Melvin Carter stood outside St. Paul City Hall the morning after he won the mayor’s race and shook hands, hugged and snapped photos with dozens of the city employees he’ll lead come January.
His turn at the helm will be historic. Carter, 38, will be the first black mayor in St. Paul’s 163-year history. It was a milestone celebrated as long overdue by residents and community leaders.
Community connections, a broad network of volunteers and high-profile endorsements likely helped him beat nine other mayoral hopefuls, residents said Wednesday. But supporters and opponents said he also knew how to harness support in a changing city — one that’s younger, more liberal and more diverse — and reflect residents’ hopes for the future.
“Canvassing, phone banking and just talking to people really boosted those numbers and boosted the number of people who came out to vote,” St. Paul resident Denna Thurmond said. As Election Day neared she said she heard overwhelming support for Carter while door knocking for him.
Carter took an unconventional route to the mayor’s office, said his campaign manager, Emily Weber. He prioritized one-on-one conversations with voters over campaign mailers or securing the endorsements of classic city power brokers, she said.
“I think that the outcome of this election was fundamentally a changing of the guard,” said Erich Mische, who worked for Norm Coleman, the city’s last Republican mayor.
“The way people used to do things 20 years ago in politics is out of date and it’s gone,” Mische, who supported Carter opponent Pat Harris, said Wednesday. “Melvin understood that. I think he tapped into that. I think he very astutely understood that the city that he will soon lead as mayor is more of a reflection of his generation than it is middle-age guys like me and Pat Harris.”
Carter, who has been campaigning for two years, spent the first year gathering the input of dozens of St. Paul residents. He will enter office with a long list of community desires. For Dianne Binns, president of the St. Paul Chapter of the NAACP, that is job creation and a change in the economic status of communities of color.
“He did make history and we’re glad to have him as the first black mayor of St. Paul,” Binns said Wednesday. “We’re all just looking for a change.”
An unexpected boost
Carter supporters pointed to a political action committee’s recent mailer attacking Carter as a key point in the race.
Harris, whom the PAC supported, acknowledged Wednesday that the mailer — which he condemned and did not know about in advance — worked in Carter’s favor.
“It definitely had an impact,” Harris said of the mailer. “But we’re not looking at a single thing that turned the race one way of the other. We’re really proud of the campaign we ran.”
Harris ended up with 25 percent of first-choice votes, the second most among the candidates. He said Carter is a “St. Paul guy” who cares about the city and will move it forward.
The PAC, called Building a Better St. Paul, sent voters a mailer attempting to connect a burglary of Carter’s home this summer, where two guns were stolen, with the rise in gun violence in the city. The St. Paul Police Federation, which endorsed Harris, also sent a letter questioning Carter about the burglary shortly before the mailer was sent.
“There was some energy when he was attacked. People knew him and wanted to come to his defense,” said Jennifer Munt, with the local union council of American Federation of State County and Municipal Employees, one of many groups that endorsed Carter. “People were flooding into the offices to door knock for Melvin. And they didn’t necessarily need a script because they knew the man.”
After the election, Police Federation President Dave Titus and Brian Bergson, chair of Building a Better St. Paul, both congratulated Carter in e-mailed statements.
“We know this campaign brought out raw emotions, but we all share in the same long-term goal of a safer and brighter future for St. Paul,” Titus said.
A big bet on staff
Carter reported $392,000 in campaign contributions two weeks before the election. His biggest investment — far more than other candidates — was in staff.
“We bet really big early on in grass roots organizing. We hired five full-time campaign organizers,” Weber said, along with 21 staffers who did everything from door knocking to data entry to training volunteers.
There were 583 volunteers working to get Carter elected, campaign spokeswoman Caroline Burns said, and they had 30,000 conversations with voters through phone calls and door knocking. About 62,000 people voted in St. Paul, a higher turnout than was predicted.
As they knocked on doors, several supporters said they encountered people who personally knew Carter or his family.
Carter, a former City Council member, is a fourth-generation St. Paul resident. His grandfather was a well-known St. Paul musician. His mother is a Ramsey County commissioner and his father is a retired St. Paul police sergeant and founder of a local nonprofit.
Although Carter had widespread support across St. Paul, he did particularly well in the city’s northwest corner, in St. Anthony Park and Midway, as well as the historic Rondo neighborhood where his family has deep ties.
He spent the day after the election with his family, and declined to talk to the media.
Staff writer Chao Xiong contributed to this report.
Jessie Van Berkel • 612-673-4649
Melvin Carter, 38
Education: Bachelor’s degree in business administration, Florida A&M University; master’s degree in public policy, University of Minnesota.
Family: Wife, Sakeena; two daughters, one stepdaughter and two stepsons.
Fun fact: Carter played piano in a family gospel band called Ten65.