Editor’s note: The National Association of Realtors’ backbone consists of industry movers and shakers — some of whom are paid staff and others volunteers — who help keep the organization pointed in the right direction and striving to meet its goals. This special five-part series takes a look at some noteworthy figures within the trade group. (See Part 2: NAR’s top guns; Part 3: Volunteers who call the shots at NAR; Part 4: Tech guru shaped home listings site; and Part 5: NAR committees: The leadership pecking order.)
Gerard “Jerry” Giovaniello’s fights are not public bouts or rowdy brawls. In fact, they are carefully chosen and methodically waged. Washington, D.C., is not a place of instant victory.
As chief lobbyist and senior vice president of government affairs for the National Association of Realtors, Giovaniello is a significant player at the backstage of public policy. He carries a lot of weight – representing the association’s more than one million Realtors across the country.
NAR is among the largest and most powerful trade groups, led by a roster of industry “movers and shakers,” some of whom are paid staff, and others lifelong volunteers. These people keep the organization moving forward, meeting its goals and keeping strong one of the most critical industries in the U.S. economy.
Ronald Reagan was president when Giovaniello joined the association as a lobbyist in 1981, and the reduction of the federal deficit and interest rates were pressing issues.
Also at that time, the association had a controversial rating system of federal legislators that was based more on economic statistics than on their voting records on housing issues, and some members of Congress felt wronged by these ratings. “Our friends were more upset than our enemies” in some cases, Giovaniello said, and the association later changed that system.
Association lobbyists faced some challenging times on the Hill in the days of a 1986 federal tax act, which redefined commercial real estate market and investment, and there were also some hard-fought battles over fair-housing reform in the late 1980s, Giovaniello recalled.
The association and some fair-housing organizations were initially at odds over provisions of fair-housing legislation in 1988. Giovaniello, in a chance encounter, met up with a key fair-housing advocate while riding on an escalator at a Metro station. The two men talked, and the association later worked toward a compromise and the legislation passed.
For the past five years, a lot of effort has been focused on keeping banks out of the real estate industry, Giovaniello said. “It has been a huge undertaking. Some people think banks win everything, get everything they want around this town,” he said.
Giovaniello’s office, in an upper floor of a glinting new association building, has a view of the U.S. Capitol. But is not one to watch Capitol Hill from a distance. It is his job to be an insider – to know the players and to promote policies.
The association is a political powerhouse, with its massive grassroots force and a political action committee that has so far raised about $2.98 million in contributions for federal candidates in the current election cycle – more than any other PAC. These federal contributions by the Realtors PAC are roughly balanced between Democrat and Republican candidates.
The Realtors PAC has spent a total of about $6.9 million in the current election cycle as of Oct. 21. In 2003, the association spent $4.6 million for all lobbying activities.
Despite the muscles of his association, Giovaniello doesn’t believe in strong-arm lobbying.
“The Hill community is small in that everyone kind of knows and assumes and realizes the job everyone else is doing. There’s camaraderie. There’s a social part of it that shouldn’t’ be understated,” he said.
“You don’t need to go up there and hard lobby. You just need to be pleasant. The best part is earning the trust of Realtors and earning the trust (from) members of Congress.” And trust is very important in Washington, a place where you can only lie once – “then you have to leave,” he said.
Giovaniello, 62, was promoted to his senior management role in 2001. He served as chief of staff for Rep. Jerry Pettis, R-Calif., from 1972-76, and for Rep. Jim Lloyd, D-Calif., from 1976-81. He has also worked as a policy analyst and writer for National Journal, a weekly political magazine, and from 1968-70 he served as a U.S. Army officer in Vietnam and in Washington, D.C.
He is very at home in the nation’s capital. “You never get tired of this town. It’s always inspiring.” His job is not a desk job. While he has many administrative duties, he is also an active lobbyist responsible for meeting with members of Congress who represent Alaska, Arizona, California, Hawaii, Nevada, Oregon and Washington.
“If I’m not on the Hill then I shouldn’t be chief lobbyist. You cannot get it unless you’re out there burning up shoe leather – you just can’t understand the nuances.”
As Congress turns over after each election cycle, there is a need to educate new members of Congress about the association’s core missions, which include sustaining the profitability of members, improving the home-ownership rate and maintaining property rights. “It’s a constant, ongoing educational process. Congress turns over more often than people think.”
Giovaniello’s busy season is when Congress is in session, and election year’s tend to require a bit more bustle than off-election years. In addition to getting to know members of Congress, Giovaniello also works to formulate of strategies to move issues important to the association. There are requests for hearings and letters to committee leaders. There are decisions about which candidates to support in elections.
Giovaniello works constantly with regulatory affairs and policy managers at the association, along with PAC and grassroots managers. An interior staircase between the 10th and 11th floors at the new Realtors’ building where Giovaniello works in Washington, D.C., is a symbol of the cooperative efforts between the association’s government affairs division and its regulatory and research division, he said.
The association has been a good fit for him, said Giovaniello, because “the issues you lobby for are non-controversial, for the most part. Encouraging home ownership was a fit for me.” And he has been a good fit for the association: last year, a Washington, D.C., political publication, The Hill, named Giovaniello as one of the “Star Rainmakers” among the nation’s lobbyists.
Pili Meyer, a Realtor with Coldwell Banker Uptown Realty in Port Angeles, Wash., who is a member of the National Association of Realtors’ Strategic Planning Committee, said Giovaniello’s insight has been invaluable during Realtors’ annual lobbying trips to Capitol Hill. “Jerry huddles with our group of Realtors from Washington State. We find an alcove or a wide space in the hallways outside the meeting rooms and he gives us the insight on our congressional delegation,” she said.
“He lets us know the background on where (legislators) stand on all these issues so that we will be more effective when we meet with them later that day. To me, this is the essence of the way America works – the professional with the knowledge informing citizens so they can talk to their electeds. And there’s Jerry, gesturing profusely, in the center of this cluster of folks eagerly holding on to each and every word. He’s persuasive, memorable and eloquent. And the bits of information he gives us about our legislators are always right on the mark.”
Barbara Lach, a Realtor with Coldwell Banker King Thompson, Realtors, in Columbus, Ohio, who is also a member of the association’s Strategic Planning Committee, said “it is quite obvious he is respected and well-versed in the issues” facing the association, whether they relate to internal governance or Capitol Hill matters. “(He is) a well-rounded gentleman who can be extremely passionate about his work and the issues that affect the way the Realtor world does business.” And he can carry a conversation about sports, current events and the opera, Lach commented.
Giovaniello said Realtors are surprisingly savvy at lobbying members of Congress. “They are very smart, very optimistic and very people-oriented. To me this is an incredibly good combination. They can size up people as quickly as any lobbyist. So I kind of like talking to them – and they get it.”
Giovaniello, originally from the Bronx in New York, is a fan of the New York Yankees baseball team, and he said he’s already heard an earful about the team’s playoff loss to the Boston Red Sox this month. He lives in Falls Church, Va., with his wife, Elizabeth Johnson, who is a senior leadership communications representative in the association’s public affairs office.
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