Thursday, October 28, 2010

Onorato and Minority Business

Dan Onorato, the Democratic candidate for governor, isn't very well known on this side of the state, even after months of campaigning. While some aspects of his work in the Pittsburgh area have been written about, others haven't. A strong showing from the voters of the Philadelphia area could make a big difference in the outcome of the race. Out of curiosity I looked into his relationship with the African American business community in Pittsburgh.

To avoid getting only the mainstream view I made a special effort to research in Pittsburgh's ethnic newspapers. (The Ethnic Newswatch database is an excellent resource for this.) While this is a relatively short post a lot of background research went into it. This is only a summary, but it may provide voters with some idea of how Onorato dealt with minority businesses.

The first executive order Dan Onorato signed after taking office as Allegheny County Executive directed all departments to make diversity a top priority. He also announced a new fund “to provide short-term, working capital for minority and women-owned government contractors” (Toler 05/09/2004).

"We are creating economic opportunities for firms that have traditionally faced challenges in obtaining enough working capital to participate in the government projects," said Onorato, adding that this will help the qualifying companies grow.(Toler 05/09/2004)
This is an issue he has been involved in as far back as 1994 when he was on the Pittsburgh city council (Bull, 7/21/1994).

Onorato does not use traditional set asides or quotas. In fact, in 1999, when he was on the Pittsburgh City Council, Onorato voted against a city council proposal mandating a set asides for city residents and minorities, though he has supported goals for inclusion. (Morrow, 5/29/1999) He was also on the board of the Stadium Authority, where the lack of minorities in the concessions was an issue. In his view, “We’ve got to make sure business ventures reflect what this city looks like” (Hamm, 8/16/1995). Making sure minority owned ventures knew the system and how to maneuver through it seemed preferable to him, rather than court battles. Later, as county controller he estimated that 40% of the auditing contracts in his office went to minority and women owned businesses. One of those was a $12 million contract for medical services at the county jail (Morrow,10/07.2000). He also said that 25% of the people hired in his office were African-American. (Toler, 8/06/2003)

In response to criticism that his office did not do enough to combat the problem of companies claiming more diversity in their work than was accurate, Onorato’s office studied primary contractor’s and subcontractor’s inclusion of minority and women-owned businesses in large public infrastructure projects. He then established eight recommendations to increase the number of minority and women-owned businesses involved in county construction projects, such as verifying payments and requiring proof of “good faith” efforts from contractors. The president of Minority Enterprise Corp and the Pittsburgh branch of the NAACP praised his efforts. (Toler 8/07/2002) In the next year, the Port Authority, exceeded its 18% minority and women-owned business participation goal. (Toler, 4/007/2004). Prior to that he advocated merging the county and city offices that verified minority contractors, and began doing the work in house instead of hiring outside firms to do it. This was to cut down or eliminate fraud. (McNulty and Boyd, 6/16/2000).

When he ran for county executive Onorato had the support of African Americans he had served on the city council with, even those with whom he had occasionally had disagreements. Here are some quotes:
McDonald-Roberts served on Pittsburgh City Council with Onorato.
"He's smart, he thinks outside of the box, he knows government, he knows finance and he's one who cares about the many different people who make up this community. It's time," she said. "He has always been there for our community."
"Name me one other political event that has brought together this diverse (in opinion) a group of Black politicians," said Pittsburgh Councilman Sala Udin. "You can't because there is not one."

State Rep. Joseph Preston Jr., D-East Liberty, added that Onorato's platform includes issues beyond economic development that affect people where they are.
"It's about substance and who can deliver," Preston said in explaining why he supports Onorato over Roddey.
After "sitting down" with Onorato, Preston said he supports him because his plan addresses the needs in the areas of health and human services and senior citizens' issues. (Morrow & Toler, 9/27/2003)

Valerie McDonald Roberts, quoted above, ran for lieutenant governor in 2006 and many, myself included, were very impressed by her during her campaign visits to the Philadelphia area. Onorato won the election and in his first month of office appointed African-American Tim Johnson as the Director of Administrative Service (Morrow, 1/21/2004) and Ruby Byrd Smith to be director of the county’s Minority, Women and Disadvantaged Business Enterprise (Morrow, 1/28/2004). After five months in office, Onorato said that 21% of the 178 people he had hired were African American, as were 26.3% of those he had appointed to boards and authorities (Toler, 5/09/2004). After a year in office he said that a third of the 150 people he had appointed to boards and authorities were minorities, though he defined that term broadly. "When I say diversity, I'm not just talking about African-American," Onorato said. "I'm talking about gender, I'm talking about age” (Toler 1/26/2006)

