Sign up for our free newsletter
Bobby Green bursts into his small office with a cell phone, as usual, parked at his right ear.
“What are you doing promoting that motherfucking company?” he asks. “What are you doing fucking with my goddamn company?…Tell me why you’re trying to knock a brother out.”
Green listens. A tinny male voice on the other end of the line can be faintly heard across the room—tones of strained, deliberate calm.
“Why shouldn’t I use profanity with you?” The screech is taking over—in the small office, the sheer force and volume of the voice are almost physical, a nice pairing with Green’s 6-foot-2, 350-pound frame. “That’s a soul brother, man.”
Tirades featuring such language spill easily from Green, 39, who is the D.C. chapter head of the National Association of Minority Contractors (NAMC), a 35-year-old national nonprofit that promotes the interests of mostly small and midsize minority contractors—especially black ones—in the construction trades. The office is located in a small building on a leafy street off Martin Luther King Jr. Avenue SE. The chapter has approximately 65 members.
The very notion of minority contracting in the District summons a history of rhetorical emptiness and substantive failures. For decades, D.C. officials and activists have lamented the absence of disadvantaged D.C. residents on construction job sites across the District.According to the Bureau of Labor statistics, the D.C. unemployment rate for construction trades was 11.6 percent in 2002.
Over the years, elected officials from Marion S. Barry Jr. to David Catania have supported contracting initiatives and regulations to shore up black representation in this key sector. Trouble is, the resulting regulations haven’t gotten a substantial number of minority District residents into actual construction jobs. Sometimes the problem is the way the regulations are written. Although the law’s intent is to help “local, small, and disadvantaged business enterprises” (LSDBE), a lot of companies that barely qualify under any of those criteria have somehow qualified under the law, leaving little preference for what Green and others consider “real” local black firms.
And like many laws in D.C., the rules governing minority hiring at construction sites suffer from lax enforcement. The statute that promotes a goal of 35 percent LSDBE participation on a given project is in most cases just that—a goal.
Nor has the development-friendly administration of Mayor Anthony A. Williams pushed businesses on minority-hiring rules. “This lands at the Williams’ administration’s feet,” says Greg Leroy, founder of Good Jobs First, a group that lobbies cities to promote local jobs through contracting.
So local jobs activists end up being the ones to make the case for small minority contractors. But from the folksy attitude of Cardell Shelton to the inflammatory rhetoric of William Lockridge, few have had the clout to make a real mark on the construction landscape. Every move Green makes these days is meant to end the futility.
Outburst over, Green drops the phone from his ear and pockets it. “Why didn’t he hang up?” he asks. “If a motherfucker was using profanity like that to me, I’d hang up on him.
“He knew I had the goods on him,” Green continues. “He knew he had to chill that shit out. I’ve got the motherfucker by the balls.”
On the receiving end of the foul language, says Green, was an official with the D.C. Office of Local Business Development. Earlier, Green had received a call from one of his members, he says, letting him know that the official had called to, in effect, warn him away from hiring a second NAMC member on a job, because the company hadn’t yet gotten in its official LSDBE paperwork.
Later that day, Green pulls out his BlackBerry and sends out an e-mail complaining to the official’s boss. He also cc’s the complaint to Ward 1 Councilmember Jim Graham—with whom Green has recently succeeded in cementing an alliance of sorts—and a couple of other senior District officials who have started to put Green on their call-back lists.
A few days later, Green will get word that his member has safely landed the contract.
On a rainy Monday in early May, Graham is leading Bobby Green up the debris-littered stairs of the Tivoli Theatre, the centerpiece and anchor of a $37.5 million development project under construction just up the street from the Columbia Heights Metro station. Graham at this time is a hot political player, having announced in February an exploratory committee to challenge incumbent Councilmember Harold Brazil for his more powerful at-large seat this fall.
On the way up, the hands-on councilmember points out detail after detail, from the stairs—“This was all marble; the marble is coming back”—to the restoration work on the Gala Hispanic Theatre’s new 250-seat home, spectacular even as a bare-bones concrete shell. Graham even has the skinny on a dim, blue-tiled vintage bathroom. “The urinals have been removed,” he says. “But the originals will be reinstalled.”
