Shifting Focus From Politics to Policy: Profile: Michael Theo

It’s an opportune time for Michael Theo, RCE, CAE, CEO of the Wisconsin REALTORS® Association, to be chair of the AE Committee. Not only does he have more than 30 years of REALTOR® organization experience but his advocacy talents (honed by 25 years as association chief lobbyist) also will be needed to lead AEs at this critical juncture in American politics.

“This is an exceptionally important time for AEs and their staffs to engage members, given the threats and opportunities that exist for tax and regulatory changes,” says Theo. “The work AEs put into getting members engaged in advocacy—keeping them engaged and informed, mobilizing them when necessary, and building personal relationships with lawmakers—has all been for moments like this.”

The REALTOR® organization has for a long time talked about the fragility of the mortgage interest deduction and the reform of Freddie Mac and Fannie Mae, but Theo says, “I really believe those are going to come to fruition now.”

So what can state—and especially local— associations do to ensure that advocacy is front and center, especially given the deep political divides among members?

Theo says the key is to stick to the issues. “The intensity of the partisan divide puts additional pressure on association staff to emphasize the issues themselves and the impact on home owners and our members, as opposed to the political party that may support or oppose them.

“Successful REALTOR® associations make their case for an issue regardless of who’s in power. We’re lucky in that our issues, if positioned correctly, enable us to avoid today’s hyperpartisanship.”

Theo has a long track record of getting good bills passed in Wisconsin and killing bad ones. Regardless of which party controls the legislature, Wisconsin has had a steady success rate, but 2016 was its most successful year, says Theo. Wisconsin REALTORS® championed 49 policies that were passed in a dozen different bills last year.

As with many associations, Wisconsin’s level of member engagement in RPAC in 2016 reached a record high. “We had a lot of participation, the market was good, politics and campaigns were high-profile every day, and RPAC contributions went through the roof,” says Theo.

But can associations sustain high par­ticipation rates in 2017, especially when many members are feeling victorious while others are in despair?

Although it is typical for member participation to drop slightly in the year after an election, the need for member action doesn’t drop; it only shifts from politics to policy, says Theo. “All the political involvement, membership mobilization, and lobbying aren’t about winning or losing elections; they’re about winning or losing when the vote is taken on our issues. We need to tell members that regardless of how you voted, we have a new Congress, a new president, and newly elected state legislators, so now our focus is on where the rubber really meets the road, which is lawmaking and rule making.”

In Wisconsin, Theo’s lobbying team is gearing up now for the next big battle in the state legislature over taxing and spending that will test his association’s ability to appear bipartisan.

After years of successfully lobbying to cap property taxes, the Wisconsin REALTORS® Association finds itself in the position of advocating for better schools and roads, which could involve advocating for tax shifts, from property taxes to other sources of revenues. “These are difficult choices that will test our legislative relations,” Theo says. Yet, the WRA’s chances of success on this and other key issues are high given its strong relationship with lawmakers. The WRA has a long relationship with House Speaker Paul Ryan from Wisconsin, which may help with key national issues as well. Likewise with Congressman Sean Duffy, who is the new chairman of the subcommittee charged with Fannie and Freddie reform, and the new White House Chief of Staff Reince Priebus, who Theo and the WRA have known for decades.

“It’s a good time to have an organization that overtly says we’re an advocacy organization first and foremost,” says Theo. “The time has come for us to take this advocacy out for a drive and see what we’ve built and hope that everything hits on all cylinders because we have to be engaged like never before.”

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