Editor’s note: Since the Homestead Act more than 150 years ago, politics, policy and real estate have gone hand in hand. Today, politics and policy are even more central to a vibrant and functioning real estate market. In this special four-part series of stories during an election year, Inman News looks at the relationship between politics and real estate. (See Part 1: Democrats, Libertarians make inroads in housing; Part 2: Housing’s public policy agenda; and Part 4: People, money, issues drive housing’s political agenda.)

The National Association of Realtors is winning by the numbers. With more than 1 million members, the association is a well-oiled machine when it comes to grassroots political fund raising and lobbying. The Realtors Political Action Committee is the largest PAC in the nation, and the association is ranked second in terms of overall political donations since 1989 with $24 million in donations.

The American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees is ranked first with $34.9 million in total contributions. PACs are vehicles used to raise and spend money to elect or defeat political candidates.

About 45 percent of the association’s total membership last year contributed to NAR’s PAC, and the goal this year is 50 percent participation. The association’s PAC sets a target contribution of $4.50 per participating member.

In the 2002 election cycle, the association contributed $4.5 million in total to federal candidates with the vast majority of that money coming from the group’s PAC. As of March of this year the Realtors PAC reported total receipts of about $2.1 million, and the 2004 PAC goal is $4.4 million.

So far in the 2004 election cycle, the Realtors PAC has contributed about $1.6 million to federal candidates, with about 51 percent of contributions going to Democrats and 48 percent to Republicans, according to Federal Election Commission data compiled by the Center for Responsive Politics, a non-partisan and nonprofit research group. This spending was divided among 220 Republican candidates, 212 Democratic candidates and 1 Independent candidate for U.S. Congress.

“The role of money in politics is only increasing, and the amount of money needed by candidates to win office is increasing,” despite some changes in campaign finance laws, said Steven Weiss, director of communications for the Center for Responsive Politics. The Realtors association is no exception, having increased its total political contributions in every election cycle since 1994.

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NAR VP of Public Affairs Steve Cook said the association’s membership is “very politically savvy.”

“Realtors as a whole are very civic-minded. Many of them are very political on their own,” he added.

Political participation and political advocacy generally top the list as member priorities, he said. The Realtors association has a self-proclaimed mission to defend private property rights and serve as an advocate for home ownership.

Money is important in political action efforts, Cook said, but the Realtors association also has something else that politicians pay a lot of attention to: voters–and lots of them. The association has a “call-to-action” system that can trigger a barrage of fax and e-mail communications to rally hundreds of thousands of Realtors on moment’s notice, uniting them in letter writing, e-mail campaigning or other actions.

“Money is important. Many industries have money to spend. Very few have the kind of grassroots participation that we have. (Elected officials) know that they’re talking to voters in their district who can have a lot to say in their next re-election campaign. That’s our ace in the hole–more than the money,” Cook said.

The National Association of Realtors, in addition to its political fund raising, employs more than 40 people on its government affairs staff. This group coordinates lobbying activities and works directly with state and local Realtor associations. In some cases, the association contracts with outside lobbying firms. In 2003 the association spent $4.6 million for all its lobbying activities, down from $5.2 million in 2002 and $5.4 million in 2001.

Bill LaForge, a lobbyist at Winstead Sechrest & Minick in Washington, D.C., who has never represented the association, said the Realtors group “is certainly a government relations force to be reckoned with in Washington. They are major players in the public policy arena. From where I sit, I see them as an effectively engaged organization, particularly in those debates that relate to their industry.” He added, “Their enormous size gives them enormous political grassroots capability. They’re very engaged. They have the benefit of size and stature.”

Coalitions, which are used to unite multiple groups under a common issue, are not a new tool, but are a bit of a fad in political circles these days, LaForge noted. The Realtors association has participated in a variety of coalitions with affordable housing advocacy groups, the National Association of Home Builders, and banking and lending groups, to name a few. Cook said such partnerships serve to broaden the association’s influence either for lobbying purposes or as a means of educational outreach.

When it comes to federal elections, members of Realtors’ state associations select which Congressional candidates to support, Cook said. The national association’s PAC officials rarely override those state-level decisions, and the association does not take a stand on state and local elections or in national presidential elections, he said.

“We tend to support those people in Congress who have supported us,” Cook said, and a significant amount of contributions go to incumbents. In this way, he said, the association’s political contributions “probably fairly much reflects who is the dominant party in Congress.”

“These decisions are not ideological, they are based on ideas that are critical to our membership as opposed to our political philosophy,” he added.

In the early 1990s, the group’s contributions were weighted slightly in favor of Democrats, while 67 percent of contributions in 1996 went to Republicans. In the current election cycle, about 51 percent of contributions are for Democratic candidates.

The association’s contributions do not reflect those of the overall real estate industry. Data compiled by the Center for Responsive Politics shows that the real estate industry‘s political donations are running about 62 percent in favor of Republican candidates in the current election cycle.

NAR does not collect any information from its members about their political-party affiliations.

Weiss, of the Center for Responsive Politics, said that in general, “Money follows power, and whatever party is in power tends to attract more contributions.”

***

Send tips or a Letter to the Editor to glenn@inman.com or call (510) 658-9252, ext. 137.

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