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Ed Gardner and Mayor Rahm Emanuel discuss black contracts

Updated: October 10, 2012 2:49AM

If you want the unfiltered truth, sit down with the elderly or the very young.

The elderly don’t have time to mince words and the very young don’t know any better.

So when Ed Gardner took his complaint about the lack of black workers employed at local construction sites to Mayor Rahm Emanuel, he was blunt.

“I let the mayor know, I hold him personally responsible for jobs not being equally shared with black Americans throughout the city of Chicago,” Gardner told me in a phone conversation after the meeting.

“His response was he is doing this and that and what he was going to do. That is fine,” Gardner added.

“I am sure the mayor has the interest of all the citizens of Chicago. I only want to see what I want to see — black men and women working throughout the city of Chicago.”

In Gardner’s mind it’s just that simple.

He had threatened to bring marchers to City Hall on Thursday unless the mayor met him face-to-face to discuss the issue. That could have been ugly.

Gardner founded the iconic Soft Sheen hair care products company in 1964, a time when blacks were still being locked out of jobs in the Loop.

His hair care company was based on the South Side, employed hundreds and had sales totaling more than $94 million annually when it was sold to L’Oreal S.A. in 1998.

But he is greatly respected by a cross-section of African Americans because he used some of his wealth to help get the late Harold Washington elected mayor.

Last month, Gardner began protesting at construction sites at 95th and Western after he noticed that no blacks were visibly working. On Oct. 1, at Gardner’s behest nearly 1,000 protesters joined the protest.

Demonstrators included unemployed unionized workers, businessmen, lawyers, students, elected officials and civil rights activists.

Emanuel, who won the mayoral office with overwhelming support from the black community, is taking a low-key approach in addressing this issue.

In response to my inquiry about his meeting with Gardner, he sent an email touting the CTA’s Red Line renovation project:

“The mayor and Mr. Gardner had a positive meeting in which a variety of topics were discussed,” said Tarrah Cooper, a mayoral spokesman.

“Mr. Gardner agreed to help the mayor encourage African-American businesses to bid on contract opportunities with the city and the two agreed to continue to collaborate to ensure African-Americans have equal opportunities to work with the city.

“Mr. Gardner thanked the mayor for his commitment to investing in infrastructure throughout the African American community, specifically concrete and sidewalk work, the renovation of the CTA’s 95th Street Red Line station and track work on Red Line South,” Cooper said.

But Gardner still isn’t convinced the mayor gets it.

“The mayor says he is not responsible for the drug dealers and people who are doing negative things,” Gardner told me.

“But I told him that black men historically have been denied the opportunity to share in jobs in this city and that condition still exists today. There is a correlation between blacks being denied our fair share of job opportunities and the violence,” Gardner said he told the mayor.

The meeting lasted for nearly an hour. Further discussions on the issue will take place between the mayor’s office and representatives of the Coalition of African American Leaders (C.O.A.L). That organization is headed by Clarence Wood, former chair of the Chicago Human Relations Commission.

Until now, Gardner has been both the symbolic leader and strategic leader of the protest.

One critical observer concluded, however, that unless someone stepped up to help guide the protest, it likely could not be sustained.

It appears that Gardner has addressed that criticism.

“[C.O.A.L] will be working with the mayor’s office to see that things change. They are going to work with mayor on the CTA Red Line situation to see that blacks get work in the City of Chicago,” he said Tuesday.

Despite the sit-down with the mayor, Gardner did not rule out more public demonstrations.

“Protests are still on the table,” he said. “If nothing changes, we are holding him responsible.”

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