There are a number of roadblocks to increasing the diversity of those getting government contracts. Onorato has supported a number of possible solutions. Some examples the city of Pittsburgh tried were reducing the size of contracts, increasing outreach to minority and women owned firms (Morrow, 10/31/2007). Perhaps as an example of that outreach he led off a 13 week radio effort to let small business owners know how to find information on upcoming projects and how to become involved in them (Belser, 1/13/2007). In 2009 a large Detroit-based minority owned, contracting firm opened a regional office in Pittsburgh. The company could do $100 million in bonding. (Morrow, 10/14/2009).

Onorato supports the idea of public / private partnerships and one example of that is a fund financed equally by the county and a donation from Citizens Bank. Each put in $500,000. The fund was to short-term working capitol to minority and women owned or disadvantaged businesses who wished to work on government contracts (Kendrick, 9/19/2004). A year and a half later the program “produced solid results” (Morrow, 4/12/2006). Another example is a “sheltered bond” program that would allow qualified contractors to apply for bonds of up to $1 million; it also provided short term financing for start-up costs. Some of the funds for this came from the state, others from private foundations. Bonding and finance are listed as two obstacles for small and minority owned firms. Onorato has also noted that the closing of a Pittsburgh based trade school has reduced the training venues for those wishing to go into the construction trades (Morrow, 1/27/2010). The issues of financing and education are represented in the policy statements he has set out for his campaign.


Belser, Ann, “County buys air time on WAMO to reach disadvantaged businesses,” Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, January 13, 2007.

Bull, John M. R., “Loan to pirates limits city borrowing for construction,” Pittsburgh Post-Gazette July 21, 1994.

Hamm, Sandy, “Brewer gets first African-American stadium food contract,” New Pittsburgh Courier. Aug, 16, 1995: . A-1

Kendrick, Louis ‘Hop.’ ”To Tell The Truth; Reparations yes, but not cash, ownership,” New Pittsburgh Courier. :Sep 19, 2004. p. A7

McNulty, Timothy, and Tom Barnes, “County, city to join forces on certifying contractors,” Pittsburgh Post-Gazette June 16, 2000.

Morrow, Christian, “Brinker Group opens office in Pittsburgh,” New Pittsburgh Courier. Oct 14-Oct 20, 2009. p. A1,A4

Morrow, Christian, “County loan program produces solid results,” New Pittsburgh Courier. Apr 12-Apr 18, 2006. C1-C2

Morrow, Christian, “Johnson tapped for county post,” New Pittsburgh Courier, Jan 21, 2004, p. A-1.

Morrow, Christian, “Racial summit elicits praise and response,” New Pittsburgh Courier. Oct 31-Nov 6, 2007. p. A1,A5

Morrow, Christian, “Robinson look sinto row office contacts with minorities,” New Pittsburgh Courier Oct. 7, 2000, p. A-1.

Morrow, Christian, “ Smith named to county M/WBE post,” New Pittsburgh Courier, Jan 28, 2004, p. A-1

Morrow, Christian, “Udin takes Pgh works crusade to the people,” New Pittsburgh Courier, May 29, 1999, p. A-1

Morrow, Christian, “Union job inclusion still a challenge,” New Pittsburgh Courier, Jan 27-Feb 2, 2010., P. A1, A4.

Morrow, Christian and Sonya M Toler, “Black Dems show support for Onorato,” New Pittsburgh Courier Sept. 27, 2003, p. A-1.

Toler, Sonya M.. “First county exec debate a political brawl,” New Pittsburgh Courier. (City Edition). Pittsburgh, Pa.:Aug 6, 2003. p. A1

Toler, Sonya M. “Is MBE certification worth it? Cumbersome process about to get easier through County / Port Authority effort?” New Pittsburgh Courier (Apr 07, 2004), p. B1

Toler, Sonya M.. “Onorato exec order makes diversity priority,” New Pittsburgh Courier. :May 09, 2004. p. A1

Toler, Sonya M. “Onorato says plan increases minority contracts,” New Pittsburgh Courier Aug, 7, 2002, p. A-1.

Toler, Sonya M. “Onorato shares vision for region, accomplishments,” New Pittsburgh Courier Jan 26-Jan 30, 2005. p. C1

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