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How The Twin Cities Mayors Diverge on Policing and Race

While Minneapolis Mayor Jacob Frey faces scrutiny over policing and racial equity issues, St. Paul Mayor Melvin Carter has helped his city achieve progressive milestones, say lawmakers and advocates.

St Paul Mayor Melvin Carter and Minneapolis Mayor Jacob Frey during a funeral held for Daunte Wright on April 22 in Minneapolis.Photo by Stephen Maturen/Getty Images

As the Mississippi River makes its journey from northern Minnesota to the Gulf of Mexico, it splits the Twin Cities in two: Minneapolis to the west and the state’s capital of St. Paul to the east. The cities have also diverged politically. Both are led by young mayors who promised reform, but city leaders, activists, and experts say they are frustrated by Minneapolis Mayor Jacob Frey and laud St. Paul Mayor Melvin Carter for his progress in office so far.

Carter, the city’s first Black mayor, has implemented programs focused on equity and inclusion for marginalized communities. He supported and signed into law a commission to explore reparations, piloted guaranteed income, and offered college savings accounts for every child born in the city in 2020 and after. “I think we have work to do to make sure this is a city that works for everyone, where everyone in every corner of our city knows that they have access to the highest quality of public services possible, and building an economy that works for everyone,” Carter told Minnesota Public Radio in 2017.

Frey, who is white, promised to invest in affordable housing and improve relations between the community and police. “We want police officers to come from the community,” Frey said at a meeting with a Minneapolis group in 2017. “We want people to be invested in the neighborhoods in which they are serving. You’re more invested in the neighborhood in which you are living.” But he has floundered publicly over the police killings of George Floyd in his city and Daunte Wright in Brooklyn Center, Minnesota. After a 6-year-old girl in North Minneapolis was recently hospitalized with a gunshot wound, Frey held a press conference and said he believes in a “both-and” approach to addressing violence, calling for prevention strategies as well as more police. Frey’s approach to policing also contrasts with that of Brooklyn Center Mayor Michael Elliott, a Black man who within weeks of Wright’s death proposed and helped pass a resolution that establishes a public safety department with unarmed traffic enforcement and a mental health response division. 

D.A. Bullock, a filmmaker and community activist in North Minneapolis, described the press conference in a tweet as a “campaign event” that contrasts with what he sees as Frey’s continued absence during a tumultuous time for the city.

“George Floyd’s murder put the spotlight on how the Minneapolis Police Department responded to that with a lot of additional escalation and violence. …  The mayor’s reaction to that was being sort of hands-off,” Bullock told The Appeal. “Can you say you’re achieving here or not? I think a lot of people are disappointed that he has not … and [that he] has been reticent to take responsibility.”

Neither Frey nor Carter responded to The Appeal’s requests for comment on this story.

David Schultz, a political science professor at St. Paul’s Hamline University, said it’s important to understand that the mayors’ legal powers differ in significant ways. “Minneapolis is a weak mayor system where the City Council has much more authority [over] the mayor than you have in St. Paul,” he says. “Right off the bat, the mayor has more decentralized power in Minneapolis—Frey has powers of appointment, but nowhere near the same strength as Mayor Carter has.”

Frey and Carter may operate within different systems, but both are seeking re-election in November. And what they have or haven’t been able to achieve within their respective systems is shaping up to be at the heart of the election in which Carter currently stands uncontested. Frey, on the other hand, already has at least six challengers, including community organizer Sheila Nezhad, former state Representative Kate Knuth, and A.J. Awed, co-executive director of the Cedar-Riverside Community Council.

Much of the dissatisfaction surrounding Frey has to do with the delivery of his campaign promises—or lack thereof, particularly surrounding policing—and his ties to business interests that some say outweigh those to the community.

Bullock believes Frey did not use one of his few powers—the ability to appoint the chief of police—appropriately, and Frey’s choice to keep Medaria Arradondo in the position backfired.

“I genuinely believe that he thought Chief Arradondo would be a strong block from him receiving a lot of criticism or scrutiny around what actual changes were happening at the department and be able to employ incremental reform steps in a way that would satisfy people politically,” he said. “A leader, especially for our future, is going to have to evolve [the city’s police culture] or confront it … instead of being conciliatory, which is pretty much what he’s been throughout.”

