Colby Hamilton, Writer, WNYC News
Colby Hamilton is a general assignment reporter. He originally joined WNYC as a political blogger. He's a proud graduate of the CUNY Graduate School of Journalism.
The field of candidates looking to run for mayor next year took the stage on Tuesday for the first time to as a group. The event was a conference on the current state and potential future of minority and women-owned businesses (MWBEs) in the city.
The panel of candidates—City Council Speaker Christine Quinn, Comptroller John Liu, Public Advocate Bill de Blasio, Manhattan Borough President Scott Stringer, 2009 mayoral candidate and forum comptroller Bill Thompson, and Manhattan Media owner and publisher of the publication sponsoring the event, City & State, Tom Allon—used the opportunity to tout their records, while attacking the current administration’s and laying out their own visions for what they would do if they get elected.
“What we’re here to talk about is economic justice, which is really the civil rights issue of this generation,” said Allon as he led off the discussion among the candidates. He gave the current administration a grade of a C-minus to the Bloomberg administration for its efforts to improve contracts to MWBEs.
“Ten years is a long time. We haven’t seen results when it comes to the advancement of MWBE firms. We haven’t seen a focus on it, up and down the administration,” said de Blasio. He went on to criticize the make-up of the mayor’s administration, saying “if you go to city hall you don’t see an administration that looks like New York City.” De Blasio gave Bloomberg an F for his efforts, “plain and simple.”
Liu characterized the current state of city contracting with MWBEs as a steep slide away from the administration of former mayor David Dinkin’s, saying, “We saw much greater participation levels by minority and women contractors and entrepreneurs in city contracts.”
He also pointed to the work he, de Blasio and Quinn did in 2005 as council members to pass Local Law 129, which was meant to help MWBEs procure city contracts, as proof of his and the others’ comment on this issue. Liu gave the mayor an A for the promises made regarding MWBEs, but an F for his execution.
Of the candidates, Quinn spent arguably the least amount of time heaping blame on the mayor. Instead, she focused on the benefits of improving the climate for MWBEs.
“What is one of the best ways we can help reduce unemployment and help New Yorkers get the great dream of being and staying in the middle class,” Quinn asked. “Helping them open small businesses.”
Quinn said that the bill passed in 2005 hasn’t been enough. “Looking back, the legislative scope of that bill didn’t go far enough and clearly the implementation was not done correctly,” she said. She gave Bloomberg’s administration a C/C-minus after initially grading them as “unsatisfactory.”
An estimated 3.7 percent of city contracts actually go to MWBEs, noted Stringer, and that the overall number of contracts had decreased between 2010 and 2011. “We’re not going forward. We’re going backwards,” he said.
“This is not about a hand-out to business and people. This is not about redesigning some social order,” Stringer said. “This is about a sound economic policy, because when you diversify the businesses that are able to access contracts, you increase the capacity of the New York City economy.”
Despite prodding by the forum monitor, New York Times City Hall bureau chief David Chen, to be more specific, Stringer stood by his grade of “incomplete” for the Bloomberg administration.
None of the candidates could point to as long a history working to increase MWBE contracts as Thompson.
“So many people in this room have been involved not for a year, not for two years, [but for] five years, ten years, twenty years, thirty years in the issue of diversity and fairness,” Thompson said, noting his own work as deputy borough president in Brooklyn helped getting an eighteen-percent MWBE quota for the MetroTech development project in the 1980s.
Thompson is also the head of the MWBE taskforce at the state level, having been appointed by Governor Andrew Cuomo. He drew a contrast between the state’s efforts and the city’s.
“The thing that you learn at the state level is that it starts at the top,” he said. “It starts with the governor, and the governor saying to his commissioners, ‘This is a priority for me.’”
Without giving the administration a specific grade, Thompson said the mayor’s efforts on this issue had been “failing.”
One of the main ideas discussed was the idea of a chief diversity officer. Most of the candidates agreed that they would want one in their administration, with the exception of Liu. Some, like de Blasio, felt it should be given the status of a deputy mayor position. All the candidates that supported said it would be a way to enforce diversity policy throughout city agencies.
Earlier, Mayor Bloomberg addressed the conference, where he outlined what he said was his administration's commitment to MWBEs. "Over the past six years, we’ve made significant strides in removing barriers to City contracting opportunities for minority- and women-owned firms," Bloomberg said in his remarks, noting that ", the number of MWBE firms that are certified to do business with the City has grown from 700 to more than 3,400 today", representing more than $2.7 billion in city contracts since 2005.