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Be at the table African-American, Hispanic chambers call on candidates to truly engage with minority communities, warn that traditional appeals to faith, community groups don’t resonate from an economic standpoint

Carlos Medina, chairman of the Statewide Hispanic Chamber of Commerce.-(PHOTOS BY MARK CARTER)

A bit of advice for any candidate hoping to sweep the minority votes in the state: Be at the table. That’s the word from the leaders of two of the state’s major minority business groups.

A bit of advice for any candidate hoping to sweep the minority votes in the state: Be at the table. That’s the word from the leaders of two of the state’s major minority business groups.

And it means more than attending churches, ceremonies or events hosted by minority communities and groups of various faiths.

“If we don’t talk, if we don’t sit down around the table and talk about our respective issues, we cannot get a meaningful resolution that will be of value to the state,” said John Harmon, CEO and president of the African American Chamber of Commerce of New Jersey.

In Harmon’s opinion, which he shared at a recent Unity Luncheon alongside Statewide Hispanic Chamber of Commerce Chairman Carlos Medina, the politics and strategies to engage directly correlate to the opportunities for economic development.

“I believe the African-American community’s model of engagement is dysfunctional, or it’s not the appropriate model,” Harmon said.

Rather than aligning with traditional capitalistic ideals, and collaborating with groups to help drive the economic agenda, the community relies on engaging faith-based leaders and community-based organizations.

As a result, “It’s hard for business members of the black business community and working-class people really to get policies that align with their interests,” Harmon said.

He said that elected African-American political leaders often disappoint, using the example of Trenton’s mayor allowing two of the capital city’s insurance contracts to be awarded to firms based in Pennsylvania.

Fighting over minority votes to add to a party’s or candidate’s base is consistently analyzed during every election cycle.

In the most diverse state in the U.S., that holds true still.

With a population of one in every five foreign-born, there are a wide variety of interests and opinions that candidates like Republican nominee Lt. Gov. Kim Guadagno and Democratic nominee Phil Murphy have to cater to.

There was speculation about the growing presence and importance of minority representation, and both candidates ultimately chose a running mate from a minority community. Guadagno announced her pick for lieutenant governor as Woodcliff Lake Mayor Carlos Rendo, and Murphy announced former Assembly Speaker Sheila Oliver.

Medina, who was on Guadagno’s short list, echoed Harmon’s criticisms of politicians’ level of engagement.

“I don’t see either candidate out there as much in the communities answering the tough questions,” Medina said.

“I don’t mean rallies … I mean coming to events where they let themselves take real questions that are not pre-written for them. People want to know, ‘Do they have similar life experiences and what are they going to do for businesses?’ At the end of the day, business chambers are trying to drive the economy and drive members to be successful. What policies are they (candidates) going to enact? We have to ask those questions and vote accordingly.”

Harmon agreed, adding that, although Guadagno has a strong relationship with the business community, there needs to be more engagement.

Murphy, on the other hand, has been out there, but he has taken the traditional model of engaging with the African-American community by targeting big churches and pastors, and “getting them to do the work,” Harmon said.

“There has been no real engagement on the issues, and I think that is a problem and that’s a disrespectful approach,” he said. “At the end of the day, we have to demand greater accountability. We could end up being disappointed either way. New Jersey has some real systemic challenges. It is evident that the African-American community is not getting its equitable share. Unless we mitigate those challenges, we won’t be able to grow African-American businesses at the rate they should be growing.”

Anjalee Khemlani

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