Picking a Winner: Which candidate should you back with your association’s support and money?
By C. Warren Wakeland
They’re Democrats and Republicans, they’re independents and social conservatives, they’re environmentalists and, sometimes, even Realtors®. The people we elect to make laws affecting our communities are as varied as the places we call home. But when it comes to gaining the backing of Realtor® associations, they must have one thing in common: support for the Realtor® organization’s political position.
In your community, this position may be support for a particular sustainable development or opposition to “for sale” sign restrictions. Whatever the issue, Realtor® associations of all sizes work diligently to support candidates for elected office who share their views. Without the support of policymakers, your members and your community can suffer.
But it isn’t easy to identify political candidates who deserve association support and money. Here are some tips on how to choose the right candidate.
Picking a winner
Most government affairs directors agree that a combination of an issue questionnaire and face-to-face interview is the best way to get to know a candidate. (See sample questionnaires online at REALTOR.org/RARE, search “candidate questionnaires.”)
“What’s most effective is if we send the candidate the questionnaire, get their answers back, then meet with the candidates,” says Derek Ramsay, vice president of government affairs for the Kansas City Regional Association of Realtors®. “It gives candidates some background on us and us some background on them, and lets us ask more educated questions.”
The best way to interview candidates is with a small association subcommittee of either Realtor® Political Action Committee trustees or government affairs committee members, says Bryan Wahl, government affairs director for the Washington Association of Realtors®. Wahl adds that it’s best if the subcommittee consists of RPAC contributors, is balanced in its makeup, and is unbiased. He also suggests interviewing candidates for one race at a time and deciding on support immediately following the interviews, when the information you received is still fresh.
Dividing the membership
Backing one candidate, particularly when two candidates support Realtors®, can pose a problem for associations. If members split on candidate support, it weakens an association and can cause a rift that can be hard to repair.
Harlan Levy, government affairs director for the Oregon Association of Realtors®, believes that having a third party conduct the interviews can ease tensions if you see a potential split coming.
“We took over the interview process in Oregon a few years ago,” Levy says. “We have the local members participate, but RPAC conducts the interviews.”
Having the state association conduct interviews for local candidates keeps the questioning focused on Realtor® issues, he explains, adding, “We remind members that when RPAC decides on support, it is concerned with issues that affect only the real estate industry.”
When candidates change stripes
Try as you might, sometimes you can do all your homework and still pick the wrong candidate. This might happen because a candidate changes his or her position on a key issue or fails to follow through on the promises made in your interviews and on the campaign trail. So what can you do?
Ramsay advises that you stay calm and not give the official any reason to get angry with the association.
“You still have to work with the official,” he says. “You can’t show any disrespect.”
Ramsay speaks from experience. Recently in Kansas, the attorney general changed a position on a key Realtor® issue.
“We had members who knew the attorney general contact him and ask why he changed his position,” Ramsay explains. “We had part of his advance team attend several of our meetings where we discussed the issue.”
When the attorney general rendered his opinion on the issue, the association was able to work with his staff to smooth things out.
“You have to let them know [their position change] goes on their record,” Wahl said. “But you also have to know when to bite your tongue. If an official is with you nine out of 10 times, even if the tenth issue is a big one, it’s almost never worth burning a bridge over.”
Sometimes, though, you can’t be afraid to get tough. Washington state had what Wahl calls a “draw a line in the sand” issue in 2006 on real estate taxes. “It doesn’t happen much, but on an issue like this there’s only one way to look at it, and that’s our way,” he says.
Washington association members set up a Web site to provide facts about the issue and let it be known unequivocally that any legislator voting for the tax increase would not receive Realtor® support in the next election. The result: Two-thirds of the legislature voted against the tax, “and now no legislator is even breathing a word about a real estate tax increase,” Wahl says.
There are no guarantees
If you think you should have a guarantee of support from a candidate, stop looking.
“I don’t believe in guarantees,” Levy says. “I think if you ask for guarantees, you’re pushing too hard. These are public servants. You can only expect them to follow their word.”
Besides, suggests Wahl, “The best way to guarantee their support is, if they deliver for us when they get elected, we deliver for them. That builds mutual respect.”
Don’t back a loser
A major issue to consider in choosing a candidate is electability. Managing good government is about getting people elected who will support your issues. If a candidate cannot win, you may not want to spend valuable association resources trying to change the inevitable.
“If a candidate has all the right answers but is completely unelectable, we may consider not supporting them,” Levy says.
One of the most important points is to leave partisanship out of the mix. “Realtor® issues aren’t Democratic or Republican,” Levy says. “We’re in the business of homeownership. How can anyone be against that?”
8 steps to effectivecandidate selection
These tips from the National Association of Realtors®’ grassroots involvement department are taken from a PowerPoint presentation used to educate GADs on selecting congressional candidates, but they can be adapted to any state or local selection process.
Step 1. SELECT A SCREENING COMMITTEE
• Choose state RPAC trustees to lead
• Establish an interview committee
• Know the issues
• Weed out conflicts-of-interest
• Use a disclosure form
Step 2. TRAIN THE INTERVIEW PANEL
• Have NAR field staff train panel members
• Conduct a walk-through or ask
Step 3. SCHEDULE THE INTERVIEW SESSION
• Plan early
• Be aware of state and NAR RPAC funding deadlines
• Interview all candidates in one day
• Be prepared for make-up meetings
Step 4. INVITE CANDIDATES TO THE INTERVIEW
Step 5. PLAN THE INTERVIEW
• Have a list of candidates
• Order the questions
• Get background on each candidate in advance
• Make sure Realtors® are familiar with questions
• Make it confidential
Step 6. INTERVIEW & SCORE THE CANDIDATE
• Determine the method for scoring
• Give each question equal weight
• Consider upsides and downsides to each
Step 7. ASK FOR RPAC FUNDING
• Send contribution request to state trustees
• Forward approved state request to NAR
trustees for consideration*
Step 8. ANNOUNCE SUPPORT
• Make sure all candidates have been
notified of the panel’s decision
• Write a press release
• Deliver RPAC check to candidate
*Only for congressional races
C. Warren Wakeland is the governmental affairs director for the Nebraska Realtors® Association. He can be reached at (402) 323-6500, firstname.lastname@example.org.