There were hard hats on the banquet tables, but they were shoved aside to make room for prime rib and cherries jubilee as the black-tie crowd moved into the Mayflower's Grand Ballroom.

"No, these aren't the ones who drive the nails and handle the trowel," said Tuskegee, Ala., construction contractor Bob Goodwin last night at the Associated Minority Contractors of America's second annual Hard Hat Ball.

And rather than talking about bricks and mortar, the 200 contractors who met for dinner and dancing last night were discussing the building blocks of their business -- government programs that set aside construction contracts for minority firms.

Mayor Marion Barry told of running into a friend working for a black construction company paving the streets at 9th and U.

"Ten years ago some of us never would have thought we would have a black company laying asphalt on the streets of the nation's capital, and doing it well," said Barry who apologized for being underdressed in his three-piece suit and graciously refused to don a hard hat offered him by a photographer.

"We've got to use political power and turn it into economic power. It's easier for me to get 50,000 votes than it is to get $50,000," said Barry.

Eugene Eidenberg, special assistant to the president for intergovernmental affairs, said government programs for minority construction are "not charity, not a handout. They are to ensure that all citizens have an equal crack at the contracts, the business of this society and this government."

Sen. Gaylord Nelson (D-Wis.), chairman of the Senate's Small Business Committee, was presented the association's Golden Hard Hat Award which, despite its name, is really a black plaque with gold lettering.

"The cutting edge of the free enterprise system are those independent entrepreneurs," said Nelson, who added that his only experience in construction was shoveling gravel.

"I used to be on the other end of these guys," said Rep. Parren Mitchell (D-Md.) who has pushed minority contract legislation and also received an award last night.

"I was a laborer, I was in the hod carriers union," said Mitchell. "These are the bosses."

But even the bosses in tuxedos complained they are barely making it.

"So there's 10 percent set aside [for minority contractors] of a $1 million contract. What's that? A stinky $100,000 and we can't even get the supplies for that because there are no black wholesalers," said Marion Goodwin, a New York City cement contractor who came to Washington with two other contractors in their $45,000 Carter-Mondale trailer which they have used to register 6,000 voters in New York and Washington.

Others complained of "front companies" controlled by whites which appoint blacks as company officials to win government contracts.

John R. Newman, a light-skinned man who carries a photograph of his blond daughter in his wallet, is president of Opportunity Concrete Corp. in Georgetown.

"I went to colored schools in Brandywine, Md.," said Newman. "I was never asked if I was colored until I was 50 years old -- when I became president of the company. I had to go get a couple copies of my birth certificate. It says it right there "Mother, Father -- Colored."

But Milton Carey, president of the association, who lost his own local contracting firm five years ago to the first energy crisis, said despite last night's lavish banquet, the AMC represents $43,000 little men and women pushing wheelbarrows, repairing porches and sidewalks."

"These are mom and pop organizations," he said, "feeding moms and pops and in some instances sending sons and daughters to college and staying off the welfare roles. Trying to make the American dream a reality."