Melvin Carter calls it visioning. Before a race, the young sprinter would imagine the start, his stride, his burst. The kick. Replaying these images in his mind, over and over, would help Carter become a state high school track champion in three events and earn a full-ride scholarship to college. In his long-term vision he could see national titles and Olympic glory. Nowhere in his mind was there a scene where he became the first African-American mayor of St. Paul.
He may be the only one who didn’t see that.
From the teachers, coaches and mentors who watched him grow from a gifted and hyper-engaged son of a St. Paul educator and a St. Paul cop, to those who’ve met him along his path to City Hall, Carter’s ascension from a child of St. Paul’s Rondo neighborhood to a mayor leading an increasingly diverse city of 300,000 is a natural continuum.
“He was made for this,” says Delores Henderson, his principal at J.J. Hill Elementary School, where he tested into the gifted and talented program.
Scott Burns, a local entrepreneur, was even more prescient. “You’re going to be mayor someday,” he recalls telling a teenage Carter years ago after hearing him speak.
In many ways, Carter, 38, has the traditional St. Paul political pedigree.
Fourth-generation St. Paul native. Youth hockey player. Winter Carnival junior royalty. City Conference and state track champion. City Council member.
Yet he also knows what it means to have grown up on the outside, looking in.
His great-grandparents fled racist violence in Texas a century ago. He grew up in old Rondo, a tightknit black community voicelessly displaced in the 1960s by the building of Interstate 94. As a teenager, he walked more than a mile to high school through what a mentor calls “the maze of madness” — past corners rife with gangs and drugs. As a young man, he’s been stopped more than a dozen times by police here and elsewhere for reasons he can only attribute to the color of his skin.
“I grew up in Winter Carnival St. Paul and hockey St. Paul,” Carter says. “But I also grew up in driving while black St. Paul. There is a notion that there are two St. Pauls … but I have lived enough to know it’s really just one St. Paul, and we have to cross those borders.”
Carter’s overwhelming victory may signal a fundamental shift of St. Paul political power, from white and Catholic to a younger, more racially and economically diverse base. The question now is, where will this man who never envisioned a career in politics go from here?
Being mayor is a hard job, says Chris Coleman. He should know. He was St. Paul’s mayor for the past 12 years.
Constant budget challenges. The upcoming $15 minimum wage debate. Future development at the former Ford site. And continual grumbling from across the city over property taxes, snow emergencies, potholes, libraries, parks and policing will test Carter’s mettle, Coleman says. Unlike serving on the City Council, the mayor is expected to make final decisions — decisions certain to be unpopular with somebody.
“Until you are in the corner office, it’s hard to really understand the 24/7 nature of it,” Coleman says. “It’s the classic ‘The Buck Stops Here.’ People are looking at you and saying ‘It’s your decision, you’re making the final call.’ And that’s a lot to get used to.”
Still, Carter says, he knows he won’t get far running alone.
“It’s like track,” he says. “It looks individual, but it’s a team sport. You rely on so many people and you have to trust the people you put around you to set the pace.”
‘A very serious thing’
Watch Melvin Carter move through a crowded room — his brilliant smile illuminating conversations, his handshake strong and firm — and it’s easy to assume this slender, at-ease man is a born politician.
His mother, Toni, is a longtime Ramsey County commissioner and former teacher and St. Paul school board member. His father, Melvin Jr., was one of a group of cops hired to integrate the St. Paul police in the early 1970s. He grew up listening to dinner-table conversations about the news and issues of the day.
But, just as Carter trained 10 months a year to transform his speed into championships, he said it took decades of experience and refinement to morph from a serious boy to the man who now leads St. Paul.
Melvin Jr. remembers his 3-year-old son hopping off his tricycle and approaching him one day, tears in his eyes.
“He said, ‘Dad, can I have a talk with you for a minute?’ ” Melvin Jr. recalls, chuckling. “ ‘Tomorrow, I am going to be 4 years old and it’s a very serious thing.’ ”
That 4-year-old, his mother remembers, also was serious about winning a Boy Scout soapbox derby competition. He studied the balance and mechanical nuances of the go-kart built by his uncle. He perfected the steering techniques taught by his father. Wearing a football helmet and cowboy boots, the 4-year-old beat a 12-year-old down the hill from Pilgrim Baptist Church.
The middle of three children, and the only boy, Carter learned to play hockey through a program for inner-city youth, playing for a decade for teams at St. Paul Academy. At tournaments around the state, “people looked on the ice and did a double-take” at seeing a black kid playing so well, remembered Nathaniel “Nick” Khaliq, whose son also played. Carter still plays pickup hockey at a St. Paul arena on Sunday nights.
He began speedskating in Roseville as part of his training for hockey, and spent many years playing football and basketball at the Jimmy Lee Recreation Center. He said he first fell in love with track “running around in the gymnasium” at St. Paul’s Martin Luther King Center. Carter would go on to win state championships in the 100-meter, 200-meter and 400-meter races, and place second in the long jump. His point total single-handedly helped St. Paul Central finish third in 1997.
