The pandemic – and the road forward out of it – was top of mind at the first hybrid Breakfast With the Mayors event on Jan. 27. University of St. Thomas President Julie Sullivan, St. Paul Mayor Melvin Carter and Minneapolis Mayor Jacob Frey all expressed gratitude at being able to gather in person. At the event, held at James B. Woulfe Alumni Hall on the university's St. Paul campus, the second-term mayors talked about progress, priorities and partnerships.
"All of us know how challenging and important leadership has been over the unprecedented past few years and in the uncertain times that we, frankly, still traverse," Sullivan said. "We're really grateful for our mayors' strong leadership."
The event was open to the public, but by being held on the St. Thomas campus it provided a unique opportunity for St. Thomas students, faculty and staff to connect directly with these Twin Cities leaders on pertinent community issues.
Frey and Carter reflected on the challenges of the pandemic and their cities' opportunities for change.
Overcoming challenges, making progress in Minneapolis
Frey expressed optimism for Minneapolis on the other side of the pandemic.
"This work of recovery right now is not about getting back to the old normal, but blowing by it," he said. "Understanding that we are in a reckoning 100 years in the making around racial justice, it's on all of us to be that change that we all want to see. It's on all of us to recognize – not just in our words, but in our actions – the importance of shifting the game and changing the way we have done things in the past."
Frey shared the progress made in the first two and a half years of his first term. He highlighted accomplishments in affordable housing, the start of the Stable Homes Stable Schools initiative and a commercial property development fund to bridge equity gaps in communities of color, and achievements in safety and accountability through 2019.
Then March 2020 happened.
"I remember I was sitting at a conference table in my office," Frey said. "In front of me, I had an emergency declaration – that was going to be the first signed in quite some time. In one hand I had a pen, and I was able to sign that piece of paper. In the other hand I had a cellphone to FaceTime with my [pregnant] wife, who pointed the camera at the ultrasound.
"I remember thinking to myself that this is the most important thing in my professional life that I'll ever do in one hand and the most important thing in my entire life in the other."
More challenges were on the horizon for Frey, though: the murder of George Floyd, an economic downturn, unrest through Minneapolis, a city budget and fiscal crisis, and a reckoning around racial justice.
"Through all of it, we have learned a whole lot," Frey said. "We have made necessary changes, but we have a whole lot more work to do."
In terms of priorities for Minneapolis, he said that taking the necessary precautions to safely reopen the city is important. That not only involves dealing with COVID-19, but also creating a safe environment that includes and goes beyond policing.
It means ensuring that the hardest hit areas are helped, bringing businesses back online and transitioning how to think about space in the city.
"A humbling piece in all of this is that some of it we just don't know. If there's one prediction that I can make that I guarantee will be accurate, it's that in five to 10 years, there will be things that I have done wrong that I don't know yet..." Frey said. "The underlying values need to guide us every step of the way. We tell the truth. We try to do the right thing. We work our ass off and we love our cities."
A focus on public safety, housing and jobs in St. Paul
Carter described the last two years as rough.
"In some ways, everything has changed," he said. "In some ways, nothing has changed."
Carter noted that the pandemic has cost the lives of millions across the globe. He pointed out that it's an economic epidemic involving people who have lost jobs and businesses, and mentioned the tenfold increase in unsheltered homelessness in St. Paul in a matter of weeks. Carter also said that the national increase in violent crime is a part of the pandemic.
"Our hearts have been broken again and again and again by some of the worst moments imagined..." he said. "The road forward for our community rests in our understanding [that problems existed before the pandemic]."
In terms of priorities, Carter highlighted public safety first, stressing a focus on fully funding a comprehensive approach. He noted accomplishments such as that, compared to four years ago, the St. Paul Police Department is responding quicker to 911 calls; uses significantly less force; clears a higher percentage of violent crimes with an arrest; and is at a 10-year low in legal settlements for officer conduct lawsuits.
"Our public safety strategy has to start with the type of smart investments in people and in places that can help us reduce the likelihood that terrible things will happen in the first place," Carter said.
A second priority that Carter called attention to was housing.
"I was proud to partner with our city council and with our county just last month to announce a $75 million investment in deeply affordable housing," he said.
That investment will add 1,000 deeply affordable units but will only scratch the surface of what's needed, Carter said.
Finally, he said that jobs and rebuilding the economy is the third priority for St. Paul.
"If St. Paul has a partner and teammate in the work [of economic development], it's Minneapolis," Carter said. "A strong Minneapolis means a stronger St. Paul, and a strong St. Paul means a stronger Minneapolis."