Melvin Carter got his formal inauguration as St. Paul mayor on Tuesday in what he said was a fitting setting: the gym of his old high school.
Son of a St. Paul cop and a public school teacher, track standout at the city's Central High, and third descendent of a family that fled racial hostility in Texas to find a new home in the Capitol city, Carter is arguably as native a son as the city has ever elected mayor.
But he also marks the arrival of a new generation in the city. Carter is St. Paul's first black mayor, the city's youngest chief executive in decades and a political iconoclast. He resigned midway through his second term as a City Council member and offered a stinging critique at his inaugural of one of the nation's proudest emblems, the "The Star-Spangled Banner."
Carter cited from the anthem's third verse, which includes an admonishment by Francis Scott Key to former slaves fighting for the British in 1812.
"This is the American paradox, passed from generation to generation, dating back to the noble group of rich white straight male landowners who embedded into our founding principles a yearning for a set of God-given rights they sought to secure for only themselves," Carter told hundreds of people gathered on the floor and in the bleachers in the school gym.
"Over the last year, many politicians have declined to answer when America was great," he said. "Here's my answer: We prove our greatness, again and again, with every generation that redeems the value of those powerful words that launched our democracy — 'We the People' — by fighting to ensure that 'we' truly means all of us."
His 20-minute address was warmly, and at times wildly, received, particularly in response to his shout out to Central students in the crowd. It included a lot of thank-you's and a tribute to his trumpet-playing grandfather who retired as a janitor at another St. Paul high school.
But Carter also outlined the opening moves of his policy initiatives, including an effort to revise the guidance for the use of force by the city's police, a plan to launch a $50 savings account for every child born in St. Paul and a promise to match the $15 an hour minimum wage initiative taking effect in Minneapolis.
He also called for a new dedication by city officials and employees to "examine every law, every system, every policy and process to eliminate structural inequity and give every child in St. Paul the opportunity to achieve her full potential."
And he called on residents and the public to join in a new volunteer initiative, "to build sweat equity through service," as he described it.
"We'll invite you to help build the vision; to help advance our values through policy proposals; and to help advocate for the lasting, transformative change we seek. We'll invite you to serve on task forces, commissions, district councils and nonprofit boards; and as volunteers in our schools, libraries and rec centers. Building a city that works for all of us will require all of us to do the work," Carter said.
He later greeted well-wishers in the gym and at a reception in the school cafeteria. He's hosting a "meet up" from 4:30 p.m. to 6 p.m. Tuesday at the Dark Horse Bar and Eatery downtown and will host eight other informal gatherings, capped by an inaugural ball on Friday night at Union Depot.
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