“All of this was at risk,” he says. But Graham helped get $1.8 million in city money for the restoration, along with $2.5 million from Metro, an agency for which Graham recently served as board chair.
Anchored by the restored theater, the Tivoli redevelopment also includes new retail and commercial space and construction of 40 condominium apartments, eight of them “affordable.” And as Graham energetically points out, the Tivoli is just one piece of an ambitious neighborhood-revitalization project to go up over the next five years.
The new construction will include a senior-citizens’ apartment building and dozens of officially designated “affordable” apartments and town homes, along with hundreds of units of new market-rate housing. There will be a new home for the Dance Institute of Washington and a (still unconfirmed) Target store anchoring a big retail center. Looking out a window of the Tivoli, Graham describes the vista as “a view of the future.” He sounds as if he’s campaigning for something.
Green steps forward and puts his arm around Graham. He’s not as preoccupied with the stairs, the urinals, and the subsidized housing as he is with the laborers who will work on them. “Councilmember Graham…has done more for my members getting jobs than any other councilmember in this city,” says Green. Graham beams.
And then, beefy arm still around Graham’s shoulder, Green exemplifies the difference between a desperate minority-contracting activist and the slick, never-slight-an-elected-official lobbyists who roam the Wilson Building. “Harold Brazil chairs the Economic Development Committee on the council, but he has done nothing for us compared to this man,” Green says.
As Graham tries to look noncommittal, Green swipes at Brazil’s reputation for favoring big downtown development—and developers—over helping ailing city neighborhoods. “You can’t work on one side of the city but not the other,” he says.
And he condemns Brazil’s well-documented penchant for strategic vote-counting on the council dais: “Harold’s one of these guys who watches which way the wind is blowing, and then he makes a decision. He’s not a leader, and we need a leader on these issues.”
For Graham, striking an alliance with Green was a family affair. For his first council run in 1998, he won the support of Bobby Green’s father, Robert Green Jr., a founder of an active Georgia Avenue business group called the Nile Valley Business Association.
A former firefighter and small contractor, and now the owner of an office supplies store, the elder Green helped Graham earn credibility in Ward 1’s mostly black and Hispanic east side.
So an alliance with the younger Green might help the councilmember win the same credibility with minority voters across the city: Graham is looking at his first citywide race and needs allies in every ward of the District.
The pair first met in March, after Green e-mailed Graham complaining that he’d heard blacks weren’t getting many jobs on the explosion of development now racing across the ward. Graham says Green came “barreling at me by e-mail at about 100 miles per hour. I said, ‘Whoa!’”
The Ward 1 rep has been in politics long enough to calibrate the risks of ignoring a guy like Green. The last thing he needed was a loudmouthed guy standing up at public meetings, yelling that black workers couldn’t get fair treatment in Ward 1. Or the NAMC picketing job sites, as they did last year at the troubled Henson Ridge site in Southeast.
So Graham signed up for a one-on-one meeting with Green.
For Green, it was a welcome embrace from officialdom, a sign that his incessant agitating might finally have brought him a partner in the city who could give him some leverage with the Williams administration.
Green spent most of last year in a bitter fight over hiring at Henson Ridge, a $100 million city- and federally funded housing project. In the course of the fight, he bombarded administration officials with letters and e-mails and stalked community meetings, demanding that the city enforce the applicable local and minority hiring regulations. In the end, one major housing contractor, Beazer Homes, left the job largely because of Green’s pressure. But the campaign exhausted him, he says, and left him looking for smarter ways to fight.
At the Tivoli, Green makes it clear that Graham has offered him what he considers real help. “Jim was the first councilmember who invited us into the Wilson Building,” Green says.
Graham put together a meeting between the NAMC and some big Ward 1 construction powers: the developers Donatelli & Klein and Jair Lynch, and the general contractor Donohoe Construction Co., all of which will be major players in area projects for the next decade.
