James Hahn pulled down more than 80 percent of the African-American vote in his election victory earlier this month, the highest proportion of a single ethnic block in Los Angeles. Without such support, he might have lost.
Now it's payback time.
Jubilant about Hahn's victory, many in L.A.'s African-American business community are optimistic that their years of slow and steady decline will begin to be reversed in the new administration.
"The mood out there now is one of elation and euphoria," said African-American commentator Earl Ofari Hutchinson.
"The feeling is that Hahn is someone who will be sympathetic to the African-American business community and the African-American community in general. The halls of power will be more open to African-Americans."
As the Hahn administration begins, black business leaders will be looking at three broad areas to gauge their prospects:
- The number of appointments of African-Americans to city commissions and other staff posts;
- How much additional effort is made to reach out to black-owned contractors seeking to do business with the city; and
- The degree to which additional funds and projects are funneled to economically depressed black communities.
In a statement to the Business Journal last week, Hahn did not address specific issues involving African-Americans, other than to say, "Magic Johnson, Chris Hammond, Keyshawn Johnson and Jan Howroyd are great examples of businesspeople who understand the benefits of investing in our communities," referring to prominent local African-Americans. "They put their money where their mouth is and I am going to be urging others to follow their lead."
No one expects instant progress in all of these areas. As mayor of the most ethnically diverse major city in the U.S., Hahn faces a delicate balancing act. Blacks, after all, make up only 11 percent of the city's population. Any disproportionate rewarding of African-Americans is bound to arouse charges of favoritism from other ethnic groups, particularly Latinos, who are on the verge of becoming an absolute majority in the city. Yet that hasn't dampened expectations of black businesses.
For one thing, they expect more access at City Hall.
"There's no question that we're excited about getting our calls returned immediately from the mayor's office," said Mark Whitlock, executive director of FAME Renaissance, the economic development organization associated with the First African Methodist Episcopal Church in South-Central L.A.
Black business leaders also want to see Hahn do more than previous administrations to include blacks on their decision-making teams and contracting policies.
"I expect that our member companies should find a more receptive ear in the mayor's office to their business concerns," said Gene Hale, chairman of the Greater Los Angeles African-American Chamber of Commerce. "But the key here is that we have to have people who look like us in positions of authority, who sit at the table when those issues are being discussed," Hale said. "We need to have (more) African-Americans represented on such powerful boards as the Department of Water & Power, the Department of Airports, Public Works, Parks and Recreation and Sanitation."
Hale added that more needs to be done in the way of outreach to black contractors.
"The big difference between now and 1973 (when Tom Bradley became mayor) is that back then there was much more emphasis on enforcing the affirmative action laws," he said. "Now, it's a challenge just to get the opportunity to compete. Something is wrong with the system and it needs to be fixed."Redevelopment needs
Another problem for African-American contractors are the common practices of "bundling" and "piggy-backing" of contracts, according to Stephen McGlover, chairman of the Black Business Association. McGlover was referring to the increasing tendency of city agencies to combine separate contracts in so-called "mega-contracts," and for businesses to use contracts as stepping stones for other contracts.
"These are serious problems for African-American firms seeking to do business with the city and I hope that Hahn will address this promptly," McGlover said.
Others said they want to see the Hahn administration invest more in revitalizing African-American communities left behind in the recent economic boom.
"(Hahn) campaigned on a theme of improving the quality of life in all the city's neighborhoods," said Lula Ballton, director of the West Angeles Community Development Corp., a faith-based social service and economic development organization run by the West Angeles Church of God in Christ in the Crenshaw district. "Investing more in reclaiming brownfields and building more affordable housing are among the two biggest things he could do for our neighborhoods."
One long-stalled revitalization project is Santa Barbara Plaza, in the heart of the Crenshaw district. At the outset of Mayor Richard Riordan's second term, hopes were high that a team led by Magic Johnson would revitalize the run-down mall, directly across the street from the thriving Magic Johnson Theatres.
But the project got caught up in a brief feud between Johnson and Councilman Mark Ridley-Thomas and then further stalled when two major anchor tenants, Macy's and Home Depot, bailed out for other locations. Hammond, an African-American developer revamping nearby Chesterfield Square, is trying his hand at the star-crossed project.
"The key question is whether Hahn, with all this renewed energy and commitment, can jump-start a project like this," Hutchinson said.
He noted that there was a similar level of enthusiasm at the outset of the Tom Bradley administration in 1973. But over the years, those hopes faded as African-Americans lost prominence, both in numbers and in political power.Flight from L.A.
For the last two decades, African-Americans have been leaving L.A. for middle-class suburban enclaves and for other states altogether. African-American populations in Palmdale and Moreno Valley have increased substantially, while L.A.'s African-American population has fallen.
From 1990 to 2000, there was a 15 percent drop in L.A.'s population of African-Americans, from 487,000 to 415,000, by far the largest percentage drop of any ethnic group in the city. (Some of this decrease may be attributable to the U.S. Census Bureau's decision to allow census respondents to check more than one race for the first time on the 2000 census form.)
Despite this steady decline, the number of African-American-owned businesses in Los Angeles actually gained slightly in the 1990s, from 15,371 in 1992 to 17,593 in 1997, according to the U.S. Census Bureau's periodic economic census. Yet that was far less than gains in African-American-owned businesses in New York and Chicago.
No surprise, then, that Los Angeles isn't even mentioned in the July issue of Black Enterprise Magazine, which focuses on the best cities for African Americans.
Although black business leaders are enthused by Hahn's victory, they also caution against getting hopes up too high.
"I have expectations for improvement in our standing, but not unrealistically so," Hale said. "I've had to caution some of my fellow businesspeople to keep our expectations in check. We should not get to the point where we are so exuberant that we believe things will just happen for us. We've still got to go out and get it."
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