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Local Minority Firms Say DNC Cut Them Out

by LA Times Sunday, Aug. 13, 2000 at 1:23 AM
mark@musicnote.com mark marbles

Convention: For all the talk about inclusion and the underdog, big money forms the backbone of next week's bash.

errorMore mainstream press that supports views of protesters:

By MARLA DICKERSON, Times Staff Writer

Once hoping for a fat slice of Democratic National Convention contracts, local minority entrepreneurs are scrambling for leftovers just days before the opening of the nominating bash. Some are complaining loudly that the Democrats are taking them for granted, and at least one legislator has resorted to behind-the-scenes arm-twisting to secure more convention dollars for minority business owners.
It wasn't supposed to be this way. The Democratic National Convention Committee came to town earlier this year preaching diversity and opportunity to the small businesses that dominate L.A.'s economy. Organizers staged community forums and encouraged women and minorities to register with an online business directory touted as the key to landing contracts come convention time. What these entrepreneurs didn't realize is that some of the most lucrative opportunities were already sewn up by bigger firms, cutting small players out of the action before it even started.
"I never got a fair shot," said David Perry, a local African American photographer who was steamed that a Washington firm got the lock on the convention's picture business.
He and others complain that the DNCC's outreach to local firms was more symbolic than substantive. Such grousing could be dismissed as sour grapes. But it has nevertheless fueled competition among ethnic groups jockeying for the DNCC's remaining contracts. Rep. Maxine Waters (D-Los Angeles) recently rallied African American business owners to a meeting with convention organizers to press for more dollars for black entrepreneurs.
The DNCC denies that it has short-changed minority entrepreneurs and has pledged that $3 million, or nearly one-quarter, of its $13 million in contracts will be funneled to minority- and women-owned businesses. Spending by visiting state delegations could yield millions more. Small-business owners say they'll believe it when they see it. So far the DNCC has refused to disclose the details of its spending, disappointing those who wanted to see more little guys in the Democrats' big tent.
"They raised a lot of people's expectations," said Ruth Lopez Williams, chairwoman of the Latin Business Assn. "Now they need to be accountable to the community. No question."
For all the talk about inclusion and the underdog, big money and big corporations form the backbone of any political convention. The Democrats, for example, have enlisted AT&T Corp. as their "primary technology partner" for the four-day affair, while Motorola Inc. will be supplying the DNCC and local host committee with free mobile phones and other equipment.
Political watchdogs say all the corporate logos reinforce the reputation of these nominating confabs as places where size equals influence, and small fry don't stand a chance.
"The big boys are in town and they're going to have their traditional links to the party," said Peter Eisner, managing director of the Washington-based Center for Public Integrity. "That's how the system works."
To dispel such criticism and ensure that some of the convention's economic benefits trickle down to the grass roots, the DNCC earlier this year made high-profile efforts to reach out to L.A.'s mom-and-pop businesses. Spirits soared as small fry saw an opportunity to get the inside track on an event estimated to bring 35,000 visitors and more than $130 million in spending to Los Angeles.
"It made you feel good . . . like somebody was going to give us some work," said Los Angeles sign-maker Mort Washington.
What they didn't know is that many contracts were sole-sourced. Prime contractors controlled the subcontracting portions of others. The upshot is that the most lucrative contracts were gone by the time some entrepreneurs figured out what was going on.
"I never even got a chance to bid," said Austin Moore, head of Pomona-based ACmoore Financial Services, who had hoped to get a crack at the DNCC's insurance business.
Even entrepreneurs who did get an opportunity to compete suspect the deck was stacked against them. Claremont photographer Perry said a DNCC staffer contacted him recently with an eye-popping offer: the chance to land the photography concession for the entire convention. It would require up to 25 photographers and an intricate game plan. There was one more hitch. Perry had to submit a detailed proposal within 24 hours.
An experienced commercial photographer, Perry worked through the night to make the deadline, only to find days later that the concession went to a Beltway firm with a long resume of political shoots.
His conclusion?
DNCC officials "had already made up their mind," Perry said. " . . . They were just going through the motions with their outreach."
DNCC officials declined to respond to specific complaints, explain their vendor selection process or provide an accounting of the millions they've allocated for convention contracting.
"We are very proud to have awarded the highest percentage of minority contracts in the history of the Democratic convention," said DNCC spokesman Peter Ragone.
But that hasn't mollified some minority entrepreneurs who want to see the DNCC back pithy slogans with hard numbers. Concerned they are being bypassed in the contracting derby, nearly 100 African American businesspeople confronted DNCC officials in a meeting last month convened by Rep. Waters.
Attendees said the DNCC did provide a few statistics and a short list of local minority firms that received contracts. Figures presented in that meeting showed that as of mid-July, African Americans had received approximately $751,000 in DNCC contracts, Latinos $642,000, Asian Americans $60,000, Native Americans $5,000, women $885,000 and nonminority men the lion's share with around $10 million.
Waters did not respond to interview requests, but people familiar with the situation said she brought in her own auditor and formed a task force to press for more contracts for African Americans. That pressure has yielded results for entrepreneurs such as Washington, who recently landed a $1,600 contract to paint a convention sign.
"I'm grateful for the one job," Washington said. "Maxine lit a fire under somebody's butt."
Others say they're insulted to be tapped for small-dollar work now that the plum contracts are gone.
Drexel Muhammad, founder of the Young Black Contractors Assn. of South Central, said his efforts to win construction jobs for his members have yielded one potential contract--for portable toilets. Producer Elziroy "Sonny" Porter turned down the chance to make $2,500 planning a small party after the local host committee chose another vendor to coordinate its $1.5-million media gala. He credits Waters with helping him land a better-paying gig producing a convention-related gospel brunch, but remains frustrated with the process and the Democratic Party.
"They came in here banging drums and waving banners about all this opportunity," said Porter, owner of L.A.-based Future Agency. " . . . They want us to support them, but they won't support us."
Host committee spokesman Ben Austin defended his group's minority contracting efforts. He said 72% of the $4.2 million the group is spending on parties and other host functions was contracted through minority- and women-owned vendors.
He noted that the combined $17.2 million that the host committee and DNCC have to spend on contracting is only a small fraction of $132 million the convention is expected to pump into the local economy. A big chunk of that will come from the incoming delegates, who will be spending freely on entertainment, transportation and other services.
To encourage those visitors to buy locally, convention organizers said they've distributed a print version of their minority- and women-owned business directory to the state delegations and highlighted the online version on their Web site.
Some entrepreneurs have complained that the directory is about as useful as the telephone white pages, because it lists little more than their business name and number.
But others say it's working.
Juan De Lira, owner of Sherwood Florist in El Monte, said he has garnered about $2,000 worth of work thanks to Democrats using the directory. Marilyn Cole, owner of a Los Angeles soul-food restaurant, Chef Marilyn's Place, said she has gotten several calls about small convention-related catering jobs.
"I'm really just happy to be a part of it," she said. "But I sure wish I was working one of those big parties."

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