Even better, Graham got Green a meeting last month with Ted Carter, executive director of the National Capital Revitalization Commission (NCRC), the city’s premier urban-redevelopment entity and the prime mover behind the Columbia Heights projects. Green, a former plumbing contractor, was especially impressed with Sandra Fowler, an NCRC official with 30 years of construction-industry experience. Green now admiringly calls her “my girl.”
The NCRC handshakes could lead to more NAMC hammers flying elsewhere in the city. As Green happily points out, the NCRC is stirring pots all over. Fowler and Green are already talking about possible roles for Green’s outfits at both the National Wax Museum and Skyline Terrace—major NCRC-led projects still in the planning stage in the East End and Ward 7, respectively.
“And Jim got us that,” he says.
Green did have some reservations. He was wary of the Graham campaign’s using him as its black face in appeals to African-Americans. “I don’t want to be a poster child,” he was heard to grumble.
And the potential public alliance with Graham upset some of the NAMC’s approximately 65 members. How could an organization dedicated to minority rights spurn a black politician in favor of a white one?
“They say to me, ‘Bobby, what you doing preferring a white man to Harold for?’” he says.
“But goddamn, I haven’t been able to get Harold Brazil to return a fucking phone call in three years!” he says. “This is a motherfucker who hasn’t lifted a finger to help you in his life!”
It’s a sunny Thursday afternoon in late April, and Green is cruising down Mississippi Avenue SE behind the wheel of his Ford Expedition. Later, he plans to drop by a city-financed building site, where he’s heard that not many local workers are getting jobs. But for now he’s starting a day at the office.
A call comes in from a local plumbing contractor new to Green. He wants to join the NAMC. Green claims that NAMC membership has been picking up lately, perhaps spurred by word of his recent coups starting to spread among local contractors.
“Are you the ones in those white trucks with the red stripes? Yeah? You a black-owned company? Yeah? Sure you can come in,” he says warmly. “I do some plumbing and air-conditioning work myself,” he adds, then jokes, “Someday you’re gonna be giving me a job.”
That’s how Green does business—from the front seat of his SUV; he heads to his office only for the occasional sit-down negotiations. “I got to be out here in the street, keeping an eye on these job sites,” he says. “That’s what I do, cruise around the city staying in touch with these jobs and with my people out here.” And using those bits of news to lobby with developers and general contractors for his members.
His mobile-communications center features three key pieces of technology. There’s a Nextel combination walkie-talkie/cell phone for NAMC members. A plain old Sprint cell phone, which is his designated line to D.C. government officials. “I’ve got 4,500 minutes per month on Sprint, and I go through it every month,” he says. “Last month, I hit 5,000. And I’m not talking to girls. I’m talking to D.C. officials, contractors, developers, subs.”
And he calls his BlackBerry 7510, which a few months ago replaced his laptop computer, “the best piece of equipment I ever had.” It’s loaded with e-mail addresses, including those of every D.C. councilmember, Green says.
All these gizmos enable Green to execute his ambush-style activism: He pulls up to a construction site, completes a demographic survey, and makes some calls. “I can tell ’em, ‘Don’t tell me there are any Negroes down here. I’m sitting across from the fucking site.’”
A call comes in from someone in his network of sympathetic District officials—the loose affiliation of quiet support he calls his “underground railroad.” Green starts in with a gripe about how he can’t get his member companies onto sites funded by the city’s Department of Housing and Community Development (DHCD).
The agency often partners or participates in projects with the D.C. Housing Finance Agency and the federal Department of Housing and Urban Development, and has numerous affordable-housing projects ongoing in the eastern part of the city.
DHCD Director Stanley Jackson, says Green, takes pains to keep him at arm’s length. “He never had me into his office,” says Green, noting that their encounters have always been elsewhere. “You know if they meet you on the street or in some little conference room down the hall, that means they don’t want to deal with your shit.
“I go over [to the DHCD], I cry a little bit, we talk,” he adds. “And then I go over to East Capitol and there’s not a nigger to be seen.”
The East Capitol project, like Henson Ridge, is a partly DHCD-funded redevelopment of an aging former public-housing complex. Green spends most of his time on projects with local tax dollars in them—because those are the ones with legal obligations to hire small minority contractors.
