First in a series of profiles of candidates running for the Democratic nomination in Maryland’s 8th Congressional District.
David Trone was a kid on his family’s chicken and hog farm in southeast Pennsylvania, not a Potomac wine retailer and philanthropist, when he first thought about entering politics.
He admired the local congressman, a moderate Republican named Bill Goodling. Most of all, though, he wanted to run as Tom Trone’s son.
“My goal was to grow up on a farm, build Tom Trone’s Eggs into a real agribusiness so everyone knew Tom Trone’s Eggs,” he said. “Then I could run for Congress as David Trone and people would know us and love us, and I could do something that would make a difference.”
The farm failed, as Trone explains in one of his ubiquitous, skillfully produced campaign ads. What the spot doesn’t say is that Tom Trone’s alcoholism doomed the business. The memory is raw enough that his son’s eyes well up as he tells that part of the story.
“The bank took the farm, they took our home, they took everything,” Trone said. “And my mom divorced my dad, rightfully so.”
Trone had planned on law school after studying government at Furman University in South Carolina. Instead, he borrowed money to attend Wharton business school at the University of Pennsylvania. By the time he graduated in 1985, he and his brother Robert had started building what is now Total Wine & More, a national chain of 132 big-box stores with projected sales of $2.5 billion this year.
At age 60, politics is Trone’s unfinished business. “I don’t need a job,” he said. “I’m looking to do what’s right.”
Trone upended the race when he entered just before the Feb. 3 filing deadline, joining a field of eight whose front-runners were expected to be state Sen. Jamie Raskin (Montgomery) and former Marriott executive and WJLA anchor Kathleen Matthews.
His decision to run, and to spend millions financing his candidacy, has made the April 26 primary a three-way contest. And his core message — that paying his own way leaves him unencumbered by special interests — echoes a Republican presidential candidate with a similar-sounding name.
Although Trone is a progressive Democrat who says he rejects everything GOP front-runner Donald Trump stands for, a Trumpian grandiosity comes through when he talks about his business success.
“Every state I go, I’m the pioneer. I’m the trendsetter,” he said in an interview. “We are vilified by our competitors, and we are loved by the consumers.”
Trone’s issue set is thoughtful and detailed. He shares most of his opponents’ prescriptives — higher minimum wage, fixes to the Affordable Care Act, curbs on gun violence. He wants to double the National Institutes of Health’s funding for research on cancer, autism and Alzheimer’s, which claimed his father in 2011. Trone also favors college loan forgiveness in exchange for five years of national service.
When friends ask why, at the peak of a successful career, he aspires to be a freshman backbencher, he tells them he expects to be an exception. “I’ve been a leader all my life,” he said.
Trone has raised — and given — millions for the Democratic Party and candidates. He has also donated $150,000 to red-state Republicans, which he describes as the price of admission to make his case to regulators and officeholders. Trone insists that he has never used his access to seek tax benefits or other advantages, instead pursuing an agenda that is “100 percent pro-consumer” — such as laws allowing Sunday store hours and sales of craft beer.
Last year, he and his wife, longtime supporters of the American Civil Liberties Union, donated $15 million to study criminal justice reform. Also last year, his company gave $6 million to charities in 18 states, according to Trone.
Despite the good works, his business background sometimes kindles suspicion among Democratic primary voters in the left-leaning 8th District. As a hard-charging chief executive more accustomed to asking questions than answering them, he can turn prickly when pressed.
Over breakfast with Silver Spring Democrats at the Tastee Diner last month, Trone spoke at length about pay and benefits for his 5,000 employees. Seventy percent have full-time jobs, unheard of in retail, he said.
“Take care of your people, they take care of your customers,” he said. “You take care of your customers, everybody wins.”
Toward the end of the one-hour session, a man sitting off to the side asked how many full-time workers made at least $15 an hour — the amount targeted by labor activists as a fair minimum wage.
“I’m not an HR fiend,” Trone said, stretching out the last word before continuing. “If you run a $2 billion business, I’m just going to give you a heads-up. You don’t know every stat in the business.”
The questioner persisted: “My follow-up is, since you don’t know right now, could you find out this week and tell your prospective voters?”
A seasoned candidate might have said, “Sure, we’ll be get back to you,” even if he had no intention of doing so.
Instead, Trone pushed back: “I’m not here for gotcha questions. That was a gotcha. I’m going to skip that one, thank you.”
Next in the series: Joel Rubin.