Republican Convention Host Committee overlooks Black businesses


“Our goal is to put on the best convention possible…[to put] our best foot forward.” This is what a Minneapolis Saint Paul 2008 Host Committee (MSP 2008) spokeswoman said with pride when asked why there are no Black businesses, churches or restaurants listed on its website.

The website is specifically designed to serve the approximately 45,000 delegates, alternate delegates, volunteers, media and other guests expected to attend the 2008 Republican National Convention September 1-4 at Xcel Energy Center in St. Paul.

MSP 2008’s Teresa McFarlane claims that the Minnesota Black Chamber of Commerce (MBCC) is listed on the site. But with less than two weeks remaining before the convention begins, no such listing can be found.

Black businesses “have to ask to be put on the website,” says McFarlane. MBCC President Barbara Davis says she was never informed of this requirement.

MSP 2008 officials and representatives of both Minneapolis and St. Paul convention and visitors bureaus made presentations to an estimated 150 participants in a May 7 meeting for small and minority-owned businesses hosted by the Midwest Minority Suppliers Development Council (MMSDC). “They said that if you are already a member of the Black Chamber, you automatically [were] considered a preferred vendor and would be listed,” Davis recalls.

In an attempt to clarify this matter, we made repeated calls to MSP 2008 President Cyndi Lesher, Republican Convention President and CEO Maria Cino, Convention Deputy Director Robyn Knecht, and State GOP Party Chairman Ron Carey. None of our calls were returned; Lesher instead relayed our messages to McFarlane.

MSP 2008 dropped the ball, says Davis. “No one ever asked for a list of our members. Apparently they made no effort to be inclusive.”

The all-White MSP 2008 Host Committee’s executive board membership consists of persons who gave amounts ranging from $50,000 to $5 million-plus. Contributors got everything from commemorate gifts to VIP access to all convention activities, as well as getting their businesses listed on the MSP 2008 website.

Reynaldo Lyles, African American owner of YFI Technologies, says that he tried contacting convention planners. “We were looking at [providing] a mobile registration solution for [the Republican National Committee] to speed up the [delegate] check-in process. I called three or four times within a two-week period, but never got a call back.”

A Black female small-business owner [name withheld by request], who published a Republican presidential souvenir book, first contacted Lesher back in the fall of 2007. “I sincerely hope there is still interest in using my work,” she wrote in a March 2008 email to Lesher. “Please let me know the next steps that I can take to bring this to fruition.”

Although Lesher never responded directly, the book publisher learned later that her product had been forwarded to a “master vendor” who demanded a 12 percent “royalty fee” up front. Repeated efforts to work with the master vendor and have her product included in convention offerings ultimately came to nothing, although all the officials she spoke with assured her it was worthy of inclusion.

“There is no excuse that this [consideration of her publication] didn’t happen,” said the businesswoman, who had also attended the May 7 meeting. “Both convention bureaus’ people talked about getting on this preferred businesses list.” She added that the meeting appeared more to be about getting the attendees to join the bureaus (a $425 membership fee) than about connecting businesses such as hers with the convention folks.

“I think they had that big meeting to show people, ‘Hey, we reached out to the community — now it’s up to them what they [do] with it,’” the businesswoman says. “As far as I was concerned, it was a way to get people to pay $425 to become a member of the different convention [and] visitors bureaus.”

Shawn Iqbal, Black owner of Minnesota Quality Limo, also attended the meeting. He said he could not afford the registration fee but did get some Republican Convention-related business.

“So far, I have one person,” says Iqbal, “but she will be using me every day.” The female delegate learned about his business at the suburban hotel where she is booked, one of several Twin Cities hotels where he posted ads.

St. Paul Rondo resident Vanessa Levingston, who is on the board of the Selby Area Community Development Corporation, questions if the MSP 2008 folks reached out enough to Black businesses. “If they really wanted [diversity], you can go to the Black Pages and find restaurants,” she pointed out. “You can work with those communities [of color], but you have to have someone dedicated to making sure that they do that.

“Just don’t do it by having a meeting and saying, ‘Come to me at this certain time.’ You actually have to do some outreach,” says Levingston, who is pursuing an MBA in economic and community development at the Humphrey Institute.
But should the MSP 2008 committee shoulder all the blame for not including Black businesses?

“If your goal is to make an outreach to [a] particular segment — Hispanic, Asian, Black — and your goal is to reach out to that segment, then the onus is on you,” says Lyles. “[But] if I want to say that I am mightier than God, sit back, and whoever comes to me maybe we throw some business their way, if that’s the attitude, chances are there are not going to be a lot of [minority-owned] businesses that are going to come to you.”

Did Black businesses do enough to make sure that they would be included on MSP 2008’s website? Lyles said the MBCC constantly reached out “to try to get to the power players of the Republican National Convention” in an effort to involve more Black businesses, but to no avail.

Sharon Garth, president of MMSDC, declined to meet with us to discuss that organization’s role in securing convention business for minority owners beyond hosting the May 7 meeting.

When told that no Black businesses were listed, Renee Amoore, a convention delegate and the 2004 chairwoman of the Pennsylvania Republican delegation, responded, “That’s not right. We should have diversity in everything we [the Republican Party] do.”

Davis says she already has received phone calls and emails “from Blacks who are coming from out of town to the convention wanting to know where can they go to get their hair done, where to go to get some soul food, where can they go to church, where can they find beauty products, or where can they find places of special interest to them.”

However, local Black businesses apparently don’t fit the MSP 2008’s “best foot forward” objective: “We are not [the] Yellow Pages,” McFarlane matter-of-factly declares.

“It never occurred to them that somebody might need something different from the mainstream,” Davis points out.

Meet Minneapolis, the City’s official convention and visitors association, will set up information booths all over the Twin Cities to answer delegates’ questions, says CEO and President Melvin Tennant. “We will be in the position to direct people looking for different cultures, et cetera,” he adds.

“I think lots of people will be visiting the Twin Cities because of the convention but may not necessarily be on the convention floor,” Davis believes. “The convention opens on a Monday, and some people will come for the weekend [beforehand], or they will stay after the convention ends and use this as part of their vacation. I also think that not only the delegates will be coming, but they might bring their families [who] won’t be at the convention but will be out in the community wanting to spend money.”

Officials say Minneapolis and St. Paul expect to receive an estimated $150-$160 million by hosting the Republican Convention. According to Minnesota Department of Employment and Economic Development estimates, local hotels and motels will make an estimated $32 million.

How much will trickle down to Blacks?

“My hope is that [Black] businesses in our community will see that type of benefit,” says St. Paul City Council Member Melvin Carter.

“We are going to see, when this is all over with, just how much [money] they brought to the Black community,” says a Black business owner who spoke on condition of anonymity.

“It’s a who-you-know game,” the Black book publisher concludes from her experience.

Charles Hallman welcomes reader responses to, or read his blog: www.ww