After first checking out the East Capitol job, says Green, he got on his BlackBerry and sent out a slew of e-mails to councilmembers and people on Capitol Hill. The message: The DHCD wasn’t looking after his people.
“And I hear from Stan Jackson, and he’s all, ‘Bobby, why you doin’ like this to me?’” recalls Green. “And my black side comes out and I start thinking, Aww, shit, maybe I ought to back off the fucker a little bit.”
(A DHCD spokeswoman says Jackson has no comment on the subject.)
Green hits a familiar refrain: “Hell, man, I’m out here doin’ their job for ’em—just trying to make sure some D.C. contractors get hired for these jobs that got all this District cash in ’em.”
Recently, says Green, Graham has arranged a rapprochement with Jackson, and the two have exchanged cordial emails.
As Green continues his rounds, a call comes in from David Anderson, owner of Anderson Fire Protection, a home and light-commercial fire-sprinkler-installation company with 25 employees in suburban Elkridge, Md. Anderson is just now ramping up his business, and he recently became an NAMC member.
One of Green’s services for his members is handling paperwork that gives them official recognition as LSDBEs. It’s a service that Anderson needed yesterday, from the sound of his conversation with Green. “Yeah, man,” says Green. “I got a little behind on that. I’ll have Mario”—his document runner—“get on that right now.”
Then Green turns to other NAMC value-added services. “But listen, I got two public schools for you. And I got that Newseum job—that job with Turner Construction.” Turner is an NAMC member, a large nonminority contractor that agrees to hire NAMC firms as its subcontractors when it can.
Anderson still sounds worried about his paperwork. “I’m on it, man,” says Green. “But I want you to get that Newseum job. That’s gonna be a sweet one.”
Anderson, who’s white, runs his firm in partnership with his wife, who’s Hispanic. He does the hands-on stuff; she handles billing and runs the office. She’s got 51 percent of the business, he the other 49.
A week later, Anderson is still awaiting word on his paperwork. “I think Bobby is constantly going in more directions than I’d like to be,” he says. “So yeah, sometimes he loses a bit of focus.”
One beneficiary of Green’s activism is Steve Griffith, president of ADG Services, a small construction company. ADG has had a $350,000 contract for the past year at Henson Ridge, doing sodding, picking up trash, and troubleshooting. His four employees at the project are all from the District, indeed all from the neighborhood. “I feel the essence of the LSDBE program is to hire from the community,” says Griffith, who is black.
The primary goal of the NAMC, says Green, is getting work for African-American firms—in the coming year, he wants a black NAMC general contractor to lead a major D.C. project. Despite its focus on black contractors, however, NAMC’s membership includes Latino-, Asian-, and, controversially, white-owned companies.
But there’s a reason Green welcomes such white-owned contractors as Hamel Builders, based in Elkridge, Md.: Big white companies often do the hiring for the smaller plumbing, electrical, sprinkler, and excavation companies that are the heart of Green’s base. The general contractors—of whatever ethnic ownership—pledge to hire other NAMC members whenever feasible.
“You can come into my kitchen, but you gotta sit down and eat,” says Green, articulating the principle that NAMC membership comes with strings attached for white companies.
And by letting Green bring to the table not only an ethnically diverse array but also a balance of experienced general contractors who can run a job from the top down and the smaller outfits needed to fill out the site work, the whites-too strategy gives the group’s business credibility a big boost. Graham was impressed with the NAMC’s ties to the construction establishment. “They had brought two major companies to the meeting who clearly had major projects under their belts,” says the councilmember.
And in truth, Green relishes confounding the expectations of good-ol’-boys-network white developers.
“You walk in there, and these white guys are all ready for you, with these looks on their faces like they just know you’re gonna start shouting, ‘Black, black, black!’”
“But then they see the lineup I brought, and to watch their faces is beautiful.”
Green grew up in Congress Heights, a stone’s throw from his offices. His father operated his own radiator-repair shop not far from the address on Georgia Avenue NW where his store stands today. “The largest radiator-repair shop in the city,” Green says. “He had contracts with Amtrak and Greyhound.”
