Trone pitches a corporate sensibility to Md.’s liberal Democratic base

Rep. David Trone, a Montgomery County Democrat running for U.S. Senate, wants Marylanders to see themselves in him, one of the country’s wealthiest lawmakers

David Trone might own the country’s largest independent wine retailer, but the three-term congressman says he’s just like the Marylanders whose votes he is trying to win as he runs for U.S. Senate. 

Trone grew up on a farm, with no indoor plumbing, that his father lost due to alcoholism (“ironically,” given Trone’s ownership of Total Wine & more, he acknowledges), and he later built Total Wine & More from the ground up with his brother. That up-from-the-bootstraps attitude is his pitch to Maryland voters — to remind them that his story isn’t so different from theirs, even though he is one of the wealthiest members of Congress who is planning to spend up to $50 million of his personal fortune in next year’s Democratic primary. 

“We started small, and when people look at me now they say, ‘Oh, you’re wealthy,’” Trone said in a recent interview at a Capitol Hill coffee shop. “But they forget that when I was 11 or 12 years old, we had an outhouse. So we didn’t start with much.”

In the race to replace Sen. Ben Cardin (D-MD), Trone’s principal competitor is Prince George’s County Executive Angela Alsobrooks, a popular local leader whose campaign has received national fanfare, and fundraising dollars, in her bid to be Maryland’s first Black senator. (Will Jawando, a Montgomery County councilmember running to the left of Trone and Alsobrooks, would also earn that distinction.)

White voters are in the minority in the state’s Democratic electorate, and elected officials across the state have heaped endorsements on Alsobrooks’ campaign. She raised more than $1.7 million in the first two months of the campaign, compared to just $108,000 that Trone brought in from outside donors. 

“We’re not here for some sort of popularity contest,” said Trone. But among Maryland elected officials who have gotten involved in the race, Trone is falling behind; Sen. Chris Van Hollen (D-MD), Baltimore Rep. Kweisi Mfume (D-MD) and former House Majority Leader Rep. Steny Hoyer (D-MD) have all backed Alsobrooks. Despite the endorsements, it is unclear whether Alsobrooks, even with a strong fundraising and ground game, can drum up the excitement and finances necessary to beat a man with seemingly infinite resources at his disposal. 

“We’re not wasting our time chasing people on the phone for money. Right now we’ll spend our time talking to voters and learning about the issues, working on solutions,” said Trone. His TV ads have been running in primetime for months already, well before the state’s May 2024 primary.

The Potomac, Md.-based Trone points to his record as Total Wine’s president as evidence of a private sector progressivism that he argues makes him both in sync with the state’s liberal voters and uniquely able to achieve their priorities. (Ethics rules preclude members of Congress from maintaining a second source of income, so Trone stepped down as president of Total Wine in 2016 but is still a co-owner of the company.)

“I’m certainly much more progressive than my main opponent,” he argued. As evidence, he pointed to his tenure at Total Wine rather than his past several years in Congress. Total Wine “banned the box” and stopped asking job applicants their criminal history more than a decade ago. And he notes Total Wine’s policy — before it was required by law — of offering benefits to employees’ same-sex partners. 

In Congress, though, Trone has chosen to align himself with the more moderate members of the New Democrat Coalition rather than the Congressional Progressive Caucus. He is known in the House for his work on opioid addiction and mental-health services. He calls this his “getting-things-done record.”

“Think about how you move things in the U.S. Senate. It’s people like [Sen. Shelley Moore] Capito (R-WV). It’s people like [Sen. John] Cornyn (R-TX). It’s people like [Sen. Bill] Cassidy (R-TX), people like [Sen. Lisa] Murkowski (R-AK). Republican senators that we’ve got to convince to move bills forward that we believe make sense. And I’m in that position. I know those folks. I have worked with those folks,” said Trone. “We work together. It’s all about moving 10 Republican U.S. senators to make things happen, like repairing the Dobbs decision,” he added, referring to the Supreme Court’s landmark 2022 decision overturning Roe v. Wade — though there does not appear to be anywhere close to 10 Republican senators who have expressed interest in joining Democrats to enshrine the right to an abortion in federal law.

His pitch to Maryland voters is similar to his argument for why Republicans may be willing to work with him: they’ve been to his stores. 

“Those Republicans already shop in my stores. I have employees in their district. I have charities in their district [that] I’ve worked with all over the country, every single state I’m in, and so they know who we are,” said Trone. “They know our business has been there, in the case of Maryland — Baltimore, I’ve been in Towson 27 years. And we have a second store in Laurel, 26 years.”

