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How and Why to Get Members Elected

January 1, 2011

Thousands of REALTORS® serve as elected and appointed officials in posts government bodies from county planning commissions to the U.S. Senate. The benefits to the real estate industry are clear, but what about the advantages to REALTOR® associations? Should you encourage members to run for office? The REALTOR® association government affairs pros we spoke to answered with a resounding yes.

“Our association actively encourages members to participate in local government boards and commissions that make important decisions over how residents can use their property and how our county departments operate,” says Dave DeLeon, government affairs director for the REALTOR® Association of Maui, Hawaii. “If REALTORS® want their values reflected in public policy, then they have to participate.”

Terry Murphy, RCE, AE of the Pasadena Foothills Association of REALTORS®, Calif., says there’s a great benefit to his association in having a president who is not only a member of a local city council, but also a former mayor. “The city hears a REALTOR®’s expertise and perspective on housing and land use issues, and the association hears the governmental expertise and perspective, as needed. The dialogue creates awareness and, hopefully, clarity on issues that might not otherwise be addressed.”

The Greater Fort Worth Association of REALTORS®, Texas, has many members serving in public office, including four state representatives. The association has so many members in public service because it fosters a culture that encourages engagement with the political process, and members gain experience in governmental affairs through their service to the association, says Robert Gleason, the association’s director of governmental affairs.

“We have been able to secure appointments for our members on Fort Worth city task forces dealing with proposed ordinances, such as rental registration, sign ordinances, and transportation issues, as well as on standing commissions, such as the planning and zoning commissions,” says Gleason.
Along with the association’s encouragement, often it’s a single issue affecting their ability to do business that spurs REALTORS® to seek public office.

“I was working to defeat a local sign ordinance that one member was especially mad as heck about,” says Conor Brown, Illinois Association of REALTORS®’ government affairs director for the northwestern part of the state. “So I said, ‘Bruce, why don’t you run?’” Four members ran for the village board that year supported by RPAC and they defeated four incumbents, which completely restructured the board.

“It makes my job a million times easier having advocates for REALTOR® issues serving in public office,” says Brown, who encourages members to get involved at the local level and work their way up. REALTOR® Frank Gambino, for example, currently serving on the Winnebago County board, plans to make a run for the state senate this fall.

Personality and passions

Given their typical personality traits, perhaps it’s not surprising that many REALTORS® make natural politicians; they’re people-oriented, they’re savvy negotiators, and they care about the communities they live in. Most important, they have a unique understanding of the issues that affect the quality of life and economic vitality in their area.

Protecting the quality of life in his community is what inspired Montana state Representative and REALTOR® Bob Lake to get involved in politics. “If you leave the decision-making to someone who doesn’t understand real estate, you’re putting yourself at risk, as well as your business and the industry,” he explains. “If you don’t get involved and protect your area, then someone else will get involved and protect their own interests while taking away from yours.”

Claus Lembke, government affairs director of the North Dakota Association of -
REALTORS®, couldn’t agree more. “I’ve always been an advocate for more REALTORS® in public office,” he -enthuses. “I constantly encourage REALTORS® to run for office and often challenge our association to adopt a goal that would place one REALTOR® volunteer in every campaign for a public office.”

Gleason says not only do members bring expertise on the real estate industry to government but they can also identify legislation that could impact the real estate industry and bring it to the association’s attention, often at early stages in the process. “For example,” he says, “one of our member elected officials on the Fort Worth city council brought to us a proposed revision to the Conservation District ordinance, which provided an overlay in historic areas. He worked with us to make sure that private property rights protections were included in the ordinance.”

No guaranteed advocate

Keep in mind that an elected REALTOR® may not always vote for REALTOR® issues. “Having a member in an elected office does not guarantee a vote,” cautions Andy Fegley, director of government affairs for the Southeast Valley Regional Association of REALTORS®, Ariz. “It does, however, give you someone who understands the real estate industry and the demand for sound policy that protects the way REALTORS® do business.”

Glenn Oppel, government affairs director of the Montana Association of REALTORS®, says local boards that have members on key committees, such as planning and zoning, tend to have a much more development-friendly regulatory climate than local boards that do not. It’s worth noting, he points out, that the state’s three REALTORS® in the legislature usually vote with them on their priorities.

