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Realtors group aims to influence politics in new ways

The National Assn. of Realtors launches a political-campaign school to help its members run for office. It also plans to engage consumers directly through emails and browser ads.

September 16, 2012|By Lew Sichelman

WASHINGTON — The National Assn. of Realtors, a political heavyweight with a million-plus members, has embarked on two initiatives to ensure that when key votes are taken at all levels of government, the Realtors' point of view will be heard loud and clear.

As part of a broader consumer outreach strategy, the Realtors group for the first time will engage consumers directly through emails and browser ads that introduce the association as their ally in homeownership. The group also has launched a novel political-campaign school to help elect members to office on the local, state and national levels.

On the surface, the email campaign seems innocuous. After all, the group already spends millions to pursue its agenda on national TV and radio ads, a consumer-focused radio program and a consumer-centric website. So what are a few emails?

But the undertaking is gargantuan, involving messages sent directly from the Realtors group to about 82 million current and aspiring homeowners. The task is so herculean that the association figures it will take up to six weeks to send the emails.

The effect the effort could have on the issues of the moment could be just as enormous. More often than not, the Realtors' agenda is in tandem with the interests of buyers, sellers and owners of real estate. There is, as the group says on its website, "a natural alliance."

But every once in a while, those interests are at odds, such as Realtors' refusal to support a mandatory energy scoring program for existing houses. The proposed program would enable buyers to compare the relative efficiency of all houses, but the association has opposed the measure because it would stigmatize older properties that don't measure up.

The first email barrage, sent in July, was designed to make current and future owners aware of the value of homeownership and to introduce the Realtors group as their friend, the association says. The idea is to forge a direct relationship with consumers on behalf of Realtors and, when and if necessary, get recipients to express their support by voting or by contacting their elected officials.

To see how easily that might affect the process, consider an experiment the group is undertaking with HomeActions, an electronic newsletter that agents buy for distribution under their names to their clients. Under the National Assn. of Realtors' deal with the privately produced newsletter, articles favorable to the association can be inserted among the stories about insurance, short sales and product recalls.

Individual agents — HomeActions has 1,800 subscribers — can choose whether to include the message, says Rick Miller, the association's director of political programs. "We can't dictate politics to our members, so we are giving them a choice to opt out if a particular issue is too controversial," he says.

If the article is included, it could ask the 650,000 recipients to click a link that signs their names to letters to their elected officials in the statehouse or in Washington. It's one thing to receive letters or visits from a relative handful of businessmen and women, says HomeActions publisher Albert Clark, but it's another to hear from thousands of voters.

And make no mistake, homeowners are voters. Some 85% of owners are registered to vote, according to Miller.

Of course, they don't all agree on the issues, even when it comes to preserving the blessed mortgage interest deduction. "I don't know anybody who agrees 100% with everybody," Miller says.

But "when it comes times for homeowners to weigh in," newsletter publisher Clark says, "they will be informed, up to speed and engaged. Getting an agent to call his lawmakers isn't working anymore. But when a story falls and voters push a button, it can effect a lot of political pressure."

No real estate professional has ever won the White House. But hundreds of them serve as elected and appointed officials in governmental bodies, from local planning commissions to Congress. And there could be many more if the political-campaign school proves effective.

Launched nationally this spring, the initiative is designed to teach Realtors how to run successful political campaigns at the local, state and national levels.

Although Gerald Allen, the Realtors group's managing director of campaign services, says the group's Candidate Training Academy "is fundamentally focused on the process of winning campaigns, not issues," the program is clearly aimed at protecting the things Realtors hold dear — first and foremost, the real estate profession.

The Realtors association is not telling its members to run for political office. But for those who have an interest, whether they want to be dogcatcher, county commissioner or president, the voluntary daylong program will give them a head start.

Among other things, the core curriculum covers research, fundraising, voter contact and getting out the vote.

Of course, duly elected real estate professionals may not always vote the way the Realtors group wants. But an article in the association's magazine for state and local association executives quotes Andy Fegley, director of government affairs for the Southeast Valley Regional Assn. of Realtors in Arizona:

"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."

lsichelman@aol.com

Distributed by Universal Uclick for United Feature Syndicate.

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