Be intentional … and aspirational: Baraka, Sumter on how to address state’s dismal disparity study results

Ensuring minority businesses get share of government contracts that are reflective of their size needs to be constant concern

Newark Mayor Ras Baraka rattled off the questions he often finds himself asking government employees in the city:

  • “Where did you buy this paper from?
  • “When you do the catering, what company did you use to get it — and why are we using the same company four times?
  • “Why are we doing emergency contracts over and over and over again?”

Being an inquiring mind has helped the city of Newark’s procurement by minority-owned companies go from an embarrassingly low 3% to a still-not-good-enough 30% (Baraka’s words).

The questions are emblematic of both the daily struggle to ensure minority-owned companies get government contracts — and of how difficult that challenge can be.

Simply put, if not in Newark, then where?

Baraka was speaking as a panelist at a town hall-style meeting Saturday in Newark to discuss the state’s recently released disparity study — and what can be down to turn around the shockingly low numbers that were revealed.

The event, held at New Jersey Institute of Technology and sponsored by Newark Councilman Lawrence Crump, was aimed at finding solutions. Baraka and Assemblywomen Shavonda Sumter (D-Paterson) were asked to detail what elected officials can do to help.

Baraka rattled off more of the things Newark is doing — acknowledging that it still isn’t doing enough.

He pointed to classes at Invest Newark to show businesses how they can strengthen their balance sheets to give them the ability to bond — and the fact that the city will loan companies money up front, so they overcome an often-impossible financial hurdle of waiting 60-90 days to get paid.

More than anything, it’s intentionality, Baraka said.

“We have an anchor collaborative in Newark that takes all the major institutions and corporations and tells them that they have to lift their level of procurement in the city of Newark,” ‘he said.

Baraka said more people at more levels of government should be doing this — supporting the idea that state and local agencies should have employees with this task.

“We have to fight with our folks in Newark to make sure that they are procuring local businesses that are Black and brown,” he said. “We have to do that intentionally in this city. So, in the state, you can imagine if you’re not doing it intentionally, what is happening — you can see the numbers.”

The numbers are astonishingly bad.

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.

And, while there have been statements and conversations from Gov. Phil Murphy’s administration and legislative leaders, there has been little announced publicly — not even a conversation such as the one that took place here.

Sumter, the chair of the Legislative Black Caucus — a bipartisan group of more than a dozen legislators from up and down the state — summed up the feelings of just about everyone who saw the stats.

“We knew they were going to be bad, but we didn’t know they were going to be that bad,” she said.

Sumter said the Legislature needs to do more — and pledged to do so. She called for public hearings.

“We need to consider working together for formal hearings in the Legislature,” she said. “We need to lean on the Speaker (Craig Coughlin) and the Senate President (Nick Scutari). I work with them daily, because this is about economics.

“We need to (hold the hearings) in the State House, where we write and draft legislation, where we can codify and make it the rule of the land for the state of New Jersey.”

Sumter said being intentional is a start — but only if it comes with being aspirational, too, she told the audience.

It’s the only way the state can make up for a process that has cost people of color billions of dollars — dollars they can never get back.

“I’d like to incorporate that into the procurement process,” she said — saying the aspiration should be to repair the system by acting with precision.

She pointed to New York, which recently announced it has an aspirational goal of ensuring 30% of government contracts go to business owners of underserved communities, whether it be communities of color, veterans or women.

“We need to be hyperfocused on creating opportunities,” she said.

Sumter asked for help from the audience — and from everyone who has been left out.

“I need the tension from each of you,” she said.  “I need the pull from each of you to give us the wings to perform a legislative package of repair. That includes aspirational, measurable goal setting in over the 700 different departments and authorities within the state of New Jersey that contracts.”

What can be done, how it can be done (there always is a threat of a lawsuit) and how soon it can be done is unclear.

John Harmon, the founder and CEO of the African American Chamber of Commerce of New Jersey and the moderator of the event, said his group has made numerous asks that he feels can be acted upon immediately.

One is a moratorium on all non-emergency contracts up to $5 million — the limit at which Project Labor Agreements kick in.

The bigger issue, Harmon said, is a willingness to play politics.

“One thing that is often said in the Black community is, ‘I don’t do politics,’” he said. “If you don’t do politics, politics is going to do you. We need to change the mindset. Let’s get this money. It’s not personal. If you want to win, let’s not be stuck on the stupid stuff.

“Poverty does not feel good, nor look good.  Let’s be aspirational about getting as much money as we can.”

Luis De La Hoz, the chairman of the Statewide Hispanic Chamber of Commerce of New Jersey, agreed.

“We are very polite and very respectful, but we have the power because each citizen has one vote,” he said. “And there’s a lot of us. If we work together, we can make those changes.”