Judy Gilstrap, real estate broker and county commissioner of Greenville County, S.C., knows she can’t always side with REALTORS®. “A public servant represents the interests of thousands of citizens, and regardless of how hard you work, you will never please all the people, all the time,” she says.

Balancing the job of a real estate broker or sales person with that of a public servant can be tricky. There can be perceived conflicts of interest, not to mention issues that may be misunderstood by people outside the industry, such as banks in real estate and predatory lending.

“I’ve found that many elected officials keep their REALTOR® involvement low-key,” says Bill Ruh, GAD at the Citrus Valley Association of REALTORS®, Calif. Part of the problem, he explains, is that many constituents (and even other elected officials) do not understand the housing affordability issues.

California state Senator Robert Dutton, however, makes no bones about being a REALTOR® and is generally a solid vote for REALTOR® issues in the state legislature, says Ruh.

A boost to the REALTOR® image

Although a REALTOR® elected official may not be a guaranteed advocate, GADs agree that members who commit to public service are a guaranteed boost to the image of REALTORS®.
Many GADs say that highly visible REALTOR® officials reflect positively on the profession, adding a professional presence that constituents respect.

Lembke warns, though, that in order to make the best allies, REALTOR® politicians need to be kept in the loop on the association’s public policy decisions and to be invited to join the state political affairs committees. “The past 30 years of dealing with the state legislature have taught me that all elected REALTORS® are beneficial and can be a tremendous asset to our causes, but they need specialized training,” he says.

Brown promises his member candidates that the REALTOR® organization, with its resources, expertise, and experience, is available to them to lean on even after they’re elected. “It’s easier for them [to run] because we can provide legal briefs, polling assistance, research, and strategic counseling,” he says. “The fact that we really aren’t partisan has also benefited us greatly.”

Ultimately, if REALTORS® don’t get involved in the political process, their businesses and livelihoods could be at stake. Elections for 2012 are around the corner, and now is the time to begin recruiting REALTOR® members to run for office.

This is an updated version of a REALTOR® AE magazine article that ran in 2005.

REALTOR® Candidate Schools
New programs train and inspireREALTORS® to run for office.

By popular demand, NAR is launching a new program in 2012 to train members to run for political office. The REALTOR® Candidate Training program covers the basics of running a campaign, including what’s needed personally and professionally to be an elected official. It also discusses how to find staff, create a budget, determine your electorate, and, of course, market yourself to voters.
NAR designed the program so that state and local associations can sponsor it locally. “This is a program that we wanted to develop so that state and local associations could offer it at their associations, under their association name, or at their annual state meetings, or another meeting that made sense to them,” says Kyle Lambert London, NAR’s project manager of campaign services. Associations will determine the candidates who will attend the training session.

The nonpartisan, one-day curriculum includes a campaign training manual for candidates and other practical materials.

Working with a focus group of REALTOR® government affairs directors, NAR has focused the program toward entry-level candidates who are in the first stages of their political careers and are running for election at the local or state level.

NAR selected Cornerstone Solutions out of North Carolina to conduct the program because the group has extensive experience running bipartisan campaign schools at trade associations at the local, state, and national levels, including REALTOR® associations.

For more on costs, content, and scheduling, contact Kyle Lambert London, 202-383-1203.

Local candidate training opportunities

Several local and state associations, including Las Vegas and Michigan, have had programs in place for some time that are designed to train members to run for political office. But one of the most recently developed programs is the 2010 launch of an intensive five-day training program at the Middle Tennessee Association of REALTORS®, called the REALTOR® Party Political Action and Candidate Academy.

Candy Roberts, the association’s politically active AE, says she knew a lot of great leaders in her association who would make excellent elected officials, but many simply didn’t know how to start or were nervous that they couldn’t get elected because of too many skeletons in their closets.

The Tennessee program addresses these issues by featuring local elected officials who share their personal stories about the decision to run, the skeletons in their own closets, the campaigning, their family issues, and how they won. “When real people talk about their personal decision to run and what they wish they had known before they ran, it makes running seem possible and attainable,” says Roberts.

The goal of the programming is to make members as well-rounded as possible in the what, when, why, and how of running for office, in addition to giving them tips on what to do when they get there, says Roberts. The program has already led to one win for a local REALTOR® recently elected as county clerk.