By Wilt Hodges –
In November, St. Paul will decide on its next mayor.
While that may seem like an eternity away for residents; it is not for the six candidates who have already begun championing their vision for the Capital City. Make no mistake … despite the drama of the national political arena dominating much of our media (and social media’s) attention, the importance of local government and political engagement is more critical than ever. Issues ranging from minimum wage increase, which roads are plowed, which potholes are filled and access to health services are all intimately connected by local city and state government.
When I sat down with mayoral candidate Melvin Carter, urgency and importance of the role of local government was present in his voice and his vision for the city. Carter talked about cities as the “front lines of government.” Saying despite what is happening on the federal level, “It is in cities that they send signals about whose government this is.”
Wilt Hodges: How would you describe yourself?
Melvin Carter: I’m a product of this community. I’m a parent in this community. Our family was one of the Rondo families. I have seven deeds for commercial properties with Rondo Avenue addresses on them.
I’m a product of St. Paul in every way. I’m somebody who loves St. Paul and who knows St. Paul very well. I grew up on the bookends of the city … and the opportunity to bridge some of those divides that exist between the two in order to make it clear that we’re moving forward as one city – together – this creates an enormous amount of social opportunity and economic opportunity for our city that I don’t think we can allow to go by – especially right now.
WH: What was it like growing up in St. Paul? And how do you think it’s changed?
MC: St. Paul has gotten more and more diverse. More and more international. So our city is growing. We’re bigger than we’ve ever been since the (19)70s. We’ve got more culture, more arts; more nightlife, more sports. We’ve got a lot of wind in our sails right now.
Our challenge right now, is to make the promise of St. Paul, that brought my great-great parents here 100 years ago – that’s bringing our Hmong and Somali refugees here – that brought our Irish refugees here – is to make it true for every person in our city. And that’s to me what the challenge is right now.
WH: What do you think makes St. Paul distinct from Minneapolis?
St. Paul is a special place. We think of our city as a city of neighbors and it really is. I live around the corner from my parents; I can walk to the house I grew up in about 40 seconds without crossing the street. That’s a St. Paul thing. We’re passionate about our neighborhoods and we love our neighborhoods. And that’s something that makes us really special; that identity.
Along with that identity though, comes some separation. Between neighborhoods and community. I believe there’s an inner city just below the surface of St. Paul that we haven’t even accessed yet. We haven’t even seen yet. In that, when you look at cities that have the type of diversity that we have … not just two groups – a real blend – and a panorama of people; we’re starting to talk about cities Boston and San Francisco that have a whole different scale of economics than we really realize.
So the intriguing thing that we see is our passion for equity and our passion for economic growth coming in conflict with each other. Getting out of that dichotomy is critical for us making both happen. In a city as diverse as St. Paul we can’t create opportunity for everybody without growing the tax base.
And if we really want to grow our tax base and grow our economics and local economy, then the first place we ought to look, the most potent assets we have is our human capital that we’re underutilizing. That’s what excites me.
WH: What are its greatest strengths?
MC: Our people. The people who live here. And the love we have for this city; and that underlying belief that Paul Wellstone once said, “We really do better when we all do better.”
WH: What are its greatest challenges?
MC: Our challenge is the other side of that coin … figuring out how to unlock that potential for all the people, in all of the neighborhoods of this city. And that’s something we haven’t fully committed ourselves to yet.
WH: Can you comment on being the son of a St. Paul police?
MC: My father served 28 years as a police officer, working in the neighborhood he grew up in. And in the neighborhood he was raising children. And there was not a moment of those 28 years where he wasn’t aware that how we were treated in the community was going to be a reflection of how he treated the people he encountered on the job. As a result, I got a chance to see what I would consider a case study in community policing.
As a student in (St. Paul) Central High School, I would have friends that would come to me and say, “I met your dad yesterday.” And they’d say, “he’s cool.” He had a reputation that he would do his job and hold people accountable for their actions. And he knew how to do that while treating people respectfully.
I think our strongest asset for public safety is the trust that exists between community and law enforcement. And I got a chance to see that. My friends respected my father.
This is why it’s critical to have officers who reflect the diversity of our city. Because our officers go into a place, or go into a neighborhood and all of our safety – theirs and ours – are at stake.
So I see having a diverse set of first responders who represent community; who reflect the diversity of community and who are invested in our community, not just as a social justice goal but as a public safety goal, too.
WH: Can we restore trust between law enforcement and communities of color?
MC: Absolutely. We can restore the trust that exists between community and law enforcement mostly because so much trust already exists, particularly in St. Paul. We have a lot of good things to look at in terms of how our police interact with our community.
We also have some videos, we also have some lawsuits, we also have some incidents that are deeply disturbing – and they should be – to all of us. And the challenge with trust is that trust that takes a year to build only takes a moment to break.
WH: What inspires you today?
MC: Lots of things. My children sustain me. My family sustains me. I’ve got a phenomenal life partner who sustains me. Even with that, the works get difficult at times. And being surrounded by community who is supportive is sustaining. Also, seeing examples of strong leadership like Gov. (Mark) Dayton, who I work with, is inspiring. Seeing our former president, Barak Obama, navigate difficult waters with style and grace is inspiring.
WH: Would you say that you are ultimately hopeful?
MC: (The Rev. Dr.) Martin Luther King (Jr.) says, “The arc of the universe is long but it bends towards justice,” and I believe that, and in that, because I know there’s a nation full of people that doesn’t automatically bend itself. And so seeing all those people working together to intentionally continue pushing towards justice … yes, that makes me hopeful. And seeing all the people, this moment has awoken; that are engaged … that bodes well for our future.
WH: Do you see faith communities having a role in this current era?
MC: Absolutely. All of our major religions call on us to love strangers. And we’re seeing them all in our local community right here, answer that call. And that’s exciting.