Carter’s win in the state 100 came against a longtime friend who’d earlier beaten Carter for the city championship. Carter’s high school coach, Floyd Smaller, says Carter dedicated that season to winning the 100 at state.
“He worked hard to get ready for his big day,” Smaller says. “In the 100, he came out of the blocks and I said, ‘I think he’s got it.’ His first step, you could tell he was running to win. And at the tape, you could put a feather between them. But he won it.”
A strong student in science, language arts and math, Carter participated in talented youth programs at the University of Minnesota and across the Twin Cities and attended schools for gifted students at J.J. Hill and at Capitol Hill during junior high.
“The kid’s brilliant,” Henderson remembers thinking after Carter took an exam at J.J. Hill.
He sang in the church choir, plays the piano, can juggle, learned how to tumble, does origami, served as a mentor and has worked as an actor. (He auditioned for a part in “The Mighty Ducks.” They picked a kid from Canada.)
Khaliq remembers Carter winning numerous academic competitions, including one in which he passionately recited without notes a speech by the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. “He’s been an intellectual star from a young age,” says Khaliq, former president of the St. Paul NAACP and a longtime Carter family friend. “He was someone you would say, ‘OK, I can see him doing some things in life.’ ”
Carter, who lives only a block from his parents in the old neighborhood with his wife, Sakeena Futrell-Carter, and the youngest three of their five children, was asked to describe his childhood. “You know the saying, ‘It takes a village to raise a child?’ I was that child,” he says. “I grew up being taken care of by this community, by friends, mentors, teachers and elders who were determined to see me succeed whether I liked it or not.”
Business … then politics
His track success — Smaller says the high school All-America was among the best he ever coached — earned Carter a scholarship to Florida A&M University in Tallahassee, where he studied business administration. While he ran track all four years in college, and ran well, injuries proved speed bumps to post-collegiate stardom. Toni Carter thought her son’s future might be in banking or finance. So did Carter, who lived with his sister and her husband while at college.
Then, during the 2000 presidential elections, Carter saw his brother-in-law and hundreds of other students turned away from voting at Florida polls. He joined in protests. The next year, he gave the endorsement speech for his mother’s school board campaign.
Toni Carter says she was surprised, initially, that her son entered politics. “I shouldn’t have been,” she says, noting his unsuccessful campaign for student body president at FAMU. His campaign slogan: “More Moves Than Ex-lax.”
“This is where he wants to serve. He is in love with St. Paul. He wanted to move back and did move back,” she says, noting that people soon started asking when he would run for office. “He really wants to create something.”
Carter earned a master’s degree in public policy from the University of Minnesota Humphrey Institute of Public Affairs. He worked for a short while in finance, then as a community organizer and as a policy aide for Coleman.
In 2007, Carter ran for the First Ward seat on the St. Paul City Council, with a goal of improving the $1 billion Green Line light-rail project slated to go through the heart of his neighborhood. He and Russ Stark, who was running for the Fourth Ward seat that represents the neighboring Hamline-Midway area, shared a goal of “getting the Green Line done right,” Stark said, including pushing for three additional stops to better serve Frogtown residents and adding millions of dollars to alleviate parking and business losses due to construction.
“Melvin is one of the smartest people I know,” says Stark, who recently stepped down after a decade on the City Council to work for Carter as chief resilience officer. “He is quick-witted, connects with people, is an engaged listener. I saw him able to focus on the big picture and the questions that really matter.”
Carter said his goal was to prevent the same kind of damage once done to Rondo with the I-94 project.
“I came into office focused on light rail and making sure we didn’t repeat that mistake of uprooting a neighborhood without even stopping there,” he says.
A focus on children
In the weeks after he won the mayor’s job, beating his closest challenger 51 to 25 percent, Carter’s calendar was filled with kids. He visited a new early childhood program at the Rondo Education Center on one day, painted a mural on the walls at the Rice Recreation Center on another. He displayed an ease, a comfort, interacting with them, either when they shared their stories with him or grabbed paintbrushes together to splatter a concrete block wall — or the T-shirt he was wearing.
During Carter’s six years as a council member for the First Ward, much of his work focused on children.
The father of a girl with a peanut allergy, Carter worked to require restaurants to display information about food allergens. He helped the city ban candy cigarettes. And he helped launch the St. Paul Promise Neighborhood, a partnership with the Amherst Wilder Foundation and St. Paul Public Schools. The program supports children and their families in the Summit-University and Frogtown neighborhoods from “cradle to career,” with schools acting as hubs for services to address family health and homelessness, as well as providing academic support to students.
Ryan Vernosh, principal at Maxfield School, one of four schools in the Promise Neighborhood, said 30 percent of Maxfield’s 311 students will be homeless during a school year; 97 percent qualify for free lunch. The program helps provide the stability his students need to succeed, he says.
“Our kids don’t need saving,” Vernosh says. “They need opportunities. I know that [Carter] was integral in the planning for this and building on this idea and knowing that we need to wrap our arms around our students and our families.”
