Trone aims to flip the script in the Senate primary

U.S. Rep. David Trone (D) addressed supporters at a 2022 Election Night party in Frederick, before being declared the victor after mail-in ballots were counted. File photo by Charlie Finnerty.

Because he’s a middle-aged white guy who made his fortune in the liquor business and fashions himself a bipartisan problem-solver in the toxic environment of Capitol Hill, much is assumed about U.S. Rep. David Trone (D-6th) and his place in the Democratic primary for U.S. Senate.

But as he charts his course against several foes, including Prince George’s County Executive Angela Alsobrooks (D), who is seeking to make history as the third Black woman elected to the Senate and has much of the Democratic establishment lining up behind her, Trone feels confident he can flip the narrative that’s built up around the race.

In Trone’s view, he’s the progressive, he’s the candidate speaking for those voters who feel left behind, he’s the one with the time and the means to develop meaningful solutions to improve people’s lives.

“I’m not a member of the club,” he said in a recent interview. “I’m the outsider, I’m the disruptor, I’m the change agent.”

Trone, who is 67 and in his third term representing a district that takes in most of Western Maryland and a piece of Montgomery County, also believes his path to victory in this statewide race runs through the City of Baltimore, with its heavy Black population, and the rest of the Baltimore region. And Trone has a plan for reaching out to this diverse group of voters.

“It’s being present,” he said. “It’s going to church. It’s parades in Dundalk, it’s festivals downtown. It’s all the things that are happening that I’m at and nobody else is.”

This twin strategy — of attempting to emphasize the candidate’s progressive bonafides and focusing on a region of the state that does not have a Senate candidate of its own — may confound some Maryland political professionals. But Trone says he’s prepared to spend upward of $40 million of his own money to put these theories to the test.

With that investment, he said, “we plan to reach every community.”

‘I’m a very progressive Democrat’

There are a few things David Trone wants Democratic voters who may not be familiar with his story to know: First, he wasn’t always rich.

“We weren’t born with a silver spoon,” he said, during an interview outside a juice and coffee bar near his office in Bethesda.

For part of his childhood, he grew up on a farm in Western Pennsylvania, which didn’t have an indoor toilet. Struggling with alcoholism, his father eventually had to declare bankruptcy, lost the farm, and plunged the family into financial uncertainty and personal instability.

But the family picked itself up, opened a liquor store, and over the years, that enterprise blossomed into Total Wine & More, a national chain that’s now in 28 states.

“It was total a game changer” in the alcohol industry, Trone boasts. “We changed the business and customers love our stores. It’s an adult Toys R Us.”

It also made Trone very rich — the eighth richest Democrat in Congress, according to a November 2022 report from the Associated Press. And that wealth, in Trone’s telling, is a potent part of his political biography — in obvious and less apparent ways.

The obvious? Americans love poverty-to-prosperity stories. It can make a candidate seem relatable, even if they currently live the life of luxury.

For Trone, the wild success of Total Wine has enabled him to promote progressive policies at the business and in life that can translate on the campaign trail.

Trone is now a full-blown philanthropist, who says he gives away about $10 million a year. (Disclosure: The David and June Trone Family Foundation was a supporter of Maryland Matters in 2017 and 2018.) That philanthropy includes standing up the Trone Center for Justice and Equality at the ACLU, which focuses on criminal justice reform, prisoners’ rights, racial disparities in the penal system, and overturning the death penalty. Left unsaid is that Alsobrooks, as Prince George’s County state’s attorney, sought the death penalty for a man convicted of a quadruple murder, but the jury imposed multiple life sentences instead.

In the workplace, Total Wine put “Ban the Box” hiring practices in place two decades ago, and by Trone’s account the business has hired 1,400 people who have served prison sentences over the years. The company is part of the Second Chance Business Coalition, a group of large corporations committed to hiring returning citizens.

Also, three-quarters of Total Wine’s employees work full-time and receive health care benefits and a retirement plan. Most big retailers, Trone says, only give full-time jobs to about a quarter of their workforce.

“I’m a very progressive Democrat,” he said. “People don’t realize that about me. I get pigeonholed: ‘You’re a middle-aged white guy, wealthy.’ There’s a bias. I’m very, very progressive.”

Having more full-time workers, Trone argues, means there are more people associated with the company who have a stake in its success and are mindful of day-to-day operations. That gives Trone more time to think strategically.

“With more fulltime employees, I can be the idea guy,” he said. “More time to think…how I can better serve my customers.”

A similar theory comes into play, in Trone’s mind, when it comes to politics. As someone who has largely self-funded his campaigns, he doesn’t need to spend time hitting up donors or cozying up to lobbyists and other rich people, activities of self-preservation that can consume most candidates and incumbents seeking reelection.

“I don’t have time for that bull—,” he said. “…I’ve got more time to think — pay more attention to policy, less to politics.”

Trone is counting on that freedom to appeal to voters.

“I can cut through all that BS,” he said. “I’d be the only guy in the U.S. Senate who doesn’t take lobbyist money. Everybody takes it.”

