The Trump Campaign Came Calling. Rob Arlett Answered.
The Sussex County councilman was not angling for a position with the Trump campaign, but he landed one. Bigger responsibilities very well might lie ahead.
As a Sussex County councilman with a strong interest in public safety, Rob Arlett has visited every police and fire company in the county.//Photo by Maria DeForrest
Rob Arlett swears he never went after any of this, not directly, he says. He was happy running Beach Bound Realty in Dagsboro, but then people started asking him questions. Would he consider running for this post? Did he support that particular candidate? Is he interested in filling another role?
The answer, every time, was yes. And that’s how Arlett went from somebody who got a job while shopping for a house after moving to Delaware in 2006 to one of the state’s most important figures in Donald Trump’s candidacy and subsequent presidency. It sounds wild, but it shows you what happens when someone is willing to attempt new things.
“I never had any ambition,” Arlett says. “People asked me things every step of the way.”
Arlett may not have been a political animal before running for Sussex County Council in 2014, but he has done a pretty good job developing an impressive resume ever since. He served as the Delaware chairman for Trump’s campaign, then was appointed national municipal governments liaison to the inauguration ceremony. It was a pretty quick rise, and it has put Arlett in position to make even more progress, either in statewide politics or as part of the Trump administration.
It is something of an improbable rise, though it is important to know that Arlett was the chair of the government affairs/public policy committee of the Sussex County Association of Realtors, which is charged with suggesting legislative options to lawmakers and lobbying for the interests of the real estate industry, a position that gave him access to the local political realm. Arlett also served as chairman of the 38th Representative District, and through his work at the polls became an election district chairman. None of those posts could be considered powerful, high-profile jobs, but they demonstrate that Arlett clearly had an interest in politics.
But there is still a big difference between county operations and the presidential world, and Arlett’s ascent to the Trump orbit shows the grassroots power of the president’s campaign. Delaware has gone blue in the last seven elections (including 2016), a big reason why Trump wasn’t given much of a chance in 2016. Because Delaware wasn’t a target for the Trump campaign, his campaign didn’t deploy its bigger guns in the First State, a strategic consideration. That Arlett was able to gain the top spot for Trump in Delaware speaks to the powerful local pull of the candidate and the unconventional style he employed en route to the White House. Further, as the primary results showed, Sussex County was a Trump bastion, giving 71 percent of its votes to the candidate.
“We had no money,” Arlett says. “We had a message and a dream. And we had some yard signs. That’s it.”
There may be no more dramatic move one can make than the one from Hawaii to Delaware, but that’s what Arlett did. It wasn’t a direct move, because he and his wife had spent some time in northern Virginia. But for the son of a Navy man, who had lived in southern California and Hawaii, it was still a pretty drastic change of scenery.
Arlett attended the University of Hawaii and George Mason University but never finished. “I had to go make money,” he says. In 2006, he and his wife of 27 years, Lorna, a native of Vietnam, moved to Delaware after “falling in love,” he says, with Sussex County. While looking for a second home, the Arletts met a builder who told him he was hiring salespeople. Arlett applied for the job and got it, and so began his career in real estate. “We came to Sussex County for the quality of life, and we have gone forward from there,” Arlett says. Four years ago, he was asked to run for state representative, but family obligations led him to put that off.
The Arletts have two sons. Justin is 26. He worked on the Trump campaign in Delaware and Pennsylvania. He now works in Washington, D.C., as a special assistant to the secretary of commerce. Jared, 18, just graduated from Indian River High School. Arlett delivered the commencement address, proof of his remarkable journey from outsider to local prominence.
“What I have enjoyed the most is the opportunity to serve the community,” Arlett says. “There are only five of us (on the council), so we each carry a significant vote. We can get a lot done with only three votes. It’s super important and relevant, because there are only three of us.”
Arlett’s biggest interest is public safety, so one of the most significant things he has done as a councilman is visit every police and fire department in the county. He also spent four days with local paramedics to get a greater understanding of their jobs. In 2016, he helped create a system with the Roxana volunteer fire company to recruit and retain members. Arlett helped the company work with local school districts to get into classrooms and present to students in the hopes of growing the ranks.
That interest is a big part of what led Arlett to Trump—that, and a relative. In January 2016, Arlett received a call from a member of his wife’s family who was involved in the Trump campaign in Virginia. He confesses to not have been paying much attention to the campaign at the time, but Arlett gave an emphatic yes to the idea of joining the fight in Delaware.
“I had no thought it would lead where it did,” he says. “That’s how it got started. Those three letters (Y-E-S) may have changed my life forever.”
It took a little while, but by March, Arlett was into the fray. He was named Delaware state chairman for the Trump campaign and started getting some media attention. It is revelatory that Arlett wasn’t contacted until fewer than four months remained until the Delaware primary—and even more telling that he didn’t become campaign boss until fewer than two were left. Trump, and many other Republicans, didn’t think they could win the First State, but that didn’t mean Arlett wasn’t going to work hard for a victory.
He conducted media interviews, smiled for the cameras and, when Trump visited Delaware in April, served as emcee and major cheerleader for the candidate. His picture was splashed across the pages, and Arlett proved he could handle a bigger spotlight. “The campaign never told me what to do or what to say, ever,” he says.
Three issues led Arlett to Trump. The first was public safety, specifically when it came to borders. Because he spent part of his youth in San Diego, Arlett had firsthand experience with border issues. Plus, Lorna was a legal immigrant. “It’s not about one’s nationality,” he says. “It’s about following the law.” Second, he believed Trump’s experience as a developer would help the local, state and national economies. Finally, Arlett was interested in Trump’s ability to bring independents and some Democrats into his tent. “His message resonated across party lines,” Arlett says.
When that message lifted Trump to the White House, Arlett was in line for a reward, and he received it. As one of the earliest elected officials in Delaware on the president-elect’s side, Arlett was asked if he would consider a role in the inauguration. From December into the new year, he spent time as the national municipal governments liaison, the point man for representatives from city, county, town and municipal entities. It was, as Arlett puts it, “a big bucket.” He was charged with helping to organize invitation lists for various balls, one of them for first responders and military personnel.
“I had the opportunity to invite 150 first responders from Delaware,” Arlett says. “We had people from fire, state police, and municipal police departments and EMTs. That was pretty cool to coordinate that and extend an invitation to very important people in our community.”
Arlett’s role in the campaign and inauguration could well land him a spot in the Trump administration, but for now he wants to focus on his job in Sussex County—and on the fact that he and Lorna will soon be empty nesters, thanks to Jared’s appointment to the Naval Academy. “I’m excited about it,” Arlett says. He remains enamored of the work he is doing with the real estate agency. He has also been asked to be the chairman of the Delaware Republican Party. That’s a lot to digest. Still, Arlett can’t help but think.
“Others have asked me if I might want to be of help to the administration,” he says.
Not that he’s really angling for it, or anything.