OR Conversations is a weekly Q&A featuring conversations with local newsmakers.

Randy Ross has made himself almost omnipresent in Central Florida politics, social media, and social action – and a lightning rod for critics, especially within his own Republican Party. Last year he took the post of Orange County chairman of Donald Trump’s presidential campaign. He transformed his Trump campaign leadership into a Republican club that grew fast in membership, though the party charged its finances were a mess and all but disavowed it. So, Ross turned it into an independent Trump club. Then, as dust settled from that dustup, he pulled together, seemingly out of nowhere, a relief effort for Hurricane Harvey called I-4 for Texas. After it collected and shipped many tons of goods to Houston, it quickly transformed into I-4 for Florida, and then I-4 for Puerto Rico, launching similar efforts.

Orlando-Rising: How did the I-4 for Puerto Rico relief effort go, and what’s next?

Randy Ross: I-4 for Puerto Rico is far from over. What began as a small relief effort in a donated 3,000 square foot warehouse space by Bishop/Beale properties quickly escalated to a full blown logistical operation to get donated items to the island of Puerto Rico. Unlike our previous efforts for Texas and Florida, we had the added challenge of navigating transportation to an island. Something I, and most of our volunteer leadership team, had no experience in.

Fortunately, a few of our top donors from the Trump campaign locally in Chris Comis, Ashley Morgan, and Pete Madison stepped up. They immediately sent a doctor and FEMA attorney over on their private jet to help us create a ground game on the island. Additionally, baseball greats like Derek Jeter and Bernie Williams stepped up to offer transportation of donated items to the airport in Miami. We then created a partnership with Pastor Paula White‘s New Destiny Christian Church in Apopka as well as other faith based leaders to put in place a non-denominational, faith-based distribution plan on the island.

There’s no secret the largest challenge here is shipping to the island. We finally have planes taking our nearly 1,000,000 pounds of donations to the island. Everything from food, to diapers, to generators, to water, to pet food, to tools like shovels and rakes, everything but clothing, was our focus. What’s next? That’s God’s plan. I’m just a guy with a Facebook page, lol.

O-R: There were a lot of people, even within the Republican Party, who were, at least initially, uncomfortable with your I-4 efforts, worried you were politicizing relief. Yet you seemed to get as much participation from Democrats as Republicans. What did you tell people who were uncomfortable?

Ross: From the onset, I was crystal clear politics would not enter into the equation. Yet, I will not deny I’ve had to work with politicians to get the work accomplished. I happily have worked in partnership with Republicans, Democrats and independents on this project as I knew there was no way to accomplish this task without nonpartisan participation. Yes, Trump supporters led the local effort, but I make no apologies for tapping into the same energy and excitement generated during the 2016 campaign for this relief effort.

If you heard any rumblings from Republicans, it’s those in the party that still resent our grassroots success in getting our president elected. But honestly, I’ve always been a lead or get out of the way type of person, and that’s not always a popular approach. Probably, my biggest learning in this effort rested in knowing that we are all Americans. And when Americans are in trouble or need help we rise as fellow Americans to assist. But let me be clear, people I worked with on the Trump campaign that got jobs in the White House were and remain some of the sources that have helped me navigate the bureaucracy of the process. That’s why, when no one else could. We got five semi-trailer trucks filled with donations into Houston. That’s why, in less than two days after hurricane Irma ravished Florida, we had an overloaded semi in Marathon in the Keys. And you can rest assured, while Puerto Rico has been a much more challenging process because it’s an island, I’m still relying on sources to help navigate the process. The Republicans of Orange County that doubt me and the work are most likely still angry Trump is our president and the closest person they can blame is the openly-gay Trump Republican.

And let me say this: I don’t label or define people by their party affiliation. The success of the two prior drives for Texas and Florida I’d like to think allowed many to put down their guard so we could get the job done.

O-R: What is it about President Donald Trump that you like?

Ross: Our very first volunteer event, promoted only through social media, had over 100 people “Trumpers” show up and I knew we were onto something. Today, we still have an active and engaged membership roster of over 1,300 volunteers, over 3,200 members of our Trump 2020 Club Facebook page and we have the largest organized Trump club in the entire state of Florida. And in a town with the political makeup like ours that, I think, is impressive. When people ask me why I like Trump or how do we keep the enthusiasm going it’s such an easy answer. We lifted a man to be president that truly promised to make our county better. We all support his stance on legal immigration, on supporting our military and veterans, on revamping the taxation processes, on decreasing our national debt while demanding a more fair trade plan benefiting America. I’ll take a Trump tweet any day over Hillary Clinton as president.

O-R: The past few weeks, maybe months, you’ve seemingly been everywhere. What do you do to relax and unwind?

Ross: On August 27, it was a Sunday as I recall, I was on the phone with my friend Cheryl Hall [Lake County Trump Club President] and we both saw the images of the seniors in Houston sitting in chairs and wheelchairs surrounded by chest high water, almost like it was normal. I recall saying, “We need to do something.” You see my mom, Betty, she’s where I get my political spice from, is 74. She can’t swim and is frightened of water. I looked over at her [Hall] and literally had to turn away to fight back tears. I simply couldn’t imagine how she would feel in that same situation.

