Usually, when a conference dubs itself “The New Agenda,” the title is understood to be a little bit of marketing hyperbole. Not so when the person naming the talk is Rev. Jacques Andre DeGraff.
When Rev. DeGraff, vice president of 100 Black Men, and Sandra Wilkin, the president emeritus of the Women Builders Council, approached City & State earlier this year about co-organizing a forum on minority- and women-owned businesses, or M/WBEs, they made it clear that their intention was not just to have an informed discussion of the issue but to galvanize progress in the arena.
By all measures, they succeeded in this aim. Even after drawing together a coalition of corporate co-sponsors including Allied Barton Security Services, News Corporation, Hudson River Bridge Constructors, Skanska and Bradford Construction, and assembling an all-star roster of speakers including Mayor Michael Bloomberg, Deputy Mayor Cas Holloway, Nielsen Group Chief Diversity Officer and Vice Chair Susan Whiting, City Council Finance Chair Dominic Recchia, New York Federal Reserve Chief Diversity Officer Diane Ashley, and a host of the other most important decision makers to the advancement of M/WBEs, DeGraff and Wilkin still were not done. They approached all of the candidates for mayor at the time of the conference, on June 12, and convinced them to collectively participate in the first candidate forum of the 2013 election season.
As a result, the all-day “New Agenda” conference ended with a discussion, moderated by New York Times City Hall Bureau Chief David Chen, featuring City Comptroller John Liu, Council Speaker Christine Quinn, Public Advocate Bill de Blasio, former City Comptroller Bill Thompson, Tom Allon, the CEO of Manhattan Media (the parent company of City & State) and Manhattan Borough President Scott Stringer, who has since dropped out of the race, in which all of the candidates pledged to make M/WBEs a focal point of their administrations were they to be elected.
Reflecting upon the impact of the conference, Rev. DeGraff explained, “It was a seminal event for a variety of reasons. As one of the candidates said to me afterwards, ‘This is one of the position papers that’s usually the last one down,’ and for it to be the first forum for mayoral candidates elevated the entire discussion.”
“Personally, I put it under the same category as being at Woodstock,” Wilkin said. “It was just an unbelievable approach that I don’t recall has ever been done, focusing on such a key issue in terms of business, and so directly.”
The effect of the conference was not just the elevation of M/WBEs in terms of their perception and importance in the political arena; it led shortly thereafter to the introduction of actual legislation by Speaker Quinn in the City Council to immediately address some of the most pressing concerns articulated at the event.
“In political terms, it was a lightning move,” said Walter McCaffrey, a former City Councilman who is now a consultant and lobbyist working to pass M/WBE legislation.
The bill, Int. 911, tackles head-on one of the greatest complaints about the M/WBE law that is currently on the books: a $1 million cap on the size of contracts for which M/WBEs are allowed to compete.
“Having a cap really limited the opportunities that were there for minority- and women-owned businesses in the city,” Wilkin said.
Additionally, the legislation encourages M/WBEs to collaborate on bidding for projects in joint ventures and increases transparency and accountability in monitoring the awarding and administration of these contracts, a very important feature for opponents of M/WBEs, whose main criticism is generally the allegation that many businesses that pass themselves off as M/WBEs are actually fronts gaming the system by using a female or a minority employee who is not actually the owner of the company.
Though Wilkin admits that legislation can always do more, she is delighted with the bill as drafted.
“The difference between the current legislation and the new legislation is a huge step forward,” she said.
Since its introduction the legislation has already drawn 30 formal co-sponsors and ten of the remaining 21 members of the Council have publicly pledged to support the bill. No organized opposition appears to have been mounted as of yet.
Though a vote still has to be scheduled—action was delayed by Hurricane Sandy—it appears all but certain that Int. 911 will pass once it finally gets to the floor, which, according to Speaker Quinn will be “soon, in the very near future.”
“It’s not a matter of if any more, it’s just a matter of when,” McCaffrey said of the bill’s chances.
Rev. DeGraff said that the importance of the proposed legislation is more than just removing some of the hurdles currently standing in the way of M/WBEs.
“It’s not just about having more people and ethnic groups participate, it’s about who sits at the table of power,” said Rev. DeGraff. “MWBEs are a key element for the empowerment of communities of color.”