REALTORS® in the House (and Senate, City Council, and Planning Board…)

March 1, 2019

- By Bridget McCrea

These Massachusetts REALTORS® divide their time between their real estate businesses and their civic duties as either elected or appointed government officials. Here’s how (and why) they do it.

If there’s one thing that Peter Davies has learned by serving as both a full-time real estate agent and an appointed official for his city’s Board of Assessors, it’s that those two worlds collide more than one might think. Take the time Easthampton City Arts (ECA) worked with the Easthampton Cultural Council (ECC) on a revitalization project. The Boardwalk and Promenade Park on the Nashawannuck Pond project included the dredging of a large pond, construction of an impressive promenade boardwalk, and the addition of fishing and boat rental facilities.

The revitalization project also included the addition of a beautiful stainless-steel sculpture that’s become a focal point for the town, and that was funded by a National Association of REALTORS® (NAR) Creative Placemaking Grant and a Cultural District Grant from the Massachusetts Cultural Council. A broker-associate with Borawski Real Estate in Northampton, Davies helped the city get the Placemaking grant by introducing it to the program and then serving as the go-between for the paperwork and other requirements.

Davies served as an important connection point between a city that needed funding to finish up its revitalization project and a funding source offered by an association he’d been a part of for more than three decades. “I knew that NAR offered the program and thought it would be a great fit,” says Davies, a 33-year real estate veteran who has served on the Easthampton Board of Assessors for eight years, “so I worked with our arts council to make it happen.”

In some cases, Davies’ appointed position puts him in touch with buyers and sellers or creates referral opportunities. As long as there’s no conflict of interest involved, those opportunities are there for the taking. “You do get some business out of it, but that’s not the main thrust of serving as an appointed official,” says Davies. “That’s a side benefit.”

For the People, By the People

Since the U.S. became a country in 1776, it has relied on a solid stable of people who are ready, willing, and able to serve as government officials. With “for the people, by the people” as its cornerstone, the U.S. works with the guiding ideal that officials are elected or appointed to represent us, versus their own personal interests. This aligns well with the real estate professional’s commitment to always do what’s best for their buyers and sellers—precisely why agents and brokers are so well suited for public office.

“REALTORS® vote, they go to the polls, they know where signs can be placed, and they basically have an instant constituency of fellow agents,” says Paul Yorkis, president of Patriot Real Estate in Medway. “Not all REALTORS® are of the same political persuasion, of course, but we all belong to the REALTOR® party and share the same concerns about affordable housing, housing production, and many of the issues that come before local boards and commissions, as well as the state legislature.”

State Representative Carole Fiola concurs and says real estate agents have the kind of careers that put them in front of many different people. “They see the financial troubles as well as the financial growth that people are managing, they’re helping them with estates when someone passes away, and they’re assisting during tough times like divorce,” says Fiola, a sales associate with RE/MAX Right Choice in Fall River.

“When you’re around people and helping them with all of these life-changing activities,” says Fiola, “it prepares you very well for all of the life changes and situations that we deal with as legislators.”

A Front-Row Seat

Since 2001, Fiola has held an elected position on the Governor’s Council, a board that approves the governor’s appointments. She also worked at the Office of Economic Development under Mayor Carlton Viveiros. Fiola has also worked on a variety of projects for different charities like Healing Little Hearts, which promotes research for pediatric heart conditions.

A licensed REALTOR® for nearly 30 years, Fiola got active in the industry after being sworn in as a member of the Governor’s Council (at which point she was VP and GM of a local radio station). “I realized that to handle a job along with being an elected official, I needed to do something else,” says Fiola, who started a real estate agency with her husband. In 2009, when the market began to shift, she decided to hang her license with RE/MAX Right Choice.

Two years later, when she decided not to run for office again, Fiola ramped up her real estate career and became the top producer in her office. When the political bug bit again five years ago, she ran for state representative and won. And while she’s had to pare back her real estate career to accommodate that obligation, Fiola says her work as a top-producing agent gave her a solid background for success in politics.

“I was in people’s homes and in their offices, meeting with them and understanding their life situations,” Fiola recalls. “That gave me a front-row seat to the constituents in my district here.”

From his vantage point as a broker-owner, Yorkis also has a front-row seat with his own constituents. In real estate since 1991, he served a three-year term as a member of the Board of Registration of Real Estate Appraisers, four years as a member of Medway’s planning board, and nine years (before he became a REALTOR®) as a member and chair of the Conservation Commission.

Politically active by nature, Yorkis has held myriad other positions, including federal political coordinator for Congressman Joseph P. Kennedy III; state political coordinator for the Senate President Karen Spilka; and president-elect of the REALTOR® Commercial Alliance of Massachusetts.

So, how does Yorkis balance out all of those (and other) commitments with running a successful real estate brokerage? It’s all about good time management and letting people know how much they can (or can’t) do. “I just make time for it,” says Yorkis, who lets the groups know exactly when he is or isn’t available for meetings well in advance, knowing that there will be schedule conflicts.