Members of the City Council are frustrated with Frey as well.

“I think Frey has focused more on the budget and really prioritized funding for affordable housing and police … one of which I agree with more than the other,” Minneapolis City Council President Lisa Bender, who is not running for re-election this fall, told The Appeal. Frey has been at odds with Bender and other City Council members over police funding, particularly since Floyd’s murder and the heightened calls for police reform it brought. “I think this is probably clear in the public record that he’s often supportive of a thing to a point. He supported affordable housing as long as it was an incentive, not a requirement.”

Minneapolis ended single-family zoning during Frey’s tenure and with his support, a move that garnered extensive attention from national media and was portrayed as a bold step in addressing the city’s lack of affordable housing. “I believe strongly that housing is a right. I believe that everyone should have a safe place to go home to at the end of the night, to rest their heads on a pillow and rejuvenate for the next day. Clearly that right is not afforded to everyone,” he told Bloomberg CityLab in 2018. Despite the attention, some local groups expressed skepticism, suggesting the policy would not help low-income renters. Frey has also passed a budget that offers incentives for commercial developers at the same time he maintains his opposition to rent control

Bender sees Frey’s housing policies as being chiefly influenced by the business community to the point that it continues to have an outsize voice, which is driving gentrification and even increasing police presence in the city. “Before he was mayor, he represented the downtown district, Ward 3, on our City Council, so he definitely has a band of support in the business community that has been consistent and important through his time in office,” she said.

When you grow up in a community and you have lived experience, that gives you some clear leadership assets and one of them is lived experience.

Mitra Jalali St. Paul City Councilmember

Bender’s experience with Carter, although limited, has been markedly different. She belongs to a coalition of local elected officials dedicated to advancing a racial and economic justice agenda called Local Progress. Carter is a member, but Frey is not. “It’s a small thing, but a bit of an indication about their orientation as leaders,” she said.

Differences with Carter are largely over strategy rather than values, said St. Paul City Councilmember Mitra Jalali, who identifies as a member of the movement for equity and justice in the city and beyond. “I think that the nature of conflict in St. Paul stems from that. The arguments and battles aren’t about the ‘whats,’ they’re about how to get there,” she told The Appeal.

Although Jalali cautions that one person should never be seen as a savior, she sees Carter as someone who understands the community he serves. “When you grow up in a community and you have lived experience, that gives you some clear leadership assets and one of them is lived experience,” she said. “That if you’re working on problems, they aren’t just a job to you. They’re impacting the people you grew up with.”

So far, Carter’s tenure has included programs designed to do just that. St. Paul was the second city in the nation, behind Stockton, California, to launch a guaranteed income pilot program to unconditionally distribute $500 a month, largely to families of color. Another program gives every child born in St. Paul after Jan. 1, 2020, a $50 seed deposit in a college savings account. And the city’s reparations committee must make short-, medium-, and long-term recommendations that “specifically address the creation of generational wealth for the American Descendants of Chattel Slavery and to boost economic mobility and opportunity in the Black Community.”

Carter has also asked the St. Paul Police Department to trim $9.2 million from its budget and has been working to explore community-oriented public safety reforms since before George Floyd’s murder put St. Paul’s twin city on the international map.

Carter is a fourth-generation St. Paul resident with deep ties to his community. His mother, Toni Carter, was recently re-elected as the chairperson of the Board of Commissioners in Ramsey County, which houses St. Paul. Carter’s upbringing contrasts with that of Frey, who grew up on the East Coast and moved to Minneapolis in 2009.

“[Carter] went to Central, I went to Central. He played on the basketball team, I played on the basketball team—we had the same coaches,” Trahern Crews, a St. Paul-based community activist, told The Appeal. “He has a better understanding of the people and the city” and the challenges they face, he said.

Taking all of this and more into account, Schultz, the professor, said he expects to see at least one opponent for Carter, but the candidate will be “nominal.”

“At the end of the day, the race is essentially over,” he added. Schultz expects things to look different to the west. 

If a Democratic opponent arises for Frey who “can mount a serious challenge, he’s clearly vulnerable,” Schultz said. “If you look at the criticism that he’s taken about handling the days after George Floyd’s death, normally I’d think something like that would basically destroy an incumbent.”