WASHINGTON -- Be creative and get involved in the political process.
That was the message participants heard at a meeting yesterday of the Minority Business Braintrust.
The political scene is ripe for minority businesses to actively promote their interests, the panelists said. Presidential candidates are wooing votes, contracts stemming from the new transportation bill are being sought, and economic stimulus programs are being debated on Capitol Hill.
Former Maryland Rep. Parren J. Mitchell, who founded the group in 1972 while serving in the House, presided over the meeting with Rep. Kweisi Mfume, D-7th, the organization's chairman.
"A combination of negative attitudes and the recession are hurting [minority-owned businesses] very, very badly," Mr. Mitchell, chairman of the Minority Business Enterprise Legal Defense and Education Fund Inc., said in an interview. Minority enterprises are suffering even more than their white-owned counterparts, he said.
The $155 billion transportation bill passed last year offers unprecedented opportunities for minority businesses to get a share of the federal pie, Kenneth House, a staff member of the House Committee on Public Works, told the audience.
Under the bill, at least 10 percent of transportation funds goes to minority and disadvantaged businesses.
Mr. Mitchell advised participants to be creative in calculating how they can "fit into the bill."
There is a need not only for heavy construction, but for engineers, office supplies, food services, billboards, guardrails, landfills and landscaping, he said.
In addition to offering unprecedented funding, the bill provides new opportunities by transferring decision-making authority from state governments to cities.
Power is likely to shift to municipal planning organizations, Mr. House said. Interested citizens can have a say in how these organizations are restructured, including the consistency of their membership and the projects that they choose to pursue, he said.
"The key is getting involved from the beginning," Mr. House said.
Panelist William Kirk, a lawyer for the National Association of Investment Companies, a venture capital group that invests in minority businesses, advised the conference participants to push for inclusion in the spending plans being proposed by Congress to stimulate the economy.
Ethnic minorities are the Democrats' traditional constituents, and Republicans tend to favor projects that involve the private sector, he said, adding that with the impending elections, now is a good time to be heard.
"We need a targeted plan to take advantage of the spending plans," Mr. Kirk said. "Don't wait for trickle down or it's not going to get to you."
The primary obstacle facing minority businesses today is their lack of access to capital, Mr. Kirk said, adding that his companies are refused even small lines of credit.
Citizen activists can pressure public venture capital investors to put their money into minority businesses, he said.
For example, minority members of the Tennessee Valley Authority advisory board pressured the TVA to invest in such businesses, he said.
State pension funds also can be targeted. Such funds often invest in venture capital, but do not traditionally seek out minority businesses, Mr. Kirk said.
Every spending bill before state and federal governments should be scrutinized by minority citizens to make sure opportunities are included for them. "We must get involved," he said.