Talking the talk: Harmon looking for more action after disparity study

Head of African American Chamber has started task force — and wants to see state, minority groups speak out on next steps

John Harmon, the head of the African American Chamber of Commerce of New Jersey, has spoken with Gov. Phil Murphy on a few occasions since the state’s astonishing disparity study was released a month ago — and he’s walked away pleased by the conversations.

“The governor has agreed to have his people meet with our task force to work out a game plan going forward, which is encouraging,” Harmon said. “When I’m talking to the administration, they seem sincere.”

And, before the chamber’s annual Circle of Achievement Awards Gala on Thursday night in Garfield, he spoke with Lt. Gov. Tahesha Way, one of the speakers at the event.

More positives, Harmon said.

“The LG reiterated their commitment — and she seemed sincere about getting something done by June,” he said.

Talk is nice, but Harmon makes it clear he is not going to sit around and wait for action.

The study, which showed minorities and women get government contracts at levels so much lower than their percentage of the population that it’s hard to believe, is a starting-off point for Harmon and the members of the chamber.

That’s why, instead of waiting on the administration or the Legislature to put together a working group, he’s created one of his own — one that will continue to push the issue.

Harmon understands there are many stakeholders in the discussion — and there are many reasons things need to move slowly (starting with avoiding litigation) — but he doesn’t understand why his group should wait around.

When you get 1% of 1% of contracts (in certain categories), when you have enough companies to allow you to get 10%, the disparity is so bad that you have to keep speaking up, he said.

“There’s no reason to keep quiet; where has that gotten us?” he asked.

It should be noted that the state did not have to do this study — and that it is the first to be done since Gov. Jon Corzine’s administration.

It also should be noted that no one said they were surprised by the stunningly low numbers that were released.

The administration and Legislature — which has been noticeably quite since the disparity study was released Jan. 23 — released a joint statement earlier this week updating what they have done in the past four weeks.

“The disparity study undertaken by the Murphy administration is the first conducted in nearly 20 years and the most comprehensive look at underrepresentation in contracting in the state’s history,” the statement read.

“Since the study was issued, the administration has met with a range of stakeholder groups both in and out of government to gain broad insight into how best to address the disparities outlined in the report.  We have also begun working with our partners in the Legislature on comprehensive policy solutions to address the disparities pointed to in the study and will move these along as expediently as possible.”

One thing the state has done is waive the $100 fee for the business certification program.

Harmon (and other groups) are looking for a bit more. And, if not through initiatives, then at least through intentionality.

“There’s some things they could do right now,” Harmon said. “An email from the governor to all the agencies letting them know that the disparity study has been done and the state has an obligation to make this right — and that we want you to start thinking about ways in which we can meet that objective. That, in itself, would be a statement of intentionality.

“He could send a second email to the trades saying, ‘For years, you have been benefiting from taxpayer dollars, we ask that you find a way to construct a better relationship going forward.’”

While Harmon barely mentioned the disparity study in his public remarks at the gala — he told the crowd that was for another day — he said it was the lead point of his private discussions.

“People were asking me what we can do,” he said. “We had people at the event from Delaware and Pennsylvania and New York who were stunned at how it is here — because it’s not that way where they are from.

“They were asking, ‘How they could help?’”

Harmon knows he’s fighting an uphill battle.

He said he has been disappointed that more minority groups are not coming out more forcefully on the issue — and he said he noticed there were some conspicuous absences at the gala.

But, he said he won’t sit back.

“You’ve seen the numbers, what do we really have to lose?” he said.