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A talk with America's top business advocate.

The top spot at the U.S. Department of Commerce is different from past challenges faced by Ronald H. Brown. The former Democratic National Committee (DNC) chairman and law partner at Patton, Boggs & Blow in Washington, D.C., has already established himself as one of the most accomplished men in American politics. No one who knows the man who helped unite the fractious party that captured the White House after a 12-year absence doubts his ability. He actually could turn Commerce into what President Clinton has called a "powerhouse" for American businesses. However, perhaps for the first time in his career, Brown must prove himself capable not only of successful politics, but of effective government.

This will not be an easy task, even for Brown, whose negotiating and deal-making skills are legendary. During the Reagan/Bush years, the Commerce department kept a rather low profile. Critics, however, considered it negative and obstructionist in its dealings with Africa-American business through its Minority Business Development Administration (MBDA).

At press time, the Commerce Department had not yet presented its budget to Congress. During the previous fiscal year, it spent $2.8 billion providing U.S. business with the basic economic research data needed to make industrial decisions and assist federal economic policy planning. Now it is Secretary Brown, 51, who presides over the dizzying array of administrations headed by undersecretaries.

Despite his position at the center of the nation's power elite, Brown remembers his roots. Flanking the doorway of his office--from which he can view the Lincoln Memorial--is a barometer given to him by the Urban League and an Ernie Barnes print of a black teenager leaping to dunk a basketball. Perhaps he glances at those mementos while trying to gauge and direct the nation's business climate. After all, Brown knows that a thriving economy is a springboard for all who have higher goals.

In an exclusive interview with BLACK ENTERPRISE, Secretary Brown addresses a range of issues affecting American business and African-American-owned companies in particular. BLACK ENTERPRISE: What are your initial impressions of the Commerce Department? Secretary Brown: I am even more energized now than on the first day I got here. This department has enormous breadth and reach on the domestic and international fronts. A lot of very good people here felt underused and underappreciated for the last 12 years. They now want to get on with the new Administration's agenda.

We have an opportunity to redefine the mission of the Commerce Department in a way that folks outside of Washington will understand. I see the mission as enhancing economic opportunities for the American people. By helping to create jobs, this department is going to be a key factor in economic renewal. And as we all know, those jobs are in the private sector. We are the principal linkage to the private sector.

Several areas will be emphasized. When you look at U.S. economic performance over the past couple of years, the bright spot has been exports. This department has a leadership role in promoting exports and, therefore, in creating more jobs.

We are encouraged by the fact that this Administration has put technology on the front burner and indicated that Commerce will be the civilian technology agency for the federal government. Telecommunications is a crucial area. In fact, a Commerce agency, the National Institute of Telecommunications and Information Administration, will help set telecommunications policy and encourage the building of a "telecommunications superhighway," or national network of computers and high-technology equipment. BE: How will your duties differ from those of past secretaries? Secretary Brown: Unlike my predecessors, I am a member of the National Economic Council. In the past, most of the decisions regarding the President's economic package were made by macro- and microeconomic thinkers and budget analysts. This time, the Secretaries of Commerce and Labor sat with the team developing the plan. It was a decision-making process that focused on real people. BE: Over the past several years, the influence of MBDA, which was created to assist the nation's minority businesses, has waxed and waned... Secretary Brown: Mostly waned. BE: In light of this mixed record, what plans do you have for MBDA? Secretary Brown: I want to revitalize MBDA by making it an important part of this department--which it has not been for many years. MBDA must have clear and aggressive leadership. Many MBDA employees have been frustrated and want to make a difference in minority business. I have fought hard for additional resources for MBDA in the President's stimulus package. I wanted to send a signal to the staff that this agency is going to be an important part of Commerce.

BE: You added an additional $2 million to MBDA's $43 million budget?

Secretary Brown: Yes.

BE: I was told that as part of your effort to "revitalize" MBDA, you submitted a proposal to President Clinton asking for the creation of an assistant secretary position to oversee the agency. This person will report to you and be responsible for creating 100 development banks. Is this the case?

Secretary Brown: If there is such a document, I have never seen it. There have been some discussions about the development banks and a significant Commerce role [in that effort]. A recommendation will ultimately be made to the president.

BE: Many small, minority- and women-owned banks are already operating as community banks. Is there any push to enhance the capital and support for these banks, instead of siphoning it to 100 new banks?

Secretary Brown: It would be hard to do that [extend federal funds to already established banks] because of state and charter regulations for federally chartered institutions. These kinds of regulations will not be required of community development banks.

Rather than operating as regular banks, these community banks would provide seed capital. We are not looking to compete with existing institutions, but to fill a gap.

I hope that banks serving the minority community could be enhanced, but that would be done through a different apparatus.

BE: Last year, one recommendation made by the Bush-appointed U.S. Commission on Minority Business Development suggested that parts of the much criticized 8(a) program be transferred from the Small Business Administration (SBA) to Commerce. Is this under serious consideration by the Clinton Administration?

Secretary Brown: I know that it has been discussed in some circles, but not in the Administration as yet. There are different congressional jurisdictional lines between SBA and Commerce. Moving the 8(a) program would require addressing those congressional and jurisdictional issues, and--to my knowledge--that has not taken place.

BE: Another much discussed way to enhance minority business is through the creation of enterprise zones (EZs). The BLACK ENTERPRISE Board of Economists sees value in creating EZs, but the board is concerned that the zones will simply become showpieces that do not contribute to the economic growth of inner cities. Can this be avoided?

Secretary Brown: We must review the concept. The Clinton Administration supports EZs, and the National Economic Council is considering them right now. The issue is, how many? If you create too many EZs, each one would lack adequate resources. On the other hand, if you don't create enough zones, the places that really need them would lack broad coverage.

BE: Do you favor the creation of an overarching Commerce-based codification and certification process that would qualify minority businesses to receive work through federal government contracts?

Secretary Brown: I assume that is part of the suggestion that some of the SBA's functions become a part of Commerce functions. That has not been discussed within the Administration There are a number of functions worthy of consolidation that would help targeted businesses or targeted populations. The idea should be reviewed and studied.

BE: If an industrial policy is adopted, Commerce will probably formulate and incorporate it. What is on the agenda regarding the minority business aspects of the plan?

Secretary Brown: The Administration believes that if we are serious about competing in this increasingly complex global economic environment, we must have a national economic strategy. We are competing against other countries that understand the importance of a public and private sector partnership. The private sector is the driving force that creates economic opportunity for the American people, but government needs to help. We have to build a new kind of respect for the private sector and begin to view it as an assisting hand, rather than something that gets in the way.

BE: And what will be the role of minority-owned businesses?

Secretary Brown: You have to cross the first bridge, and that is, redefining the relationship between the government and the private sector. Then you focus on small- and medium-size businesses. Since minority businesses tend to be small, they have to be a priority. It is crucial to create jobs where they are most needed.
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Title Annotation:Commerce Secretary Ron Brown; includes related article
Author:McCoy, Frank
Publication:Black Enterprise
Article Type:Interview
Date:Jun 1, 1993
Previous Article:Will Clinton's plan work for us?
Next Article:How Clintonomics will impact black business.

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