City pulls minority business program

City pulls minority business program

By Olivia Anderson |

The City of Alexandria recently pumped the brakes on a small business program aimed at supporting minority owned organizations after Tridentis, a local engineering firm, filed a lawsuit alleging that the program violated the Fourteenth Amendment by excluding the firm’s white owner. Now, residents and city officials are working to figure out how to revive the program – legally, this time.

The lawsuit came just before the program was set to open applications on Jan. 26. Submissions were set to close on Feb. 10, recipients were to be announced in March and grants were to be distributed in April. The program would have allowed eligible businesses – or those with at least 51% Black, indigenous and people of color ownership – to apply for grant funding from $1,000 to $7,000 on a first come, first served basis.

Tridentis claimed in the lawsuit that the program would have been “blatantly illegal.”

“The Equal Protection Clause prohibits Alexandria from discriminating based on race, and this express racial exclusion cannot possibly satisfy strict scrutiny,” the lawsuit reads. “Plaintiff, a business in Alexandria who wants to apply for the program but is excluded because its owner is the wrong race, is entitled to relief.”

On Jan. 24, the city initially said in a statement that the program would be placed on hold while it evaluated the lawsuit.

Then, on Feb. 13, the city released another statement, saying it would not launch the program in its current state. However, the statement also said that Alexandria remains focused on finding equitable solutions to address the issues facing residents and that more details will be available “in the coming months.”

“Upon review of the lawsuit and the program, we have decided we will not launch the program as currently proposed. Instead, we will review options to use this funding to meet the needs of our diverse small business community in a more comprehensive and sustainable way, and look forward to launching a program that achieves that goal,” the statement continues.

Kevin Harris, founder of the Alexandria Minority Business Association, noted that the city hosted several engagement meetings before rolling out the final program. The meetings offered business owners throughout the city an opportunity to learn about the upcoming grant and provide feedback.

In Harris’ view, the lawsuit was political in nature, as Tridentis did not engage with the city during the community meetings that were held as the program was being developed.

“It’s not genuine because if someone had a real issue with the way the process was going to be, those meetings were the opportunity to be able to come and weigh in. And it’s not like they only had one meeting; there were several meetings,” Harris said, adding that no such concerns were presented during any of the meetings.

But for Tridentis, meetings do not override law. The lawsuit argues that the program, which defines a “minority individual” as someone who is “Black or African American,” “Hispanic American,” “Asian American” or “Indigenous or Native American,” is in violation of the Fourteenth Amendment.

“Even though there are those (like the City) who treat members of these groups as a monolithic ‘BIPOC,’ all should agree that these four racial groups have very different experiences and histories,” the lawsuit reads. “The 51% cutoff is also arbitrary. So is allowing businesses to mix and match minorities to reach the 51% threshold.”

The Fourteenth Amendment states that no one can be denied “the equal protection of the laws,” the lawsuit highlights, and that a racial classification “is presumptively invalid and can be upheld only upon an extraordinary justification” and must “be analyzed by a reviewing court under strict scrutiny.”

“The program is a racial classification because, on its face, it includes and excludes businesses based on the race of their owners,” the lawsuit reads. “It must satisfy strict scrutiny, which it cannot.”

Virginia Attorney General Jason Miyares submitted an amicus brief to the court in support of the Tridentis lawsuit. The Washington Post quoted the brief as saying:

“The Program parcels out public money expressly on the basis of skin color, granting money to members of preferred racial groups and denying it to all others. … According to the City, White Alexandrians and Alexandrians of Arab or Middle Eastern descent need not apply.”

Consovoy McCarthy, the firm representing Tridentis, worked on a case that resulted in some of the Voting Rights Act being found unconstitutional, and co-founder William Consovoy represented former President Donald Trump in a case to hand over his tax returns to the House Ways and Means Committee.

Harris expressed frustration at the large-scale company taking aim at such a small grant program.

“This is what’s going on for up to $7,000,” Harris said. “… It’s unfortunate that it’s come down to this.”

As for what is next, Alexandria Communications Director Ebony Fleming said that the city is still trying to determine “how the program needs to change in order to address the needs of the community.”

“We are working hard to address the needs of this community which we intend to do in full compliance with the U.S. Constitution,” Fleming said. “So, agreeing to this narrow consent judgment allows us to focus on the more sustainable and comprehensive goals of this overall program.”

A consent judgment is a settlement agreement between both parties that has been approved by the court.

She added that city officials are currently working toward a new program, but that the process will likely take several months.

“The process is ongoing. I know this is a priority, especially because so many people were looking forward to being able to apply,” Fleming said. “We know that the need is very great for so many individuals, so it is a priority for city leadership to [create a program] that we’ll be able to execute, and execute flawlessly.”

For Harris, the next move is forward. He and other residents are putting together a sign-on letter to circulate through the community for residents and business owners to express solidarity in urging the city to “uphold the commitment that they made, and [let] them know we stand behind them.”

He also expressed hope that more funding is added to the new program in order to show continued dedication toward equity and inclusion.

“The only way to do that is to invest more. We couldn’t do the program that we initially designed, that we had planned to do, but it’s not going to stop our investment,” Harris said. “[We want] people to understand that we’re truly committed. It’s not just something that we’re saying, but it’s something that we’re committed to.”