One of the issues with which Trone is most closely associated in Washington is his support for Israel, and here, too, he has a Total Wine story to make his case. 

“We’re the No. 1 retailer of Israeli wine in the U.S., by far,” said Trone, who added that Total Wine also stocks wine from “Judea and Samaria” — the West Bank — “as a response to people in the BDS [Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions] movement.” Trone’s wife and their children are Jewish, and he spent the weekend with them attending Rosh Hashanah services. 

A handful of Trone’s progressive colleagues in the House have in recent years taken an increasingly hostile approach toward Israel, and Trone said that some anti-Israel resolutions they have put forward “we believe are antisemitic.” 

“We do have some folks in the Democratic Party that I think we’ve disagreed with on comments they’ve made, and we’ve spoken to them and spoken out about it,” he said. “Israel shouldn’t be partisan.” But, Trone added, those members can’t be written off entirely when there are other areas for cooperation.

“Just because we disagree with a few folks that have made remarks that were certainly hateful, or antisemitic — at the same time, progressive means, where you stand on all those other issues out there to help lift people up,” he said. 

Trone, the co-founder of the bipartisan Abraham Accords Caucus and a critic of the 2015 Iran nuclear deal, has at times teamed up with progressive colleagues on foreign policy matters, most notably related to Saudi Arabia. He has called to block arms sales to the country in light of the CIA’s conclusion that Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman ordered the 2018 killing of Jamal Khashoggi, a Saudi-American journalist.

“I don’t think President Biden should have gone over and given a fist bump to MBS,” said Trone. “I’ve been very critical of MBS. I just have trouble supporting a person that we know is a known murderer of an American citizen.” 

Trone would not say whether he supported Biden’s efforts to broker a normalization deal between Saudi Arabia and Israel, which news reports indicate might include an American defense treaty with the Gulf monarchy. The Senate would have to ratify such a treaty.

“We certainly need to work toward normalizing the relationship with Saudi Arabia, but at the same time, we need to also hold them accountable,” said Trone. “It’s a difficult needle to thread.”

“I’m not a supporter of MBS, never going to be a supporter of MBS. But at the same time, the country of Saudi Arabia is not one man,” Trone said, “just like Israel is not Prime Minister [Benjamin] Netanyahu … We can disagree with certain things that Mr. Netanyahu says and does, but at the same time, support Israel. And so I think we need to have that counterbalance against Iran, and Saudi Arabia probably represents that.”

Before Trone’s election to Congress, he was a major donor to AIPAC. The pro-Israel lobby has not made an endorsement in the race, but its supporters funneled more than $70,000 to Trone this spring through AIPAC’s spending portal. An AIPAC spokesperson told JI that “members of the AIPAC community” have been supporting both candidates.  

“I’m far and away the candidate that is the strongest on Jewish values and the strongest on Israel,” said Trone. Alsobrooks, in a July conversation with Jewish Insider, also presented herself as a strong supporter of the U.S.-Israel relationship. 

Antisemitism in Maryland has increased heavily in recent years, and Trone pledged to “call it out,” and said that talking up Israel’s successes — “do[ing] a better job sometimes explaining all the unbelievable wonderful things that Israel does” — can help counter it. He was not familiar with the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance’s working definition of antisemitism, which says that some critiques of Israel can cross a line into antisemitism, but noted that saying Israel does not have a right to exist “is 100% antisemitism.” 

Now that the summer is over, Trone says his campaign is going to level up — he plans to announce more endorsements soon, and he hopes the primary will figure on more voters’ radars. He plans to focus on issues such as drug costs, systemic racism and abortion. 

A recent Time magazine report highlighted Total Wine’s recent financial support for Republican lawmakers working to restrict abortion in states across the country. Trone isn’t involved in those decisions, but he defends the company’s decision to make political donations as necessary “to protect itself from attack.” 

Trone takes a different position in his own race, where he attacks his opponents for not foregoing donations from corporations while he swears off any additional corporate funding, instead using his earnings from his corporation to fund his campaign.

“You’re going to be expected to do something for getting that PAC and lobbyist money,” Trone said of his opponents. “Folks are going to have to think about that at every vote they take.” 

His response rests on his philanthropic-corporate largesse: “I think a lot of voters are really appreciative and respectful that someone’s willing to spend their own money to help some folks that are struggling with mental health, that are struggling with addiction, that are struggling with systemic racism,” said Trone. “Spending your own money to do those kinds of things — that’s the right thing to do, if you have it. That’s a great way to give back.”

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