Ehrlich scrambles to quell ire over remarks

He vows he is committed to increasing state pacts with minority businesses

General Assembly

February 04, 2005|By Ivan Penn | Ivan Penn,SUN STAFF

Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. scrambled to calm growing anger yesterday over his comments earlier this week about one day ending Maryland's program to increase minority participation in state contracts.

In one closed-door meeting after another, Ehrlich tried to assure lawmakers - many of whom plan to voice their concerns at a noon news conference today - that he is committed to the state's Minority Business Enterprise program and has worked to expand it.

"The comments arose out of [Comptroller William Donald Schaefer's] consistent and persistent questioning about when the MBE program should end," Ehrlich told reporters, referring to statements at Wednesday's Board of Public Works meeting. "I pointed out to the comptroller that the logical goal of the program is to end at some point, but we're simply not there yet.

"There continues to be an uneven playing field," he said of minority access to state contracts. "As a result, our administration has put a lot of time, energy and political capital into making the program better."

Schaefer raised concerns about the state initiatives to increase minority participation in state work by asking during a discussion Wednesday: "When does MBE end - E.N.D? ... When does discrimination like this end?"

Ehrlich said during the dialogue that the goal "is to end this program at a certain point in time." But the governor did not give any time frame.

After reading a newspaper account of Ehrlich's and Schaefer's discussion, Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller told members of the Legislative Black Caucus at a meeting yesterday that he thought the comments were "unbelievable."

"Not only do we need to keep MBE in place, we have to foster it and grow it," Miller told the caucus. "The Democratic Party is going to stand with you."

Members of the caucus said they will continue the fight for the MBE program until everyone has a fair shot at state work.

"When will there be an end to this? When the intended purposes are being met," said Del. Jill P. Carter, a Northwest Baltimore Democrat.

While the state has made some progress in its efforts to include minorities and women in state work, lawmakers and business leaders said most contracts continue to go to firms owned by white men. They said there should be no discussion about ending the MBE program at this time.

The Ehrlich administration said the governor's comments were taken out of context and that he has no intention of retreating from his commitment to minority businesses.

Lt. Gov. Michael S. Steele, who has been the governor's point man on minority and small businesses, declined repeated requests for an interview. But he issued a statement yesterday defending the administration's position.

"This administration's commitment to Minority Business Enterprise is absolute and at no time and under no circumstances has anyone from our administration considered, pondered or discussed the elimination of the MBE program," Steele wrote. "Our actions speak to our support for and efforts on behalf of all minority businesses in Maryland."

Sharon R. Pinder, special secretary of the governor's Office of Minority Affairs, said Ehrlich's support for minority businesses can be seen in the fiscal year 2006 budget. She said her office is slated to receive $1.1 million - a more-than $800,000 increase over two years ago, when Ehrlich took office.

Pinder said there are "a whole trainload of efforts geared toward minority businesses."

But with Ehrlich's and Schaefer's discussion, business leaders who had been strong supporters of the governor still questioned his commitment to minority business.

"The conservative wing of the Republican Party believes that black business is doing well," said Wayne Frazier, president of the Baltimore-based Maryland-Washington Minority Contractors' Association Inc., and the former head of Democrats for Ehrlich.

"We've had some recent success stories where minority contractors, minority-owned businesses have been winning multi-million dollar procurements," Frazier said. "However, those who are winning those multi-million dollar contracts probably represent less than 1 percent of all minority businesses."

Robert Clay, an African-American contractor and former member of a commission set up by Ehrlich to review issues related to minority businesses, said black businesses in particular continue to lag behind other firms in obtaining state work.

Clay said African-Americans first pushed for the changes in Maryland law to establish the MBE program when it was created in 1978.

At that time, the state set a goal of 10 percent minority participation in state contracts, state officials said. By 2001, that percentage had been increased to 25 percent through the efforts of then-Gov. Parris N. Glendening.

Last year, Ehrlich established several initiatives that emerged from the commission of which Clay was a part, including a program that targeted all small businesses. All state agencies now are required to reserve two small procurement contracts for small businesses, regardless of the race or gender of the firms' owners.

Clay praised those efforts but called the discussion of ending MBE program "a sad day for black businesses in this state."

Sun staff writer Sumathi Reddy contributed to this article.

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