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Arnold Jolivet: a Md. warrior [Commentary]

If you are black and have done business with the city or the state — or have even thought of it — you probably know the name Arnold Jolivet. If you are a politician who has anything at all to do with granting government contracts, you definitely know that name. People like me, on the other hand, who go about our lives without giving a thought about procurement processes, probably know nothing of the man that a city official, a construction contractor and a staunch critic of city government admiringly described to me as a warrior.

Jolivet, who had just retired as managing director of the Maryland Minority Contractors Association that he helped establish in the 1970s, died unexpectedly a week ago at the age of 71.

Ackneil Muldrow, a financial consultant and champion of black entrepreneurship, remembers Jolivet as "a trench fighter" with "an intense desire to foster economic development for us" who regularly took on the city's Board of Estimates and the state's Board of Public Works.

He was often at loggerheads with government officials, and, as Doni Glover, the owner of a communications company, pointed out, "He had no problem suing the city for millions of dollars when it was wrong. He had no problem calling Gov. Martin O'Malley on the carpet."

Still, he won their respect. Sharon Pinder, director of the mayor's Office of Minority and Women-Owned Business Development, said she was "heartbroken" at the death of a man with whom she spoke often. "For me, Arnold Jolivet is a fallen hero because he was one of those guys back in the day who did things for the greater good. We don't see that anymore."

A lawyer by training, Jolivet was a master at interpreting the arcane details and ridiculous inconsistencies of government procurement. He knew the intricacies of requirements contracts and extra work orders that meant millions of dollars to the connected. When it came to any contracts over $50,000 — which, he constantly reminded municipal officials, required competitive bidding — he fought tooth and nail to assure that blacks were in the mix. He knew that, left to their own devices, the decision makers would choose their friends and cronies and folks with whom they'd previously worked. His mission was to break the cycle that Billie Holliday sang about so long ago: "Them that's got shall get; them that's not shall lose."

Wherever business opportunities arose, he was first to ask whether blacks were included either as general contractors or as sub-contractors working with the primary contractors. He wanted blacks involved from Day 1 when government projects were being planned — not brought in as afterthoughts to receive the crumbs. He insisted on strict observance of the "minority" part of the legal requirement that "women and minority owned" businesses be included. "He did not mind challenging when we were excluded," Mr. Muldrow noted.

That benefited people like Monique Smith, whose plumbing business recently received a $2 million municipal contract with Jolivet as tutor, guide and advocate.

At the state level, Charles Robinson, a journalist and longtime observer of the political scene, remembers Jolivet's tenacious advocacy when contracts for the Maryland Live casino were being awarded and none of the primary contractors were black. "There were lots of subs, but you don't really move into that next vanguard until you become a prime contractor. We did have some people who had some pretty decent contracts. They just weren't primes."

Over the years, Jolivet sued. He led protests. When general contractors said they could not find qualified black businesses for government projects, Jolivet brought them names. He successfully challenged the disqualification of black businesses for minor clerical errors, often when eliminating them through what he called "nitpicking" meant awarding contracts to out-of-state companies at a higher cost to taxpayers.

"They tried to make him the villain because he was protesting," Mr. Muldrow said, "but he was one who would stand up when other people would roll over and accept."

Between 2007 and 2012, businesses owned by women and minorities received nearly 24 percent of the $1.9 billion the city paid contractors.

To anyone who wonders if the work of Jolivet and other minority business advocates is still needed, this should be a clue: Last month the mayor reauthorized the program tasked with bringing more women and minorities into the pipeline — a program that came into being and was shaped by the efforts of people like Jolivet.

E.R. Shipp, a Pulitzer Prize winner for commentary, is the journalist in residence at Morgan State University's School of Global Journalism and Communication. Her email is

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