East Lansing, Michigan, home of Michigan State University, is a town with serious budget troubles. Escalating legacy costs had been kicked down the road for years, explains Mark Dickens, Vice President of Policy and Operations at the 1,000-member Greater Lansing Association of REALTORS® (GLAR), adding that the City Council, mired in various divisive issues, had long focused on the generation of tax revenue, rather than solving the root problems. When two seats on the Council came up for election this year, with two incumbents fighting to retain them, GLAR was ready to help the fresh new candidate who was willing to listen to voters, and open to bringing about much-needed change.
The fact that Aaron Stephens is still a student at Michigan State was beside the point, says Dickens.
“Aaron may be young, but he impressed us from the beginning,” Dickens reveals. The political science major, a life-long Michigan resident, scored the highest on GLAR’s preliminary questionnaire for candidates, and was the only one of the three in favor of working with the university, and the Chamber of Commerce, to tackle the problems facing the city. GLAR applied for and received its first-ever REALTOR® Party Independent Expenditure Grant, which produced three mailers and an online advertisement for Stephens. “NAR held our hand through the whole process,” says Dickens, noting that “NAR’s Campaign Services team was unbelievably helpful. Once they had our information, they just ran with it!”
The election season saw a lot of mudslinging, and the REALTORS® endured some heated abuse after their PAC filing report was published by a critic on Facebook. “We stayed well out of the mud, and so did our candidate,” says Dickens. “The REALTORS® were being referred to as ‘outsiders’! If the people living and working in your neighborhoods, helping people buy and sell homes and make it a better place to live and do business are ‘outsiders,’ then you’ve got a real problem,” he adds, wryly.
“Over the weekend prior to Election Day, in the worst Michigan weather imaginable, our candidate knocked on more than 2,500 doors. He was the only candidate reaching out to voters that way, and the voters responded,” says Dickens. Because Independent Expenditure Campaigns in Michigan are not allowed any contact with the candidate, Stephens didn’t actually learn about GLAR’s support until he was shown the fliers featuring his picture and platform when he was out campaigning door-to-door. Although the GLAR Board Members had agreed to endorse Stephens, the secretive nature of an IE campaign meant that they were also surprised by the staff-driven effort.
Their candidate won a seat on the City Council by 379 votes.
“We had been told, ‘Good luck trying to change anything in East Lansing!'” says Dickens, “but if anything, this campaign has made us even more determined to try. Aaron already has two City Council meetings under his belt since the election, and clearly understands the challenges. He’s just the person to take them on. We’re very proud to have helped him get where he is, because he’s going to help East Lansing.”
In two years, continues Dickens, the mayor’s seat will be up for grabs, and GLAR is working with the Chamber of Commerce on a strategy. The election has also strengthened the REALTORS®‘ relationship with the university. “If we can’t make a town with 50,000 students vibrant, there’s a problem,” says Dickens, “but now we know we can: NAR has given us the opportunity to achieve something for this community that was, until very recently, only a dream.”
To learn more about how the REALTORS® of Greater Lansing are working for positive change in East Lansing by taking an active role in municipal politics, contact Mark Dickens, the association’s Vice President of Policy and Operations, at 517-325-9046.