And that’s how I-4 for Texas was created. Relaxation to me is one of a few things, either working in the yard or crises management. In fact, I’ve had relationships end because, “You always need a project.” Well, there could be some truth to that. I hear people tell me “Randy, focus on getting a job that pays you to do those things, stop doing them for free.” I think about that for a few minutes, then I go back to a project. There are days I wake up just wishing politics wasn’t on my mind. Finding a way to help people wasn’t on my mind. But I can’t. Heck even many who helped shape our U.S. Constitution, some wealthy land owners, died penniless because they desired something better for our country. I’m not comparing myself to history makers. I just believe we get to a place in life, at least for me, where what you have matters far less than what you give. And, while I hope it’s not a natural disaster that’s the next project, I do know part of why God is keeping me around is to shake the tree when necessary and help make our world a better place when I can.

O-R: What’s your takeaway from your tussles with some of the establishment politicians in Orange County, the latest being last week when Mayor Teresa Jacobs chastised you when you tried to join a county commission discussion on Puerto Rico?

Ross: Make no mistake, I am a fan of Mayor Jacobs. However, during the county commission meeting I had information, having just met with Governor [Rick] Scott a few days prior, she did not. She even joked she hadn’t spoken to him. And while she was absent in the early part of the day, because of an illness, I chose to wait for her to be present to share my learnings from the meeting with Governor Scott and others that were at the table. I would never have thought she would be closed, after even mentioning I-4 for Puerto Rico in her opening remarks, to hearing from our group. I was wrong as you witnessed.

Mayor Jacobs, for a moment, clearly forgot how she got her start in politics, or she would never have stifled me in that meeting. Often the mayor has reminded us that it was a road coming through her own neighborhood that prompted her to get involved in attending Orange County meetings. She and Chairwoman [Linda] Chapin have often reminded audiences that in fact it was Mayor Jacobs desire to speak to the commission publicly, on her concerns regarding the road widening, that actually propelled public comments in meetings to begin with. Chairwoman Chapin allowed then Teresa Jacobs [a regular person like you or me] a homeowner, to speak out to the county commission.

I was there as a silent partner, meeting with her behind the scenes, for the mayor when the LGBTQ community considered her a wolf in sheep’s clothing. I took the social media beatings from the LGBTQ community when I said publicly, “You don’t know her, she’s with us. She’s just on her own journey.” We know today that is not the LGBTQ community’s position of her, as a result of her stellar leadership following the Pulse tragedy.

O-R: You’ve been a big practitioner of social media for a long time. What is its power in politics?

Ross: Anyone who that suggests social media has no power in politics is simply not in touch with today’s preferred method of communication. While we have a very forgiving and seemingly forgetful public, social media allows you to control narratives and consistently engage an audience unlike anything before. The days of typing a press release on a typewriter, licking a stamp, and hoping a news editor might read it and call to follow through on a story are long gone.

When I created Orange County Political Voice, a political Facebook page in 2012, politicians and the like either loved it or hated it. Five years later, they still love it or hate it. Yet when created, for the first time, locally anyway, there was this outlet to share thoughts and beliefs on political candidates and their platforms. I’d argue, through pages like OCPV [often intimated but never duplicated, lol] we, the public, get to have the same conversations that used to occur at the water cooler.

Social media is public comments unedited. In fact, as a person who at times finds himself on the receiving end of some of the hate, I can tell you it can be a powerful tool. Uniquely, social media allows us to create whatever image we want of ourselves publicly. You can be the politician. You can be the comedian. You can be the “I vent my problems to the world,” victim. You can be and participate at levels we’ve not seen in my lifetime. This, in turn, makes social media dangerous at times. Especially when you are no longer in control of the narrative.

But I need only look at the success of I-4 for Texas, I-4 for Florida, and now I-4 for Puerto Rico, to illustrate its power. Yes, we’ve received media coverage. But between all the relief drives I just mentioned collectively there have been over 10,000 shares of our various fliers to drive our donation efforts. All, of course, for free. Break that down to the number of people that read or follow the post shared and you have an invaluable free tool to do good. I believe our president masterfully uses social media like a professional marketer. He has a message and wants to get it to supporters. Supporters and non-supporters follow his every word. That’s powerful. So, when it comes to social media, I and many of us, are social media students of our president.

About The Author

Scott Powers is an Orlando-based political journalist with 30+ years’ experience, mostly at newspapers such as the Orlando Sentinel and the Columbus Dispatch. He covers local, state and federal politics and space news across much of Central Florida. His career earned numerous journalism awards for stories ranging from the Space Shuttle Columbia disaster to presidential elections to misplaced nuclear waste. He and his wife Connie have three grown children. Besides them, he’s into mystery and suspense books and movies, rock, blues, basketball, baseball, writing unpublished novels, and being amused. Email him at scott@floridapolitics.com.

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