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Latinos Struggle To Compete With Black Businesses For Democratic Convention Dollars

Diversity at the Democratic convention has improved the last few cycles, but with a goal of 35% diverse contractors for 2016, there are also growing pains as Hispanic businesses try to get themselves on equal footing with black businesses.

Posted on May 11, 2016, at 6:24 p.m. ET

While the Democratic National Convention has made strides in awarding more contracts to minority owned businesses since 2012, Hispanic businesses are still struggling to find themselves on equal footing with black contractors, two months before Democrats descend on Philadelphia on July 25.

The convention committee (DNCC) set a more aggressive goal than it did in 2012: to dole out 35% of it’s contracts to diverse contractors — including businesses led by women, members of the LGBT community, and veterans, as well as organizations led by people with disabilities.

So far, Democrats have made real progress towards that goal: five of the six major convention contracts have been given to diverse businesses, while six of the host committee’s seven contracts have gone to diverse firms.

But significant challenges remain, particularly for Latino companies, which have lagged behind their black counterparts. “Minority contracting has always done a shitty job of pitting black and Latino contractors against each other,” a longtime Democrat acknowledged.

Indeed, while two black businesses have scored lucrative $1 million contracts on the convention side, only one Latino company has received a contract at that level from the host committee.

One of the key issues, Democrats said, has been the relative lack of well-connected Latino businesses compared to black businesses. While black business owners have longstanding relationships with the party apparatuses, Latino owners are only just beginning to develop those relationships. That, combined with less experience in the bidding process, has helped stack the deck against Latino contractors historically.

Demographic realities have also played a factor in the disparity. For instance, Charlotte, which played host to the convention in 2012, has a large, well-established black community, while Latinos are relative newcomers. As a result, while Democrats tripled their goal for hiring black contractors that year, the Hispanic goal was “gutted,” the same Democrat said. Philadelphia has a bigger black community than Charlotte.

It’s all part of a dynamic Javier Palomarez, president of the U.S. Hispanic Chamber of Commerce (USHCC) knows well. “No one is out to do anything wrong, but people do business with people they know, you recommend someone you know,” he said.

During a dinner with DNC Chair Debbie Wasserman Schultz in December, Palomarez stressed that attention should be paid to what percentage of the population is Latino and what percentage of small businesses are Hispanic-owned.

Latino business leaders said that despite the challenges, Democrats appear to have gotten the message. For instance, a vendor directory was launched in mid-December to help catalogue businesses interested in working the conventions.

Additionally, the DNCC has organized workshops to help local small businesses better position themselves online, which will have an impact on the Latino community even after the convention.

“It’s the idea that they still wanted to have a legacy project leave an impact in those communities,” said Jennifer Rodriguez, president of the Greater Philadelphia Hispanic Chamber of Commerce.

Business owners like Puerto Rican-born Luis Luciega have already come on board. His company Impact Dimensions was awarded a logo merchandising contract from the host committee and will be in charge of selling things like t-shirts, lanyards, bags, and mugs.

Luciega, who served as a subcontractor in Philadelphia in 2000 for the Republican convention, said the connections and exposure from that event helped him start his own company. Last year, he did work for the Pope’s visit.

Bringing on diverse firms in a city like Philadelphia matters “because it’s going to give everybody a little piece of the pie,” Luciega said. “It’s not only about how much you make but also about getting exposure for your business.”

Nevertheless, a source within the Congressional Hispanic Caucus, which was approached by Wasserman Schultz on the topic of connecting with more Hispanic contractors, said she “could have done a better job” sharing specifically what contracts they might have available for Latino businesses rather than just putting out a general call for companies with little to no direction.

Tiffany Newmuis, the host committee director of diversity and community engagement, said she is “watching every dollar” through a lens of spending on diversity, and stressed that she doesn't feel Latinos and African-Americans are pitted against each other. But she said a key part of leveling the playing field among all different groups is making sure everyone has access to and information about the bidding process.

This means things like the online vendor directory, but also what kind of clients there will be and what the needs and expectations of the convention are, all in an effort to succeed in the proposal phase and win contracts.

“All those things are barriers when you talk about the disparity between races,” Newmuis said.

Democrats and Latino business owners agreed, and pointed to the fact that Latino contractors that have already gotten their foot in the door have successfully used those connections this year.

Like Luciega, Gabrielle Martinez’s firm AgencyEA has worked with Democrats in the past, contracting for the Obama campaign during the 2008 election. This year, the DNCC chose Martinez’ firm as it’s official graphic designer, and design will adorn all credential badges.

“There’s great minority talent and design all across the country but so often it’s not as recognized,” Martinez said.

Their previous experiences with political events has also taught these Latino business owners the art of the political dodge: despite intense feelings about Donald Trump amongst most Latinos, with an eye towards future business opportunities, they all played coy.

“I hear about Trump, but I’m reserving my opinion,” Luciega said. “The money is green on both sides.”

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