“If I can’t meet on a certain night, I’ll often participate under Massachusetts’ open meeting law (which requires that most meetings of public bodies be held in public),” says Yorkis, “and just have them call me where I am and participate that way.”

A Natural Alignment

With 14 years under his belt as a member of the Northampton City Council, David Murphy of The Murphy’s REALTORS® in Northampton has been doing things for his city since 1978—the year he sat on the committee that introduced cable television to his town. He’s since served on numerous city committees—from the local housing partnership to historic districts, the latter of which by law must include a REALTOR®-member in Massachusetts.

Celebrating his 40th year in real estate in 2019, Murphy says his work served as a launching pad for his political career. Dually licensed as a broker and an appraiser, he says he “got tapped into the tax assessor position because their [job] is to value property, and I knew how to do that.” That segued into the elected position that Murphy has held since 2005.

In assessing the applicability of real estate professionals as elected officials, Murphy says there’s a natural alignment between the two careers. As Fiola pointed out, REALTORS® know a lot of people and professionals in their communities, making them a recognizable choice on election day. They also have their fingers on the pulse of their communities and tend to know a lot about the properties, infrastructure, taxation, zoning, and other important issues.

“It really gives us a leg up when it comes to contributing to an elected/appointed position,” says Murphy. “We have a lot of the answers before we even get started.” On the other hand, elected officials aren’t always as popular as, say, REALTORS® or brokers—due to the decisions that they have to make. Murphy says this just comes with the territory.

“Some decisions are no-brainers in terms of what does or doesn’t need to happen,” says Murphy. “In other cases, you may have gray areas where decisions have to be made that aren’t right for everyone, and someone gets upset. Even if you only annoy two people a year as a city councilor, that adds up after 14 years.” To minimize those annoyances, Murphy says he stays tuned into his constituents and tries to base decisions on what’s best for the majority of the people. “Serving in public office is very rewarding,” he concludes, “but you do need a thick skin and be willing to put in the time.”

Stepping Up to the Plate

Elaine Miller has always been the type of person who keeps up with current events and ponders how she might be able to step in and change some opinions or otherwise make a difference. She got that opportunity two years ago when a position opened up on the Tisbury Planning Board just as her daughter, Stephanie Roache, was ramping up her own real estate career.

In real estate for 26 years, this associate with Sandpiper Realty in Edgartown applied for the planning board and was offered a position as a permanent member. Since then, Miller has been active on the board, which has helped change zoning regulations, accommodate more affordable housing, and represent the town on the Martha’s Vineyard Transit Authority (VTA).

A Land Bank representative, Miller has set a 2019 goal for herself of learning everything she can about the town’s zoning bylaws and how they apply in specific situations. This 6-month commitment isn’t too far afield from all of the area and property knowledge she had to acquire in order to become a successful agent.

“As diligent real estate professionals, we do so much of our own research on our communities and on individual properties,” says Miller, “and spend a lot of time preparing information for our buyers and sellers. That segues well into governmental positions.”

What doesn’t gel well are the potential conflicts of interest that can crop up when you’re wearing dual hats. For example, Miller was representing a piece of property that she wanted the Land Bank to purchase, but she had to give up the former and take no commission in order to make the latter happen.

“I actually had to stop talking to my client and explain that if the deal moved forward the relationship had to be severed today,” says Miller. “It was a complex deal and she understood, but literally within one hour I had to recuse myself and step out of that transaction due to my position with the planning board.”

Currently, in her second term as an elected member of the Fall River City Council, Pam Laliberte-Lebeau divides her time between that commitment and her position as a REALTOR® with Keller Williams, South Watuppa. Unanimously voted to serve as VP of the council this term by her colleagues, Laliberte-Lebeau says that real estate is a lot like a public office in that agents are serving the needs of your clients/constituents.

“People want reliable, personable, honest, accessible, and hard-working councilors,” she says, “the same qualities that they would look for in a REALTOR®.” Being elected on the local level comes with the bonus of being completely up to date on your area, she adds, including services, future development, and improvements, and then being able to relay that information to buyers and sellers.

“On the flip side, being an agent gives me the opportunity to learn why people want, or don’t want, to move to certain cities and towns, and what they are and aren’t willing to pay for services,” says Laliberte-Lebeau. “This is a wealth of information to have when votes are before us as they pertain to taxes, water, and sewer rates, and funding public safety and education.”

More Rewarding Than You Can Imagine

To agents considering a governmental position, Laliberte-Lebeau says her favorite part of the job is being able to help others. “That’s why I keep doing it, and it goes the same for real estate; it’s very much the same feeling,” she says. “A lot of people think they won’t be smart or savvy enough to take on a position, but I think anyone who is interested should give it a shot.”

Davies agrees and says a good starting point is a short visit to the town hall to sit in on a few meetings and see how things work. Pick something that aligns with your own interests (e.g., schools, arts, culture, planning, etc.) and find out what positions are available. Be realistic about the time commitment, Murphy adds, knowing that the position will require more work than you thought it would. “It’s going to be harder than you think it’s going to be, but if you do the work and put in the time,” he says, “it’s also going to be more rewarding than you could have ever imagined.”