Local Associations Pivot to Politics

Productively address local issues to shape your role as a voice in the community.

Tumultuous. Polarized. Political hatred. Red vs. Blue. Viral negativity. These words describe today’s political climate. Extremists have dug trenches across the country, down the center of states, and through the middle of every county. We experienced it firsthand last year. Just as Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton were battling it out on the national stage, and Republicans and Democrats were battling in our North Carolina state capitol over the “bathroom bill,” here in New Hanover County, where Cape Fear REALTORS® is headquartered, the climate created a division between left and right on the Special Use Permit language dealing with heavy industry.

Politics have never been easy to navigate in our area, but the spike in polarization has presented stiff challenges as we grow our REALTOR® Party efforts. For the past three years, our association has engaged in talks with other groups to streamline the SUP process. Business owners believed the SUP was dampening commercial development, while conservationists claimed that the county’s unique natural habitats required extra protection.

With 2,450 members representing every stripe in the ideological spectrum, my association worked to find common ground. Both sides had valid points. The existing law was vague, thus acting as a deterrent to prospective businesses considering moving to the area. And at the same time, the Cape Fear region is the only place in the world where the Venus flytrap grows naturally.  

Several drafts of new SUP language were proposed, and each was reviewed by Robinson & Cole through the National Association of REALTORS®’ Smart Growth program. We presented the findings to the community. Yet, this represented a more proactive approach than our association had taken in the past on this type of issue and it made some in the community uncomfortable.

The suite of tools and resources offered to associations through the REALTOR® Party are substantial, and we encountered a bit of pushback from other groups about our advocacy role on the local level.

As questions were raised about what we were doing and why, we decided to disengage in the SUP discussions and work internally to better define our voice in the community. It was a good opportunity to pause and reflect on the association’s role in this new world of political engagement.

Defining our role in local politics

In contemplating how to present our advocacy role, I thought back to how the REALTOR® organization came into existence more than 100 years ago as a body to promote a Code of Ethics that differentiated its members from others. The shift to an advocacy organization happened gradually. In 2005, NAR began its pivot toward a political focus and expanded available advocacy tools. More recently, the Core Standards mandate ensured that all associations would participate in advocacy to some extent.

I’ve noticed the main role of my association shift from delivering member services to fostering community action–based efforts. We’re more engaged in the community conversation now, which will build a new brand of relevance for us.

But how did our members view their association’s role?

Cape Fear REALTORS® decided to host a series of focus groups to learn what members thought about advocacy. We hired a consultant to develop an unbiased process and series of questions. Next, we engaged the University of North Carolina Wilmington to provide facilitation and reporting duties. Of the five focus groups, four were for uninvolved members and one was for involved members—thus allowing us to compare responses from the groups.

Several trends emerged. For instance, members are very independent and are wary of others, including the association, representing a viewpoint in the public square that could reflect on them. There was an apprehension toward the REALTOR® organization building a local reputation that was either conservative or liberal. 

Members said each REALTOR® should take personal responsibility for engaging in the community. Yet they voiced unanimous and strong support of the REALTOR® Party. While appearing at odds, these two responses uncovered the need to increase education among members on advocacy and involvement in the political arena.

Focus group participants agreed that when Cape Fear REALTORS® engaged in the community, they should do their best to represent the membership and avoid using an outside group or lobbyist, which may carry with it a partisan reputation or views contrary to the local membership.

Another interesting finding from our focus groups was the political leanings of our membership. Of course we have Democrats, Republicans, and independents, but when member ideology was averaged in an Excel blender, as a group, members were almost in the middle

(6.2 on a 10-point scale, where liberal is zero and conservative is 10).

Although other groups in our area typically gather around one ideology, Cape Fear REALTORS® does not. This affords us the unique opportunity to build bridges in the community, strengthen ties with homeowners, and protect the real estate industry in a bipartisan manner.

To own this role and build on it, Cape Fear REALTORS® is launching a large-scale, big-idea forum in partnership with University of North Carolina Wilmington, Cape Fear Community College, and NC REALTORS®. The forum scheduled for the fall, will feature a pro and con approach to issues that showcase civility while educating residents. The pilot program will tackle the question of whether drilling for oil should take place off the coast of North Carolina. The association currently doesn’t have a position on the issue.

National speakers will be former Shell Oil CEO John Hofmeister and Jacques Cousteau’s son, Jean-Michel Cousteau. It is hoped that through its grassroots efforts, Cape Fear REALTORS® will offset polarization while placing itself firmly in the driver’s seat of the community conversation.

In our strategy planning in March our leadership said, for the first time, that they wanted, as the top priority, for the association to be a strong advocacy group for the community. They are starting to see the value in it. Our challenge is to educate our members on why advocacy is important to their business.

Shane Johnson is the COO of the Cape Fear REALTORS®, N.C. Reach him at or 910.762.1695 or shane@capefear.realtor.

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