The housing beat: Mike Theo snares his perfect role
Most everything Mike Theo knows about leadership he learned as a drummer in the Madison Scouts Drum and Bugle Corps. Theo, 57, president and CEO of the Wisconsin REALTORS Association (WRA), reflects fondly on his younger years as a top member in the Corps. He was a lead snare drummer, section leader, and an instructor until he reached the group’s age limit of 21.
“It taught me a lot about negotiations, presentations, or telling a group to listen to what the other side is saying,” he said. And it prepared him for a life around the Legislature.
The son of immigrant parents — his mom is from Germany and his dad is from Cyprus — Theo recalls a household frequently mired in political conversations fueled by the Vietnam War and Watergate. “I was fascinated by it all,” he says.
While a student at UW-Madison, Theo found a job in the State Capitol as a part-time clerk and researcher for the Senate Republican Caucus staff, and later for then-State Sen. Don Hanaway, who authored the state’s marital property law and later became state attorney general. “I just loved [working there] because it exposed you to the whole process: this is how a bill becomes a law, how a committee functions, about public hearings …”
Eventually, it led to Theo’s 26-year career as chief lobbyist for the WRA. “It was a different era then, not nearly as divided,” Theo admits. “That didn’t mean Dems and Republicans didn’t fight over issues, but we always met for a beer afterwards. Things seemed to be more policy-oriented.”
These days, Theo keeps a keen eye on policies affecting WRA’s membership and the 2.5 million homeowners they represent. He’s particularly happy with Gov. Scott Walker’s recent decision to turn budget surpluses into property tax relief, and the passage of a $450 million bill to move “a big chunk” of technical colleges’ funding off the property tax and to the state level — which, he explains, is how most states fund technical colleges.
“I think permanent property tax relief is achieved when you take stuff off the property tax and don’t try to do some convoluted plan to move funds around. … Other ideas, like freezing school levies, help stop the bleeding but aren’t long-term solutions.”
But make no mistake: Healthy schools are vital to Realtors, he insists. “You can’t have a good housing market in a bad school district, or visa versa. They’re codependent. Eventually, you have to fund schools and local services, but right now it’s all being taxed on the back of property taxpayers, which hurts housing affordability and home ownership. I think you have to realign that.”
It’s incumbent on the WRA, he says, to propose something better. “We’re working on that.”
Accounting for between 13% and 15% of the gross state product, the state’s real estate industry certainly has the muscle to have a significant legislative impact. “We always told people that if the real estate market crashed, the economy would crash,” Theo notes. “And guess what? It just happened. I don’t have to make that point anymore.”
The organization’s membership tanked as well, falling from as many as 19,500 Realtors in the run-up to the crash to about 11,000 afterwards. It has since rebounded to a historical average of about 13,000.
Theo thrives on the diversity of his job. He’s never been a Realtor, nor does he have a law degree, but “in one day, I can go from a pending court case to a legislative issue, political issue, HR issues with someone on staff, to marketing, to social media. It’s just all over the map and happens rapid fire every day. It’s fun. I’m a positive person thanks to my folks and family. We’re problem solvers. That’s what managers do.”
Theo met his wife, Sheryl, on his 18th birthday and they’ve been married for 32 years. After raising two children, they’ve enjoyed life as empty nesters. He has a passion for reading presidential biographies, and when the job allows for a getaway to their northern Wisconsin cottage, they enjoy kayaking. At home, he often assumes the role of sous-chef to Sheryl, whom he describes as an excellent cook, admitting his culinary expertise is limited to “ice cubes and toast.”
He hopes to pick up the drumsticks again someday, but as he’s promised Sheryl, it will only happen if the ponytail he once sported doesn’t also make a comeback.
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