That work led to Carter leaving the City Council halfway through his second term, taking a job leading Gov. Mark Dayton’s Children’s Cabinet. He advised the administration on early childhood initiatives and helped families get state resources.
A year of listening
Not long after Coleman decided to run for governor, Carter was the first to toss his hat in the mayoral ring. He spent a year, he said, listening to the people of St. Paul and what direction they wanted for their city.
“There are so many people in this city who feel that they’ve never been asked,” he says of his time on front porches, in living rooms and backyards.
What he said he heard, what he supports, are policies that focus not just on jobs, but helping people build wealth. Not just closing the achievement gap in schools, but embracing diversity and building an economy that uses it to the city’s advantage.
“Our challenge isn’t how to make this less of a problem,” he says of St. Paul’s increasingly diverse and multilingual population. “Our challenge is how do we water the seeds?”
Burns, founder and former owner of GovDelivery, advises Carter on the local business community. He says Carter’s plans for investing in communities, for building new businesses and using diversity and the arts as an engine for growth resonates with a new, “not-so-silent majority” of St. Paulites. Carter’s support of a “forward” vision for a high-density Ford site is an example of embracing new ideas.
“This is not old St. Paul. This is a new, diverse, bigger St. Paul,” he said. “Carter is the right person at the right age at the right time. … He harnessed the positive energy that is so prevalent and amplified it.”
As important as the economic changes that Carter seeks is changing the relationship between many city residents and the police department. Too often, he says, members of minority communities see themselves as being policed by the police, not as partners with the police. While Carter agrees the city must reduce gun violence and shots fired calls, “Public safety isn’t just about chasing bad guys, but ensuring that our children have an opportunity to get a great education and get a summer job,” he says.
Changing use-of-force guidelines is a priority, he says.
Such statements on the campaign trail prompted police union leaders and others to endorse Carter’s main opponent in the mayor’s race, Pat Harris. Some said they doubted Carter’s commitment to public and officer safety. Just before the election, a letter from the police union and a citywide mailing from a political action committee tried to connect a burglary at Carter’s home in which two guns were stolen with increased gun violence in the city.
The insinuation was widely denounced and the union apologized. But the materials exposed a divide between supporters of traditional “law and order” and the approach espoused by Carter.
Nicholas Cole, an area teacher and a Carter friend since they were first-graders, says the new mayor has a deep, personal concern for officer safety. As children, they stayed up past bedtime working on jigsaw puzzles, waiting for Carter’s police officer father to return home safely.
Elmore James, a Carter campaign volunteer who moved to Minnesota from New Orleans in 1990, says not only did his opponents’ tactics fail to dent Carter’s campaign, they may have added to his vote totals.
“He’s of old St. Paul, but not old St. Paul politics,” James says. “That the city elected a young black man to be its leader is a significant statement by this community.”
While Coleman says he is confident Carter will succeed — “He’s not timid. He’s not afraid to make decisions” — he warned of bumps along the road.
Being mayor is unlike anything Carter has done before, Coleman says. Just as Coleman experienced crisis and criticism during his three terms, so will Carter before he’s done. But that’s also where Carter can shine, Coleman says.
“As mayor, you’re very dependent on who your deputy mayor is, on your department directors,” Coleman says. “But they have to know at the end of the day, you are the boss. You’re the leader. And you have to make decisions that are consistent with what your vision is for the city of St. Paul.”
Carter and Futrell-Carter held hands as they talked about where their family goes from here.
They’ve known each other for 17 years, meeting while Carter directed a community theater play in which her friend was acting. They stayed in touch over the years, but lost contact after he married. Years later, after Carter’s divorce in 2012, they ran into each other again while out listening to live music.
“I was not surprised at all [that Carter ran for mayor],” Futrell-Carter says. “Everyone knew this would be a natural next step. I know this is his passion, and he is going to be an incredible mayor. This is what he is supposed to do.”
Carter was asked whether he senses that he is following a direction he was meant to follow.
“It’s funny. I don’t. I’m the only one who doesn’t,” he says of friends, teachers, coaches. “They always knew.”
Their marriage is Sakeena’s first, Melvin’s second. Their newly blended family has five children, ages 25, 23, 11, 10 and 9. They are still trying to figure out how this mayor thing will affect their lives.
The new mayor and his wife, who has a doctorate in nursing practice and has a thriving women’s health practice, started counseling six months before they got married — not for trouble in their relationship, they said, but to prevent it.
“Like changing the oil,” Carter says, smiling.
To preserve their family time, they gather on the couch at home for movie time, all seven wearing matching pajamas.
They know his job means there will be Friday date nights that fall by the wayside. The job will intrude and schedules will have to change. But the still-young man, whose parents kept him so busy as a boy that he never had time for trouble, said that despite the work of implementing tomorrow for the city he loves, his “visioning” now includes a balance of work and family.
“I plan on being mayor for a long time here in St. Paul, and I owe every resident of the city my complete and full self,” Carter says. “And if I don’t prioritize time with my children and my wife, then I won’t have my full self. I see it as a priority to be the strongest and best leader I can be.”