AIME lobbying efforts – what's the latest?

Status report offered one year since lobbying firm hired, PAC formed

AIME lobbying efforts – what's the latest?

Advocacy efforts at an organization can be viewed as something of an abstraction, with those actually doing the advocating knowing the machinations of such efforts. Panelists at a recent Association of Independent Mortgage Experts (AIME) conference demystified the concept, detailing what the trade group has done on that front since embarking on lobbying efforts last year.

Brendan McKay (pictured left), president of broker advocacy for AIME, moderated a panel detailing advocacy efforts underfoot at AIME. The panel discussion took place during last month’s Hall of AIME gathering in Naples, Fla. Sitting on the panel was Janine Kempfer (pictured right), broker/owner and president of Prime Mortgage who also advocates on behalf of AIME for increased borrowing opportunities to underserved communities and expanded homeownership for Black borrowers as the group’s vice president of impact.

Rounding out the panel were two representatives of Forbes Tate Partners, a lobbying firm hired last May by AIME to amplify its voice to lawmakers in the nation’s capital. The lobbying firm is focused on communication and engagement strategies to reach and engage key audiences, AIME officials explained. The group is described as a bipartisan, comprehensive public affairs firm specializing in government relations, traditional and digital communications, grassroots advocacy, third-party coordination, insights, polling, coalition management and business development.

Representing the firm was Kelley Williams, senior vice president. An expert lobbyist, she specializes in the financial services and banking sphere. Prior to joining the firm, she was associate vice president of legislative affairs for the Mortgage Bankers Association (MBA). Also on the panel was Jeff Strunk, managing partner, who has been with the firm for 13 years. Prior to that, he worked on Capitol Hill for former Speaker of the House John Boehner.

What is advocacy?

McKay acknowledged the elusive definition of advocacy: “The word ‘advocacy’ gets thrown around a lot, and frankly means different things to different people,” he said. To gauge their definitions of the word, McKay asked each panelist to define the word for themselves:

  • “Because I worked previously at trade associations, I have a distinct view of this,” Williams said. “And I really think of it as a group of like-minded people, whether it’s your industry or some sort of ideological view, who are working together to try and make impacting change to your industry,  to the business that you serve, the businesses that you own. A lot of that comes down, really, to education. Some people sometimes think of Congress and think it’s dysfunctional. When you come in you talk about what you do and the jobs that you’re putting back into the communities and the hyperlocal relationship you have with your customers,” she noted. “I always say you have a very important story to tell and when you have a large number of people you have the opportunity to make meaningful change.”
  • Strunk echoed the sentiment but added his own twist. “People ask all the time what we do and say they don’t understand. I say ‘yes, you do. I sell an idea. That’s what we do’. That’s what advocating means to me. In its simplest form, that’s what we do, and that’s why it’s easily relatable to everyone here.”
  • Kempfer offered a more granular definition. “It comes from a different angle,” she said. “Advocacy to me is being the voice of a person or a group of people that have unique needs that don’t necessarily have the connection or the platform to communicate what they need. Being someone who is a part of AIME and part of the broker community, my role as an advocate for the community is to understand the needs of the community and making sure that people like Jeff and Kelley understand those needs so when you’re fighting for us, you’re fighting for the things that really matter.”

McKay acknowledged the nascent nature of the advocacy: “When I came on at AIME and when [AIME CEO] Katie [Sweeney] did, admittedly advocacy and government affairs was a box that was checked at AIME,” he said, noting then the aspirational nature of those pursuits. “But it was important to Katie, it was important to me, and we know it is important to all of you.”

A glimpse at how the sausage is made

Strunk described what the group has been able to accomplish for AIME a little under a year since representing the trade group in Washington, DC. In doing so, he provided a behind-the-scenes look at the proverbial sausage factory, illustrating how the end product is achieved. Helping to grease those factory cogs was the concurrent formation of a political action committee launched by AIME around the same time it secured the lobbying firm’s services.

“We started reintroducing AIME to lawmakers,” Strunk said of his firm’s first order of business. “This was important, because when issues arise, you know who to call. We started to establish those lines of communication. The other thing too on the other side we’re able to set up a PAC, which is a very important leg of the stool because for these people it’s very expensive to get elected. You want to make sure you’re supporting the people who are supporting your industry. On top of that, we also started speaking to sister organizations,” he added, noting the importance of having a unified voice with like-minded groups. “If everyone is unified, it’s much more effective.”

Strunk noted his firm has already met on AIME’s behalf with Patrick McHenry, a 47-year-old Republican congressman from North Carolina who is the chairman of the House Financial Services Committee – the group with jurisdiction over the lion’s share of issues with which the trade organization is concerned. McHenry’s predecessor as chair of the committee before the GOP took control of the House in November was Maxine Waters, 84, who is now a ranking member of the body after the congressman’s appointment to the chair’s position. The Democrat from California is the most senior of the 12 Black women serving in Congress, and chaired the Congressional Black Caucus from 1997 to 1999.

“We have spent a fair amount of time already – before he was chairman – sitting down with him and introducing him to AIME so when we start with this Congress, we won’t start at the one-yard line but are halfway down the field,” Strunk said of McHenry. He described the congressman as “…one of the most influential members of Congress in the House. And he is coming at the issues on the committee in a much different way than his predecessor,” he added. “He’s much more willing to reach across the aisle and also try to bring people along. This gives us a better chance of success on any issue – you name it – but especially issues AIME is interested in.”

On the Senate side, Strunk noted, the firm is keen on meeting with Sen. Tim Scott of South Carolina, a 57-year-old Republican lawmaker who serves as a ranking member of the Senate Banking, Housing and Urban Affairs Committee “…who is also very pragmatic, very big on helping people out in diverse communities,” Strunk said.

The committee is chaired by Sherrod Brown, 70, an Ohio Democrat.

Williams expounded on the PAC’s importance, and sought to reconcile its usage toward specific aims: “Some people are very put off by the intersection of money and politics,” she said. “But just remember that in order to be elected, not everybody can self-fund,” she said of lawmakers’ simpatico to AIME’s causes. “When you have the industry come together, everybody is pulling their resources. That is your way of having a seat at the table. I have a saying – and I know it’s kind of cheesy – that if you’re not at the table, you’re not on the menu. If you’re not there, and don’t have a representative, they might potentially write a law that has unintended consequences that affects you specifically. Having a PAC is about access; it’s a way to be in the room with the members who are having conversations that matter to this industry.”

While not naming names of politicians with whom the group has met, he sought to assuage the AIME members gathered: “They’re not the lunatics or the extremists that you see,” he assured. “They’re incredibly intelligent people and they truly do care and also they care about our message. We’re not out there trying to get them to do things they don’t want to do. And what is good for brokers is not just good for us but we also know it’s also good for the American consumer - and they all care about housing. As long as we can get in the room, the message hits every single time.”