Of his father’s parenting style, he says, “I was raised old. With Pop, if you had one drink, you’re an alcoholic, if you had one cigarette, you’re a drug addict. He installed values in me very young.”
After high school, Green got into plumbing, which he describes as his “passion”: “I liked being able to diagnose a problem and solve it.”
Another attraction was that plumbing wasn’t seen as a black industry, he says. “People said plumbing was a white man’s trade, an Italian’s trade.” If blacks did manage to get plumbing work, he says, it was for apartment and service work. But, as he quickly learned, “The key thing is new construction. And blacks couldn’t do that.
“My dad told me, ‘You can do anything.’” These days, that means sticking up for people who face an updated version of the discrimination that he encountered.
In an outing in his SUV, Green arrives at a job site on Martin Luther King Jr. Avenue—the renovation of a community center. It’s not a huge job, but Green has driven by numerous times in the past few months and says he’s never seen a black worker. Time to walk in, maybe light up the general contractor.
But nobody’s in the makeshift office. Looks like no fireworks today.
Green saunters onto the work site—a couple of big empty rooms with dusty concrete floors, the wall studs showing, aluminum beams stretching across the unfinished ceiling.
Three Hispanic guys stand far up on ladders doing welding work on the ceiling.
Green peers out a door frame into a dirt yard under excavation. A white man operates a backhoe at one end of the yard, while at the other end two black laborers are pulling up orange earth with a shovel and a pickax.
Over the noise of the backhoe, Green calls out to the laborers, who walk over.
He asks if they’re from the neighborhood. Both of them live nearby. Both decline to give their names. One man, 46, has been on the site since work started about a year ago. The other, beefier and 36, has been here since October. Both have worked as laborers on various phases of the job.
No, there are no other black workers right now, they say, though last year during demolition, there were four other black laborers, on a crew that has never exceeded about 20.
Green seems a little disappointed that the job’s local black representation isn’t more inadequate. But his main concern is black contractors, so he asks if the men have seen any working at the site.
Maybe one, the windows guy, the older man thinks. No, says the younger man, he was just a worker for the windows contractor, not the owner.
Green shakes his head as though expecting the news. He walks back out to the SUV and hits the BlackBerry, composing an e-mail to the general contractor, Total Management.
“Total Management has not hired one contractor…D.C. minority contractor…” he reads out as he works the PDA, siting behind the steering wheel. “DHCD has given the project in excess of $600,000…” he types. He’s done his homework.
A Total official says that Total and the project’s sponsor, United Planning Organization, tried but failed to find African-American contractors to perform the required work.
Green has a special passion for small municipal projects. This spring, for example, he pushed the NAMC’s agenda at the so-called Town Hall Education, Arts and Recreation Center (ARC) on Mississippi Avenue SE. When finished, the $23 million arts and social-services complex will create a Southeast base for tenants such as the Levine School of Music, the Boys & Girls Club of D.C., and the Washington School of Ballet. The DHCD has $3 million in the project, and the Department of Parks and Recreation has contributed $500,000.
William C. Smith, developer of ARC, helped set up the nonprofit corporation that is organizing the project, and he helped raise the private funds to get it off the ground.
In early March, Green says, he parked his Expedition for hourslong stretches over two days across from the ARC site. Green concluded from his surveillance that William C. Smith Co., the developer, was employing few black workers and fewer black contractors, and he sent off a flurry of e-mailed complaints to DHCD chief Jackson, with copies to 23 other officials and reporters.
Wrote Green: “I want to know why DHCD keeps giving [Smith Co. President] Chris Smith D.C. Tax Dollars, and letting him do [what] and hire who he wants on publicly funded Development Projects? I want to know why I had to sit across from The Arc Project for the past two days and see only one Black Contractor and maybe one Black Resident working?”
He also fired off a Freedom of Information Act request to the DHCD, asking the
agency to give him a list of all the subcontractors at ARC, the dollar amounts of their contracts, and a tally of which of them were LSDBE contractors.
And then he made a discovery: The general contractor that was the leading candidate to build the condos at the Tivoli job in Columbia Heights was Smith, too. He says some of his members called him, balking at submitting bids to subcontract with Smith.
