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Which Candidates Deserve Your Support?

January 1, 2010

They’re Democrats and Republicans; they’re liberal independents and Tea Party conservatives. 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, candidates must have one thing in common: support for the REALTOR® organization’s political positions.

At your association, your may support a particular sustainable development or property tax cap legislation. Whatever the issue, REALTOR® associations of all sizes are entrusted
to work diligently to support candidates for elected office who share their views. Without the support of policymakers—from city council members to senators—your members and your community can suffer.

But it isn’t easy to identify political candidates who deserve your association’s support. Here are some tips on how to choose the right candidate.

Dues dollars to candidates: a new challenge

Because dues dollars, not just individual donations to RPAC, (the REALTOR® Political Action Committee), will be used to support candidates in 2012, associations face a new challenge: explaining to members that their dues dollars may end up supporting a candidate they oppose. This puts increased pressure on candidate selection to be extremely fair, bipartisan, and well researched, GADs say.

Nathan Gorton, RCE, government affairs director of the Washington REALTORS® Association says maintaining a transparent process and following association protocols for endorsements helps avoid splits within the membership. “Political issues are emotional issues and it is difficult to make everyone happy, but if you provide open, well-researched, and complete information on reasons behind endorsement decisions and you are ready to explain the interview team’s choice of candidate, you can diffuse personal passions.”

Because local politics can be especially personal (often when members know both candidates personally), state association RPAC committees often make themselves available to mediate the candidate selection process and focus the discussion only on issues that affect the real estate industry.

Dividing the membership

Sometimes 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.

Peter D. Urrutia, director of government affairs for the MetroTex Association of REALTORS® in Dallas, recommends digging deep to uncover important differences in the candidates to find something “that will move the needle.” This could be which candidate has an existing relationship with the association, which might raise more campaign money, or which is more electable. “It is critical that personal politics not influence the process to make sure that the REALTOR® issues have won the day,” he says.

Who picks the 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.*)
“What’s most effective is if we send the candidates 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 Urrutia. “The government affairs committee members are typically RPAC investors. They vote, and they often have personal relationships with the elected officials or candidates,” he explains.

An interview committee consisting of members and association staff is ideal, according to Gorton, of the Washington REALTORS® Association, because “volunteers are great at helping candidates understand how issues impact our industry on the ground, while staff provides objective information, such as electoral history of a district, fund-raising numbers, and electability of the candidate.”

Another best practice is to interview candidates for one race at a time (since candidate positions can change over time) and decide on support immediately following the interviews, when the information is still fresh.

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.”
However, Urrutia says associations still need to communicate to the official that position changes go on their record. “The association should contact the candidate and ask questions on why his or her position has changed on REALTOR® issues,” he says. “If there is no progress or willingness to compromise, then the association should communicate that to its members. It is imperative that the candidates know there are consequences for their votes and positions.”

The way Gorton sees it, when a candidate changes his or her position, it is often an -opportunity to learn the weaknesses in your arguments, since they obviously weren’t as convincing as they needed to be. It’s also a great opportunity to pick up support on another issue that is important to the associations. “When elected officials change their positions, they usually feel at least a small amount of guilt. Rather than being upset with their change of position, if you can focus your energy on urging them to step up their support on another one of your issues, you can get a small win out of a bad circumstance,” Gorton advises. 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,” says Harlan Levy, former government affairs director for the Oregon Association of REALTORS®. “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.”

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. “You can endorse great people,” explains Gorton, “but if they don’t get elected, you haven’t done the industry any favors.”
However, there are certainly times to endorse a candidate who has no chance of winning, if only to make a point, Gorton says. “The trick is to do it selectively and without diffusing resources for pivotal races where you can really make a difference.” At other times, he adds, “it is a more effective strategy to go with a winner if you can use the endorsement process to identify a few common areas to work on together.”

Urrutia agrees. “Associations have to show, at times, a commitment to stay with a candidate who is always with them. Staying out of a race is not the solution. We have to make difficult, but informed, decisions that not everyone will agree with at times.”

You need to communicate and educate all candidates on REALTOR® issues because your association’s most receptive candidate might not win. Send your position statements to all candidates, asking for meetings, regardless of their position. This way, when the association supports a losing candidate, outreach to the winner is not that difficult or uncomfortable for either party, says Urrutia.

One of the most important points is to leave partisanship out of the mix, government affairs directors agree. “At the end of the day, we need to remember that the processes we put in place are meant to benefit the association, our members, and our industry,” says Gorton. “It is not an easy task, but it is a worthwhile task to take up.”

* Sample candidate selection questionnaires are available in the REALTOR® Association Resource Exchange on REALTOR.org. Search for “candidate questionnaires.”

8 Steps to effective candidate selection

These tips from the NATIONAL ASSOCIATION OF REALTORS®’ grassroots involvement department have been used to educate GADs on selecting congressional candidates, but you can adapt them to your 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 questions

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 answer

Step 7. ASK FOR RPAC FUNDING
Send contribution request to state trustees for consideration*
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