Richmond Metropolitan Habitat for Humanity News

RMHFH Board Member Profiled in Richmond Times Dispatch

Faith drives Realtors CEO

Faith drives Realtors CEO
By Carol Hazard
Published: February 15, 2010
Updated: February 21, 2010 10:24 PM

Just out of college and not very worldly, Laura Dillard Lafayette was handed an opportunity she couldn’t pass up.

L. Douglas Wilder, during his bid for governor, asked her if she wanted to be his press secretary.

“I was 23 and if he was crazy enough to ask me to be his press secretary, I was crazy enough to say ‘yes,'” Lafayette said.

The stakes were high. Wilder became the nation’s first elected black governor with political ambitions bigger than Virginia.

“He was garnering not just national but international attention,” said Lafayette, who now heads the Richmond Association of Realtors, a 4,500-member trade organization.

The chance to be close to the spotlight derailed her plans to complete her graduate degree at Yale Divinity School and teach post-Enlightenment historical theology — how history and current events influence one’s theological ideas.

Lafayette met Wilder when he was Virginia’s lieutenant governor and she was working as an intern in the executive branch of government. Her two-month stint as an intern in 1987 turned into 15 months after Wilder asked her to write speeches for him.

She returned to work for him in his campaign for governor in June 1989, staying with him after his election until August 1991.

All that starts well doesn’t necessarily end that way. “We left on famously bad terms,” she recalled.

Someone reportedly from Wilder’s staff said she left because she was an anti-Semite and a racist. Nothing could be further from the truth, according to people who know her.

And the rumor was absurd, she said.

“Wilder had begun to be interested in running for president,” Lafayette said, explaining the parting. “The state had a $1 billion shortfall, which was monumental back then.”

Lafayette said she thought his political aspirations were inappropriate, given the budget.

Wilder, with a reputation as fiscal conservative, managed the state through a difficult downturn without raising taxes.

As governor from 1990 to 1994, he worked to support low-income people and to promote equal opportunity — a seemingly good fit for Lafayette, whose passion is affordable housing.

“I am grateful for the opportunity he gave me,” Lafayette said in retrospect.

Later, they reconciled their differences and worked together on regional cooperation and work-force housing — housing for teachers, police officers and public service workers — when he became mayor of Richmond from 2004 to 2008.

Wilder did not return several phone calls seeking comment.

. . .

Throughout the years, Lafayette has maintained an abiding interest in religion.

“My philosophy is we live in a fallen world. It is what it is. There are no clear answers as to why bad things happen.”

She was reared in the Southern Baptist faith by devout Christian parents. She and her husband and three children attend Christ Church Episcopal in Henrico County, which challenges its members to act on their faith.

“Your faith informs all aspects of your life,” Lafayette said. “Each of us has been given too much to live only to ourselves.”

A Franciscan prayer sums up her approach to her faith.

Her favorite portion is the last part of the blessing: “And may God bless you with enough foolishness to believe that you can make a difference in this world, so that you can do what others claim cannot be done.”

. . .

Lafayette, 44, worked her way up from being government affairs and communications director at the Realtors’ association to chief executive officer, a job she assumed a year ago during one of the worst downturns in the housing industry.

“The past 18 months have been the more challenging in central Virginia than I have seen in my 44 years,” she said. “You can’t ignore the realities of the economy. The recovery will be slow and gradual.”

She said she prefers to lead rather than manage. She overseas a staff of 25 and encourages them to donate time in the community.

“When I think about leadership, I would like to be a servant leader.”

Lafayette said she is not good at numbers or processes. “My strength is I am willing to make decisions. I like to look at the big picture and where we are heading.”

Scott Shaheen, regional vice president of Long & Foster in Richmond and a past president of the association, said he was a big promoter for her to take over as chief executive officer of the association.

“She has the Realtors’ best interests at heart and she has a true passion for the industry,” he said.

She has been with the association since 1993.

Lafayette said she is bullish on Richmond and what she called the phenomenal quality of life here. “Before people buy houses they have to buy into the quality of life in the community . . . All of us have a vested interest in seeing the real estate market continue to prosper.”

Her goal is to make the community a better place to live, and to open the door of educational and job opportunities to more people.

“Where a child is born should not determine the quality of life. Everyone wants their streets to be safe, no matter where a child lives.”

Lafayette said she is passionate about helping create a community of opportunity.

“So much opportunity came my way, from attending great public schools in Chesterfield County, to a phenomenal experience at William & Mary, and I think about what education has meant to me. Why would I not want every child to have that?”

“Laura is a deeply passionate humanitarian, an ardent advocate for the cause of affordable housing,” said Leisha G. LaRiviere, president and CEO of Richmond Metropolitan Habitat for Humanity. Lafayette serves on the organization’s board and is the chair-elect.

“She thinks strategically and acts with dirt under the nails as a decades-long, hands-on board member.”

. . .

Lafayette has lived in the Richmond area her entire life except for four years attending W&M in Williamsburg and one year in New Haven, Conn., at Yale Divinity School.

She sees a general shift in housing preferences from the 4,000-square-foot suburban home to mixed-income communities in and near the city, though she and her family live in a spacious house in the Wyndham neighborhood in western Henrico County.

“We have an opportunity in this lull to think long, hard and statistically about where our region is heading,” she said.

She said it’s good to have conversations with local officials about preserving old housing stock, making it attractive for the next generation of homebuyers and loosening restrictions to allow for more diverse socioeconomic neighborhoods.

“There are days when all we do is have the conversation, but what choice is there? You either throw up your hands or roll up your sleeves,” she said.

“Laura is intelligent and very efficient,” said Jim Napier, president and principal broker at Napier Realty ERA. “I admire her work ethic. I have never seen anyone who can multi-task like Laura does.”

She has handled all facets of the association as well as the Central Virginia Multiple Listing Service and she is engaged in initiatives for work-force housing, Napier said.

“She does all of those things and she is a wife and mother — an endless source of energy.”

. . .

“Family comes first,” Lafayette said. She tries to limit evening work engagements to one night a week. She and her husband, Michael, a business law attorney, have three children, 8, 11 and 14.

“We have three obligations that we put on this planet. Those individuals have to be first.”

Married 17 years, she met her husband, a conservative, at a party hosted by Democrats. “We know when to stop talking about politics. Besides, we have kids so there are many other things to talk about.”

She said she’s pretty sure one child is a Democrat at heart, one is a Republican and the other is an independent.

Kate, their teenage daughter, is fashion maven into hair, make-up and clothing, a trait that she did not inherit from her mother, as Lafayette readily admits.

Buttoned up, Lafayette’s uniform is a tailored suit in black or navy blue and an oxford shirt — preferably blue. “My latest suit is gray — a bold and daring step for me.”


Contact Carol Hazard at (804) 775-8023 or chazard@timesdispatch.com

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Written by richmondhabitat

March 29, 2010 at 11:10 pm

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