The money is there: Why ask by minority businesses for share of government contracts is just

At disparity study town hall, call to action starts with most basic premise — getting access to contracts that exist but are going to others

Near the end of a town hall-style event Saturday in Newark held to discuss the state’s recently released disparity study — and how minority businesses can respond to a report that showed for years that they have been systematically short-changed when it comes to landing government contracts — Ryan Haygood delivered one of at least a dozen mic-drop lines from the event.

“What’s striking about this conversation is we’re not talking about scarcity of resources,” he said. “Very often, the thing you hear when you ask for something is, ‘We don’t have the money for that.’

“The money is there. We just want a proportional share.”

Haygood, the CEO of the New Jersey Institute for Social Justice, was part of an all-star panel of elected officials and business leaders — including Newark Mayor Ras Baraka, Assemblywomen Shavonda Sumter (D-Paterson), MZM Construction CEO Marjorie Perry, Statewide Hispanic Chamber of Commerce of New Jersey Chair Luis De La Hoz and Denise Anderson, the CEO of Denise Anderson & Associates, who delivered a stirring keynote address.

The event, held at New Jersey Institute of Technology, was sponsored by Newark Councilman Lawrence Crump and moderated by John Harmon, the CEO of the African American Chamber of Commerce of New Jersey.

Among the many topics of conversation was this: Minority companies are not wrong to ask for a larger share of the state’s contracts. Their proportional share.

There obviously are challenges in the ask. Haygood said it starts within the community itself.

“We have gotten so used to being harmed — and, if we’re not careful, very often, we think of our existence in terms of harm reduction as a strategy,” he said.

“Rarely, do we get to a space of winning.”

Minority-owned companies are not winning in New Jersey. In fact, they’re not even in the game.

The 221-page disparity study, commissioned in 2020 and released in January, was filled with stunning data, including this fact: Even though Black-owned companies in the state represent 9.19% of the available construction businesses, they received only 0.14% of the dollars on construction contracts valued over $65,000 to $5.71 million. (The report estimates this potentially cost these businesses $209 million.)

The report listed similarly stunning numbers toward Hispanic-, Asian- and women-owned companies.

Baraka said the barriers to fixing this are both real and imagined — and that minority businesses need to fight to correct historical suffering in the past and misinformation in the present.

The mayor, a recently announced candidate for governor, said there have been historic, systemic and deliberate exclusion — much of which is based on racism.

“(It) means that our remedies have to be deliberate and intentional,” he said. “The problem is that, when you try to do these things, people make you believe that what you’re doing is wrong. That it is illegal.”

Baraka said he feels many officials and bureaucrats that are in position to move the needle feel doing so would be improper.

“Trying to convince them that this is what we must do is part of the struggle,” he said. “They have been convinced that fixing this will get them in imminent trouble. That is a heavy object to move. We try to move it every day.”

Being intentional is key, many said.

Administration spokespeople have said initiatives and legislation are being worked on. Harmon acknowledges he has had many conversations with key stakeholders. And yet, little has been done publicly to address the study.

De La Hoz said minority businesses — and the groups that represent them — can’t wait. He said they need to be asking (even demanding) a piece of the proverbial business pie from the start.

He points to the $20 billion Gateway Tunnel project and the 2026 World Cup. He noted that the announcement of the World Cup final coming to New Jersey happened a month ago, but the NY/NJ Host Committee started working on the event four years ago with things such as requests for information.

“If we just pay attention when the headlines hit, we lose,” he said. “Because it’s in those four years where everything happened.

“We get excited, but we don’t get that piece of action because we miss that portion (of the process).”

De La Hoz and his chamber are trying get ahead of the game when it comes to the World Cup.

The state is actively seeking approximately $150 million from New Jersey companies to help pay for so many of the logistics around the event — everything from security to marketing to catering, etc.

De La Hoz said his chamber is reaching out to these companies and asking them to speak up for minority businesses.

“This is a message for big corporations: If you’re giving money, please make sure that the conversation about how that money gets spent with minority business owners happens (before you write the check),” he said.

The panelists said it’s not wrong to hold people accountable.

Harmon agreed. He said talks have to have substance — and come with an ask.

“We have to ask and/or demand what we want,” he said “Otherwise, we’re just having a nice conversation.”

Haygood said not demanding action only helps to perpetuate a system that he feels inherently works against minority businesses — producing the disturbing shortcomings found in the disparity study.

“What those numbers reflect is a design to produce exactly that result, which separates us from the very best things in the state,” he said.

Even worse. It opens it up for others.

Sumter said one of the awful takeaways of the study — one she’s working to address — is the number of contracts going to firms located outside of the state.

“We, as a government, need to reduce the barriers and really partner with the residents of this state for business opportunities,” she said. “The report shows that there are businesses within the region that could have participated in contracting in all the different levels.

“The report states that there was more outmigration of contracts than contracts to Black folks.”

It was another mic-drop moment.