His alliance with Graham was freshly minted, and he knew the Tivoli was Graham’s special concern. So he sent off another burst of e-mails to Graham, Carter at the NCRC, and others, protesting Smith’s possible role on the job.
“I knew it was going to turn ugly when I sent off that e-mail,” he says
He was right: Within days, Green got a letter from Smith’s attorneys at Holland & Knight, threatening to sue him if he continued agitating for Smith’s removal. Green claims the threat didn’t especially worry him. “I figured as big as they are, if they were going to sue, they’d just file papers on me.”
And in fact, he soon found out he’d won. A government source he won’t identify phoned him and gave him the word: Smith wouldn’t get the Tivoli job.
William “Skip” McMahon, head of Smith’s ARC construction team, acknowledges that Smith withdrew from Tivoli under outside pressure. “It was a mutual decision” between Smith and the development team, he said. “We said, ‘If some people are uncomfortable with this, let’s just move forward.’” (Graham says he knows nothing about Smith’s role.)
The DHCD documents that Green requested confirmed his suspicions: Only four of the 23 subcontractors hired by Smith on the ARC project were LSDBE-certified—17.4 percent of the total. If LSDBE participation is calculated by dollar amount, the percentage goes up to 25.9 percent, still well below the 35 percent target.
Green’s guerrilla tactics had gotten the attention of the big boys. By late April, he had met with Smith. The adversaries settled their differences and got down to talking about getting NAMC members a seat at bidding sessions for future Smith jobs, notably the enormous Camp Simms development on Alabama Avenue SE. (Smith declined to comment for this story.)
“Bobby has been aggressive about the way he’s come to us with his issues,” says McMahon. “He injects himself in a job or a process in a way that’s real direct— ‘I need this. I need that,’ ‘You need to get some of my people on this job’—rather than ask for drawings, go through the process the way most people would go through.”
Green’s sometime tendency to substitute passion and ambition for detail does seem to trip him up sometimes—especially in his dealings with the professionalism-first Williams administration.
In early March, City Administrator Robert Bobb helped him get a meeting in the mayor’s offices at the Wilson Building—“The Mountaintop,” as Green says—with Deputy Mayor Herb Tillery, Office of Local Business Development chief Jacqueline Flowers, and other officials. By Flowers’ account, Green arrived unprepared.
“We wanted a list of jobs he was interested in. We wanted to make sure of some of the names of small companies he’s representing,” she says. “We believed he would come in with information, but he came in with no information.”
Green says he was expecting only an informal powwow with one or two officials, his preferred type of meeting. But he admits the meeting went badly. “They kicked my ass,” he says. “After that meeting, I just went down to that little wall behind the Wilson Building and put my head down and cried.”
On May 5, a news flash shakes Green’s world: Jim Graham has surprised everybody, including his own campaign manager, with the news that he won’t be challenging Brazil for the at-large council seat after all.
Before getting the news, Green was assembling NAMC members to gather at the Wilson Building for the big announcement—as
Graham had asked supporters to do. He’d worked with his father’s shop to print up a large 3-by-8-foot “NAMC Supports Jim Graham” banner for the ceremony.
About an hour after Graham’s announcement, Green sounds a bit like a politician himself. “I’m not angry with Jim,” he says. “I’m still coming out for his announcement tomorrow.
“At the end of the day, Jim’s still working with us, spearheading this way for us that I think is going to be very beneficial to the NAMC.”
It’s barely an hour since word spread, and he’s busy building his team at the Wilson Building.
“Well, it looks like I’m on Kwame’s trail,” he says. Kwame Brown is an already-declared candidate for the seat; he heads the Maryland/D.C. Minority Supplier Development Council, which sometimes works with the NAMC.
“I sure as hell ain’t getting behind Harold,” Green says.
“I got to get by Fenty’s office tomorrow. And Chavous. I’ve got to get with [those councilmembers] tomorrow. They’re on the Economic Development Committee, too.” CP
Art accompanying story in the printed newspaper is not available in this archive: Photographs by Darrow Montgomery.