Trone also argues that the fame of Total Wine has helped him build relationships with his colleagues on Capitol Hill — and that will serve him well if he’s elected to the Senate. Colleagues are familiar with the brand and he’s familiar with their states.

“They all know my business. They all know my brand,” he said. “They’re usually my customers…It’s really about relationships. I have that ready relationship where people know you from doing business in their states.”

‘He has a shot’ in Baltimore

There are only two Total Wine stores in Maryland — in Laurel and in Towson, and its corporate headquarters are in Bethesda. So Trone has work to do when it comes to building his name recognition with the statewide Democratic electorate. The liquor store only goes so far.

There are myriad theories on what it will take to win the Democratic Senate primary and how the electorate will be divided. Alsobrooks will mop up in Prince George’s County, which has more Democrats than any other jurisdiction, and will also run well in fast-growing Charles County. Trone is hoping for a good showing in Montgomery County, where he lives, but Alsobrooks should run strong there too, and Montgomery County Councilmember Will Jawando, who has been before the Montgomery voters several times in the last decade and has been elected countywide twice, is also running for Senate.

Trone expects to do well in rural areas, but those represent just a small piece of the primary voter puzzle. Which means Trone’s hopes for victory rest firmly in the Baltimore area.

There are challenges to this theory of the case, however. For starters, race.

Alsobrooks may not be well known in the Baltimore area yet, but her candidacy should surely appeal to many voters in the majority-Black city. And she has racked up the great majority of endorsements from fellow politicians in the city — and in the greater Baltimore area — so far.

But Trone is undaunted. His plan for wooing Baltimore voters — besides an ad and mail blitz that he can uniquely afford — is to show up. It follows the playbook he has used to connect with constituents in the farthest reaches of Western Maryland.

“The important thing is to listen — what they think,” Trone said. He added that he’s trying to hit a church in Baltimore every week, and he tries to get there early to speak to parishioners before services begin.

It is that very philosophy that compelled Baltimore City Councilmember Isaac “Yitzy” Schleifer (D) to endorse Trone for Senate earlier this summer. He’s the only Baltimore-area elected official to date to endorse the congressman’s candidacy.

“He shows up, he listens, and he fights tirelessly to address the challenges that we face as a community,” Schleifer said.

Maryland Matters asked the Trone campaign to provide names of community leaders that the congressman has spoken to recently in Baltimore who might be willing to chat about their conversations. The campaign offered two names: Larry Young, the former state senator and erstwhile talk radio host, and Arthur “Squeaky” Kirk, a Baltimore City Fire Department dispatcher and West Baltimore community activist who is the son of the late Del. Ruth M. Kirk (D).

Young did not respond to phone messages. Kirk said he appreciated Trone’s desire to visit and listen but said he and his neighbors are looking for candidates who are willing to come as often as possible, talk to as many people as possible, and show a long-term commitment to the community.

“Come here and talk to the people, not just to me,” Kirk said. “See beyond me. I’m just the middle man. I’m the bridge between those that don’t have and those that do. I’m receptive to anyone who wants to help my people.”

Asked if he thinks Trone can do well in the city, especially in a primary against Alsobrooks and Jawando, who are Black, Kirk replied, “He has a shot. He’s got to get through the city, reach through this city and get where the people are.”

Trone said he hopes some of the issues he’s emphasizing on the campaign trail will resonate with Baltimore voters, whether it’s his leadership on combating opioid addiction, his desire to bring more government investment into the city’s economic development projects, his push to create wealth and home ownership in the inner city, and his ongoing fight against unnecessary incarceration.

“I’m on a mission,” Trone said.

Bipartisanship and the politics of the 6th District

Trone said he believes his reputation for bipartisanship will also impress voters — in Baltimore and in every corner of the state. In 2022, the Common Ground Committee, a nonpartisan organization working to reduce political polarization and incivility, ranked Trone as the 12th most bipartisan member of the 535-member Congress.

Trone said he has found common ground with dozens of House Republicans — “except for the 20 or so who are bat— crazy” — and ticks off a list of GOP senators he figures he could work with if he winds up serving in the upper chamber.

Bipartisanship may have sold in the 6th congressional district, by far the most competitive in the state. But in this current political environment, is that level of compromise and accommodation what statewide Democratic primary voters are looking for?

There are some leading Democrats — in Maryland and on Capitol Hill — who privately wish Trone would abandon his Senate race and seek reelection instead. They fret over the prospect of an untested candidate, without Trone’s vast resources, defending the 6th District seat in a volatile political environment.

But Trone is confident the Democrats will hold his seat and shows no signs that he is thinking of dropping back. A new round of statewide TV ads should begin airing shortly.

“We’re going to have a good year in 2024,” he said. “It’s going to be a Democratic year. We’re going to win the House for sure…Hakeem Jeffries is going to be an awesome first African-Americn speaker. He’s been a great partner for me.”

In the 6th District, Trone continued, “I think we’ve got to find the right candidate. I think it would be great if it was a woman. That would be fantastic. We’re sort of still looking around. Hopefully the right candidate will come forward.”

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