Lobbying Success: Best practices of Realtor® association lobbyists any association can adopt.
By Bridget McCrea
The life of a lobbyist is one that not many people understand. Charged with persuading members of the government to enact legislation that would benefit their group—in this case the associations of Realtors®—lobbyists spend their days attempting to influence the outcome of legislation or administrative decisions.
It’s not an easy job. “A lot of people don’t understand the behind-the-scenes work, and the compromise and negotiation involved with working with so many different groups and viewpoints,” says Kipp Cooper, director of government affairs for the Greater Las Vegas Association of Realtors®. “The lobbyist’s job is to connect the dots in a way that the average real estate practitioner cannot.”
Getting there requires an honest, integrity-based approach, says Cooper. Relationships with both elected officials and association leaders must be cultivated and groomed in a way that produces results. Cooper’s tactics go beyond the “one-time” relationships, aiming for longer-term bonds by maintaining year-round interaction with legislators and their staff.
“Oftentimes the staff relationships are the most important because they’re the folks who will give you a call and tell you that something is going on that will impact your industry,” says Cooper, who over the years has attended many golf tournaments and cocktail parties as a way to gain favor with those gatekeepers.
To maintain similar ties with the association’s membership and leadership, Cooper distributes a weekly e-newsletter highlighting the group’s legislative activities and successes. Most recently, the group worked with the local carpenters’ union and developers, and met with the city’s mayor and council members to get a five-story downtown height restriction ordinance modified.
The efforts paid off. “We relied on strong dialogue with the city council, partnering with other outside groups, and some solid research into the issue to get the restriction modified,” Cooper explains.
Keep a narrow focus
The Pennsylvania Association of Realtors® has been successful in its lobbying by focusing exclusively on issues of greatest importance to its members and the home buying public, says Derenda Updegrave, director of government affairs.
“We establish priorities on both proactive and reactive issues,” says Updegrave, “and focus on issues that impact members most directly.” To get there, Updegrave says, the association has established a committee structure with specialized subcommittees. Those subcommittees provide input on legislative and overall policy issues, then come up with a “clear message” for the group’s lobbyists to deliver to the legislature.
Take the realty transfer tax, for example, the association’s top lobbying priority for the last three sessions (or six years). The group created antitax informational campaigns for lawmakers, members, and the general public on the negative impact the transfer tax increase would have on the state’s already high (1 percent) assessment.
Updegrave relies on committee input for background and information on consumer impact to craft two or three key messages that then are used to develop a list of talking points. “The idea is to keep the points very focused and strategy-driven,” she says. “That way, the legislature, public, and members are clear about what they’re being asked to do for a call to action.”
Sometimes good lobbying means working both sides of the aisle, according to Martin Johnson, director of government relations for the Virginia Association of Realtors®. Johnson operates in an environment where the state government is Democratic, but the Senate and House of Delegates are both Republican. To get through to both sides, Johnson spends time in the off-season getting to know the legislators—something that’s not always possible during the heat of a session.
“I meet with them in their districts or at the capitol, and take time to talk about the industry with them,” says Johnson, who has come to know many of the lawmakers’ families over the years. He trusts the legislators and their ability to influence decisions that affect Realtors®, but also acknowledges that he’s dealing in an expensive arena where getting re-elected is the name of the game. “Lawmakers will take the easiest path if you give it to them,” he adds.
Ultimately, Harlan Levy, director of government affairs for the Oregon Association of Realtors®, says being a good lobbyist means always telling the truth and backing up all agendas with accurate facts, figures, and documentation. “One lie and your credibility will be shot,” says Levy, whose association has 19,000 members. “There are no second chances.”
And if a lawmaker is going to vote “no” on your bill, says Levy, just move on to the next one and don’t take it personally. “We’re professionals, and the legislators are professionals, and sometimes you’re just not going to get them to agree with you,” explains Levy, who advises lobbyists to go beyond the basic ethical standards put forth by their respective states. “Don’t threaten anyone or do anything you wouldn’t want your mother to read about in the newspaper.”
Find the training grounds
Cooper sees local chambers of commerce as good training grounds where lobbyists can get to know other lobbyists and the business community. “The first thing I did when I moved to Las Vegas was to get in contact with these types of groups and introduce myself to the association’s government affairs director,” says Cooper, who also sees the Internet as a good information source for lobbyists, particularly when it comes to best lobbying practices.
Having a strong political action committee in place also can go a long way toward helping the novice lobbyist start racking up successes, says Levy, who also advocates the use of grassroots organizations that get behind specific pieces of legislation. “You can send out one fax or e-mail to the group and quickly have 500 constituents make phone calls to their legislators,” he explains. Levy uses an e-mail broadcast system to quickly mobilize the association’s 19,000 members.
Johnson adds that Realtor® associations can also provide valuable insights that lobbyists can use to increase their effectiveness in the political arena. “Take advantage of the resources that NAR provides us with, such as the Government Affairs Directors Institute, and network with lobbyists around the country,” explains Johnson. “There is always someone out there who has dealt with the same issue that you’re grappling with. Tap the network instead of reinventing the wheel.”
18 dos and don’ts of lobbying
Do: always identify yourself by name and organization when talking with an elected official.
Do: state a clear and concise objective. For example, say specifically that you want to stop national banks from engaging in real estate brokerage and management, which would create anti-competitive and anti-consumer concentrations of power within the financial services sector—not just that you want to keep banks out of real estate (which is too broad).
Do: be aware of previous actions the official has taken on behalf of the real estate industry.
Do: get to know your elected officials. Attend town meetings and other events, and be sure they hear you ask at least one question on real estate issues at each event.
Do: join forces with other types of groups that may have the same position as you even if for different reasons—groups such as churches, teacher’s unions, chambers of commerce, local universities, or specific industries.
Do: wear many hats—not just your Realtor® hat. When lobbying legislators, identify yourself as a homeowner, parent, businessperson, campaign contributor, or fellow church member.
Do: work with legislative staff. They often have more knowledge of the issues, can give you vital background on the legislation’s outlook, and have extraordinary clout.
Do: get involved in legislative campaigns—as an individual, not as a nonprofit group. Volunteer to work, place a campaign sign in your yard, hand out leaflets, or otherwise help get someone elected.
Do: work with your local press by developing a relationship with reporters and editors.
Do: respond to action alerts sent by NAR and other housing groups.
Don’t: threaten or antagonize a legislator. Today’s council member can be tomorrow’s governor.
Don’t: refer to bills by their numbers alone.
Don’t: fail to listen to elected officials’ comments and questions on an issue.
Don’t: ever lie to or mislead a legislator—especially someone who is on your side and needs to know the truth about an issue.
Don’t: overwhelm legislators with too much information or paperwork. They don’t have time.
Don’t: be inflexible. As long as such a change won’t harm the industry or members’ business, consider the situation carefully. Learn legislative strategies that might save a bill otherwise destined to die, such as sunset provisions, grandfathering clauses, and provisions to a regulation instead of a statute.
Don’t: forget to thank helpful officials. Whenever possible, let your membership know how helpful the person has been.
Don’t: use terms or abbreviations that may be unfamiliar to an official without explaining their meaning, such as NAR, RPAC, or VOW.
Adapted from the Humane Society of the United States