Despite her recent retirement from the Ramsey County Board of Commissioners, Toni Carter plans to stay busy supporting the community she represented for 18 years.
“The work that we are artfully doing together must continue,” said Carter during her symbolic “swearing out” ceremony at the Landmark Center in downtown St. Paul last month. “It cannot happen without the connected hearts and heads of all of us. I have to stop, but with that stopping, I want you to know that I will never end my love and my support for you.”
The first African American county commissioner in Minnesota when she was first sworn in in 2005, Carter said she’s made that love and support known by listening to community voices and centering diverse perspectives.
“We’ve gotten to know through the years that it’s not about just working for people, that working with people engenders better outcomes,” she said during the ceremony. “Today, I can see great change that we’re poised to make so we can do so much better work for people and families, businesses and organizations.”
During her time as commissioner, serving as chair of the board for the past two years, Carter played a role in reducing youth incarceration, shaping the Green Line light-rail project and supporting local art and artists, among other initiatives.
Carter will continue community work in various capacities. They include being on Ramsey County’s board for the Center for Economic Inclusion, on the board of the Trust for Public Land, on the governor’s Children’s Cabinet Advisory Council and with the Minnesota Council of Churches.
“I look forward to living a different life and not being quite as full-time occupied perhaps as before, but absolutely continuing to do the work to support children and families,” said Carter.
A focus on family
Carter moved to Minnesota to attend Carleton College in 1971 from Cleveland, where she was raised. She left a career as a systems engineer after 15 years at IBM in Minneapolis to become a teacher at Crosswinds Middle School in St. Paul in the early 1990s.
In 2001, Carter was elected to the St. Paul school board, where she also served as chair.
When the District 4 seat opened up on the Ramsey County Board of Commissioners four years later, she decided to run, hoping to further improve outcomes for more children and families by having a say in funding for programs that could directly benefit them.
Outgoing Ramsey County District 4 Commissioner Toni Carter talks about her service at the Ramsey County Courthouse Council Chambers in St. Paul on Tuesday, Dec. 20, 2022. It was the last meeting of the board of commissioners for the year. (John Autey / Pioneer Press)
“Everything we did for young people was not enough from the school district level,” she said. “When I joined the county board after winning the election, I was able to be a connection back to school and to communities in a way that we felt would support young people to do well, because we were able to support their families through a variety of ways that only the county would have the potential to impact, in the areas of human service and food support and poverty programs and workforce.”
Criminal justice reform
Carter’s work quickly expanded into equity for youth entering the criminal justice system. Recognizing disproportionately high incarceration rates of people of color, Carter spearheaded efforts to adopt the Juvenile Detention Alternatives Initiative in 2005, and as chair has seen the number of admissions to Ramsey County detention centers decrease 90 percent.
Even at times when progress was slow and conflict arose regarding the initiative’s direction, Carter “held the table” of those impacted by decisions made, said Laura LaBlanc, a community organizer who has co-chaired the JDAI since around 2015.
“What Toni did really well was listen to the community,” said LaBlanc. “And when we didn’t understand decisions she was making, we would have long conversations and pay more attention. … She could really carry the community voice into these complex systems and into the decision-making of the Board of Commissioners.”
Carter said the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic exposed the need for change on the adult side of the criminal justice system as well, and she was proud of Ramsey County’s reduction of incarceration rates.
However, in recent years, Carter said the county has seen an uptick in the number of adults held in detention in addition to certain types of crime, such as carjackings. Violent crime in Ramsey County increased 15 percent from 2020 to 2021, according to data from the Minnesota Bureau of Criminal Apprehension.
Carter doesn’t attribute these increases to the county’s commitment to providing alternatives to detention and incarceration, but she said continuing to observe trends and connect with communities impacted is important.
“We want to be mindful and attentive to the strategies that will ensure that we’re able to reduce that sort of offending,” said Carter. “But the transformation that we have been embodying has been a successful trajectory for lowering crime in our communities, so we don’t want to throw the baby out with the bathwater.”
Carter also worked to help shape the Green Line light-rail project that runs through her district along University Avenue. Along with a handful of public officials, she successfully advocated for the addition of light-rail stops at Western Avenue, Victoria Street and Hamline Avenue.
Other major projects Carter said she’s proud of include restoring downtown St. Paul’s historic Union Depot, which was completed in 2012, and reconstructing the Dale Street Bridge between Inglehart and University avenues in 2020 and 2021.
“I would like people to remember and know that while they will have seen me more visibly in certain areas of the work, that the work has always been about supporting community and driving equity in every area,” said Carter.
District 2 Commissioner Mary Jo McGuire said Carter has served as a strong mentor since she was elected to the Ramsey County Board in 2012. With a leadership style that is “persistent while respectful of others,” McGuire said Carter sought solutions to all issues that are important to her while including as many voices as possible in the process.
McGuire said she has sought similar leadership positions as Carter, receiving her guidance along the way. Both have led the Association of Minnesota Counties and served on the board of the National Association of Counties, where McGuire said Carter’s expertise on issues like early childhood and crime prevention has created change beyond Ramsey County.
“I appreciate her work on behalf of the whole community,” said McGuire. “She has truly made it better for people living in Ramsey County and in the state and in the country.”
In addition to her own work, Carter celebrates the achievements of her husband, former St. Paul police Sgt. Melvin Carter Jr., and her children, who she said have dedicated themselves to different forms of public service.
At Toni Carter’s retirement event, St. Paul Mayor Melvin Carter III, her son, said this is not a coincidence, as his mother has served as an inspiration to those around her.
“We joke sometimes about how we get cheated because we have to share our mom with so many of you in the community,” he said.
‘The work is on track’
Outgoing Ramsey County District 4 Commissioner Toni Carter, right, hugs fellow outgoing Commissioner Jim McDonough (District 6) during a board meeting in the Ramsey County Courthouse Council Chambers in St. Paul on Tuesday, Dec. 20, 2022. (John Autey / Pioneer Press)
Carter noted that the county board today functions differently from when she was first elected.
She said instead of acting as individuals who represent different areas, commissioners have begun to act as a cohesive body that makes decisions in a way that incorporates shared ideas about the well-being of the county.
“We don’t come to the table to vote independently on what I or someone else wants or likes, but we have been listening very closely to the community and synthesizing that into a set of those goals,” she said. “We are practicing and I think getting better at hearing, observing and then implementing the community’s voice in our work.”
Former state Rep. Rena Moran was sworn in to Carter’s seat on the board Jan. 3 and said she shares Carter’s priorities of supporting families and ensuring diverse voices are heard. She said that since winning election, she has sought advice from Carter and hopes to be “just as good as she was.”
“I want to make her proud that I get to be in this position to continue some good work that she can look back on and say, ‘Good job, Rena,’ ” Moran said.
Carter noted that “the work is on track toward the kind of transformed and sustainable future that we want. I’m able to step away and to participate now as a resident and community supporter, a cheerleader for all of that work with some specific deeper engagements. As I thought about not seeking re-election last year, I felt just really grateful for the opportunity to have done this work for so many years and with organizations and people who call Ramsey County home, to know that the achievements that we’ve made together through the years are in a position to continue.”