D.C. Mayor Muriel Boweser is trying to steer more government work to the city’s small and medium size businesses.

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Muriel Bowser is the mayor of the District. (Courtesy Photo)

On Nov. 2, D.C. Mayor Muriel Bowser (D) and D.C. Council member Vincent Orange (D-At large) held a press conference where they announced the Fiscal Year (FY) 2016 Certified Business Enterprise (CBE) spending goal of $317 million. In addition, they unveiled a new website, cbeconnect.dc.gov that is meant to help CBEs better navigate the local government procurement process. A CBE is a business that is headquartered in the District and has been certified by the Department of Small and Local Business Development. These businesses are supposed to receive, by law, preferred procurement and contracting opportunities.

When Bowser campaigned for mayor in 2014, she pledged to create more opportunities for CBEs. These program changes, she said, are designed to fulfill that promise. “Small businesses are the engine of our economy,” Bowser said. “As mayor, I am committed to creating an environment where District businesses can start, thrive and grow. That includes leveraging the District’s local procurement dollars to support small businesses.”

Bowser said, “We are envisioning the way we approach procurement by setting ambitious goals and providing tools so our small businesses can succeed and continue to create pathways to the middle class.”

The goal is for District government agencies to spend $317 million of the $634 million procurement budget for FY 2016 with small businesses and CBEs. In FY 2015, the administration spent more than $250 million with small businesses and CBEs.

Aggressive implementation of CBE laws sends the message that the District’s mandate for small and local business development will be adhered to,” Orange said.

Small and medium-sized businesses were largely left out of the District’s lucrative contracting pool until 1979, when Marion S. Barry became mayor of the city. Soon after taking office, Barry mandated that 35 percent of all District government businesses must be conducted with Black, minority, or women-owned businesses.

This was an unprecedented move at that time and Barry’s mandate created prosperous business opportunities for Blacks such as Bob Johnson of BET and real estate developer R. Donahue Peebles. In the 1980s, other large cities followed Barry’s lead but the effort to set-aside a portion of a municipality’s contracting opportunities came to a standstill when the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in 1989 that cities that give preferential treatment to a minority group are in violation of Equal Protection Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment ({Richmond vs. Croson}).

As a result of the Supreme Court’s ruling, District leaders created the CBE program that didn’t give preference to businesses based on race. However, for years Black businesses have complained that the CBE ignored many Black businesses capable of doing the work.

“CBEs hire District residents for jobs, local businesses do that,” Antwayne Ford, president and CEO of Enlightened, an IT firm, and former chairman of the D.C. Chamber of Commerce, said. “Many large firms obtain city contracts and hire people who don’t live in the city and that’s money that is leaving the city. I think the mayor’s proposal will give African-American entrepreneurs more opportunities.”

Clarence Jackson Jr., has a small construction firm in the District but is better known as the owner of the city’s two I-HOP franchises located in Ward 1 and Ward 8. Jackson said that while Bowser’s mandate will encourage him to seek a government contract for his construction firm. “She should try to eliminate all the hoops that business people have to go through in order to become a CBE,” Jackson said.

Nevertheless, Malcolm Beech, the president of the National Business League of Greater Washington, said that Bowser’s initiative will only be good if the District government agency directors support it. “The commitment has to come from the mayor and the agency directors,” Beech said. “The agency directors need to be held accountable by the mayor. They need to make sure that new businesses are getting contracts and not the same people getting the work.”