African-American mayor of St. Paul in 2017 … Served as St. Paul City Council member from 2008 to 2013 … Worked as former director of Minnesota Office of Early Learning and executive director of Minnesota Children’s Cabinet … Former high school track and field standout.
Find him on Twitter at @mayorcarter3 and @melvincarter3, and on Instagram at @mwcarter3.