Local Political Action: Start Here
By Chip Ahlswede
A government affairs program that rallies members to take a stand on local issues isn’t just for state or large associations.
Transfer taxes, point of sale mandates, and sign restrictions are just the start of what will be an increasing attack on the real estate industry. These hot-button
issues are popular revenue sources and easy ways to appease some vocal anti-Realtor® groups in small towns and counties across the country. They’re also easy to implement and cost the government very little. So if your local association, regardless of size, isn’t prepared to address these issues, it will need to be . . . and soon.
A government affairs program that rallies members to take a stand on local issues isn’t just for state or large associations. Yet for associations with limited staff and funding resources, starting a program can be a major hurdle.
Where to start?
Although there’s no one-size-fits-all program model for government affairs, every program must have a few essentials. The first thing to do is identify your program’s mission:
• Why are you starting this program? For example, has your city council gone out of control recently? Do you need to develop a stronger presence in the community? Have issues been arising in neighboring communities that might affect your community?
• What do you want to accomplish with this program? For example, do you want to improve the association’s presence in the community? Do you want to promote Realtors® in the community? Are there policies that you believe would benefit your members’ business?
• What do you need to accomplish these goals? For example, do you need memberships to any community organizations? Do you need legal advice on developing your policies? Do you or your members need training on how to engage the political process or media?
Government affairs from the ground up
In 2002, Paula Martino, government affairs director of the 1,790-member Southern Maryland Association of Realtors®, became the first GAD in the state of Maryland assigned to a local association under the Shared GAD program (visit REALTOR.org, search “shared GAD”). The association had no formal government affairs or grassroots program. According to Martino, everything legislative or political was decided upon by about four dedicated and well-meaning members. Unfortunately, very little was ever reported out to the membership. Sometimes it was not even reported to the leadership. “It took five years of small steps, persistence, and persuasion to change the way we did business in the legislative and political arena, but today I believe our association has one of the most effective government affairs programs of any local association in Maryland.” (See their mission statement posted on the Realtor® Association Resource Exchange, search “Maryland.”)
In developing your program’s policies and procedures, you’ll want to establish clear duties. For example:
• Who will determine which local issues to support and oppose?
• Who will educate the membership on issues?
• Who will define the messages to communicate?
• Who will work with the media on those messages?
• Who will raise political action committee funds?
• Who will select candidates for local office to support with PAC funds?
“Once we had those guiding policies, we could communicate our efforts to our members,” says Martino. “We had a reason behind every decision that was made. Although some members may not have agreed, they couldn’t deny that we were acting in the best interest of our association.”
Support is key
The success of a local government affairs program is determined by the support it receives from association leadership and members. To drum up support, it’s essential that issues and actions are communicated constantly to members. The necessity of communication cannot be understated. When you have the support of influential members, you create a network of people who will deliver your messages for you. These people are essential to a program’s sustainability.
Additionally, communicating well-reasoned decisions helps educate members about the issues important to your organization, which in turn grows your grassroots support.
Sharon Kerrigan, EVP of the 300-member South Tahoe Association of Realtors®, Calif., found communication was key to her government affairs efforts. “When our regional planning authority attempted to ban vacation rentals, we moved quickly to explain the issue to members [via blast e-mails, broker office meetings, association events, and MLS notices],” says Kerrigan. “We gave contact info for the authority and asked members to send a fax.” The result? The authority called, begging the Realtors® to stop the faxes. Ultimately, the attempted ban was withdrawn.
With communication, you can drum up interest and involvement. Let your membership know:
• What you are doing on their behalf
• Why it matters to them, to their business, to their pocketbook, and their clients
• Who is involved in the process and which members are out front
• How they can get involved and make financial contributions
Value in volunteers
Creating opportunities for member involvement in government affairs is easy. Positions for volunteers are never in short supply.
Neil Malone, an Illinois GAD who works with several local associations, has been building a program to increase member participation.
“We’re working to connect Realtors® with local elected officials similar to the NAR Federal Political Coordinator program. Additionally, we are appointing Realtors® from each office to help communicate to the Realtors® in their office about government affairs. This network will empower members and place volunteers.”
It’s important that you remember to give volunteers two things: direction and praise. Simply telling volunteers to go to a commission meeting isn’t enough. Asking them to go raise funds isn’t enough. Think back to the goals you created for your program and apply them. You want your members to be known and recognized, attuned and informed, and involved and professional when representing the association.
Finally, don’t forget to show your appreciation. Saying “thank you” and promoting what your volunteers are doing not only sustains their interest levels, but it also tends to draw more people to engage the program.
Once this network of empowered volunteers has been created, report your successes and efforts to your members. Let people know how members are working on their behalf to solve the problems the industry faces. As the old adage goes, “Success breeds success.”
A government affairs program is essential for ensuring a healthy environment for the real estate industry. Success likely won’t happen overnight, but with a strong foundation and a support structure it will succeed.
They’re doing what?! First 4 steps to political reaction
Your city council is imposing a $500 “registration fee” on every agent for being independent contractors. The members are furious, the city staff is unrelenting, and you are feeling alone on this. What do you do?
Step 1. Meet and Discuss
Bring in leadership, brokers, and anyone well connected in the community. At this meeting,
• Assess the situation. What is the issue? Who is affected? How does this impact the community as a whole?
• Develop your position. What is the association’s stance and why?
• Develop companion positions. Who else should this issue matter to, and why?
• Create your message. How will you convince members and the entire community?
• Develop an outreach plan. How will you get your message heard?
• Define and delegate responsibilities. Who is in charge of doing what?
Step 2. Create a Coalition
Get members, affiliates, affiliated industries, business organizations, and other affected parties on board. In doing this, you need to:
• Make the issue personal. How does the issue affect them?
• Show a broad vision. How does the issue affect everyone?
• Give a mission and a message. Who should they talk to and what should they say?
Step 3. Make Your Case
Now it’s time to get your messages heard.
• Communicate with elected officials. Meet to discuss the issue.
• Communicate with staff. Clarify what specific problems this issue may create.
• Communicate with media. Define your position.
• Communicate with your coalition. Make sure they are there every step of the way.
Step 4. Stay Involved
Just because you won or lost this round doesn’t mean the issue won’t come back up. Successful government affairs is about being involved, active, and connected.
Chip Ahlswede is the National Association of Realtors® ‘07 GAD Chair. He has worked with local associations to develop gov’t affairs programs since 2000. He can be reached at