The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Tycoon turned candidate: Why Trone’s critics say he’s trying to buy a seat in Congress

Placeholder while article actions load

As Maryland’s gubernatorial race tightened in 2014, Democratic candidate Anthony G. Brown got a boost from nearly two dozen liquor stores across three states. Each simultaneously pumped $4,000 into his campaign, for a one-day haul of $92,000.

Most of the shops were in Virginia and North Carolina, but all were owned by David Trone, the Potomac mogul who, along with his family and companies, has given nearly $200,000 to Brown’s campaigns over the years.

Brown showed his appreciation last month, endorsing ­Trone’s campaign to succeed Rep. John Delaney (D) in Maryland’s 6th Congressional District.

Over the past two decades, as he has emerged as a major donor in national politics, Trone, his family and his businesses have poured millions into Maryland politics — mostly to his own campaigns but also to dozens of elected officials and political organizations across the state.

The magnitude of Trone’s contributions is unprecedented in Maryland and has made him a homegrown version of a modern political archetype: tycoons using their vast wealth to propel their transformations into candidates. The club includes the likes of former senator Jon Corzine (D-N.J.), former New York City mayor Michael Bloomberg (I) and, most recently, President Trump.

Yet for all the advantages that his money buys him, Trone’s wealth is no guarantee of success, as was demonstrated in 2016 when he lost the 8th District Democratic primary to then-state senator Jamie Raskin after outspending Raskin by more than 6 to 1.

Then as now, Trone’s use of his own money threatens to overshadow what he says as a candidate and drives criticism that he’s seeking to exploit his wealth to elbow aside seasoned elected officials who have climbed Maryland’s political ranks.

“I’m offended by the idea that he’s buying an office,” said Stanton Gildenhorn, a Democratic activist and supporter of state Del. Aruna Miller (D-Montgomery), who trounced Trone in the Western Maryland Democratic straw poll on April 21. “It’s one thing to raise funds and run, but it’s something else to spend millions upon millions of your own money to seek an office. In Maryland, we do not have people buying elections.”

In a statement, Trone portrayed himself as an independent political voice whose money liberates him from the influences of special interests. He also invoked the man he hopes to succeed, Delaney, himself a wealthy businessman who partly self-funded his runs for Congress and is leaving after three terms to run for president.

“Like John Delaney in 2012, I don’t have the support of the political insiders, PACs or the lobbyists, so I’m using the money I’ve earned to explain who I am to the voters and where I stand on the issues,” Trone said. Delaney spent about $3.6 million of his own money across three campaigns — $13 million less than what Trone has to date put into his two races.

The owner of Total Wine & More, which includes nearly 200 liquor stores in 24 states, Trone is by far the wealthiest of the eight Democrats hoping to represent a district that stretches from Montgomery County to Western Maryland. His rivals in the June 26 primary include Miller, who has raised $1.1 million, state Sen. Roger Manno (Montgomery), who has loaned his own campaign $72,000, and Nadia Hashimi, a pediatrician who has loaned herself $225,000.

In 2016, Trone provided his opponents with ammunition when he told The Washington Post that he gave money to politicians from both parties “to buy access” in states where government regulations affect his businesses. He later said he was misquoted.

Trone’s money allows him to hire campaign consultants, finance mass mailings and television ads, and dispense contributions to key elected officials and political organizations. Even Miller, little known outside her district until she ran for Congress, received $500 from a Trone-owned business 15 months ago, before either had entered the 6th District race.

On the day Trone announced his candidacy, he and his wife, June, gave $267,200 to the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, the party’s financial engine for House races nationwide. In the ensuing months, the couple gave $35,000 to Maryland’s Democratic State Central Committee, the party’s statewide organization.

Republicans also have benefited. Two weeks after Brown lost the 2014 gubernatorial race to Gov. Larry Hogan (R), eight of Trone’s businesses donated a total of $30,000 to the Maryland GOP.

Trone’s campaign referred questions about the donations to Ed Cooper, a Total Wine & More spokesman, who said the company had sought to “help” the governor-elect “retire campaign debt.”

In the 2014 gubernatorial race, Trone’s companies gave Brown’s campaign $132,000. His affiliates also contributed just over $100,000 to the campaign of Brown’s running mate, Ken Ulman, then the Howard County executive.

State prosecutors concluded two years later that Trone’s companies made more than $250,000 in illegal contributions between 2011 and 2014, violating what was then a $4,000 limit on donations to a single candidate. As part of a settlement in which it acknowledged no wrongdoing, the company agreed to pay $5,000 per violation, for a total of $60,000.

Since the gubernatorial race, Trone and his family have given Brown’s campaign $35,000, including $24,300 last year.

Brown, who was elected to Congress in 2016, is backing ­Trone not because of the contributions but because “he wants someone serving with him who he has a good relationship with and who shares a lot of the same values,” said Matthew Verghese, the congressman’s spokesman.

Other recipients of Trone family contributions who have endorsed his candidacy include Prince George’s County Executive Rushern Baker L. III (D), now running for governor, who since October has received nearly $40,000. Trone was also endorsed by Doug Duncan, the former Montgomery County executive and gubernatorial candidate who has received a total of $18,000 from Trone’s brother and their businesses.

Baker, who rarely supports candidates outside of Prince George’s, said he was drawn to Trone for his avowed commitment to increasing spending for research on Alzheimer’s, a disease that afflicts Baker’s wife, Christa Beverly. His endorsement “had nothing to do with campaign contributions,” Baker said.

The Trone clan also has given large sums to Maryland Democrats who say they are neutral in the race, including $77,300 to the campaign and political action committee of Sen. Chris Van Hollen.

The campaign of Maryland Comptroller Peter Franchot, the state’s chief alcohol regulator, has received more than $140,000 in contributions from the Trones and their businesses. Franchot has “no plans” to endorse in the race, his spokesman said, but the comptroller in 2015 gave Trone a medallion for community service, called him “the perfect corporate citizen for any state,” and said, “Thank God you’re here in Maryland.”

Del. Charles Barkley (D-Montgomery), chair of the House alcoholic beverages subcommittee, has received more than $32,000 in Trone family contributions since 2011. Barkley sponsored legislation in 2015 to raise from one to two the number of liquor licenses that an individual can possess in Maryland, a bill that would have benefited the Trones if it had passed.

Asked whether he would endorse Trone, Barkley was noncommittal but said, “He’s been a good friend.”

Not all of Trone’s supporters have received contributions from him. State Sen. Joanne Benson (D-Prince George’s), who grew up in the 6th District but no longer lives there, said she is impressed by Trone’s philanthropy and evolution from “humble beginnings.”

“It gives me pleasure to tell you he hasn’t given me a dime,” Benson said.

Trone’s spending on his own campaigns is a concern for government watchdogs, who say it discourages potential candidates who don’t have vast resources.

“The deck is certainly stacked against regular Marylanders,” said Damon Effingham of the Maryland chapter of Common Cause. “It’s not the power of your ideas that’s winning the day. It’s your outsized wealth.”

But Trone’s financial advantage isn’t deterring his opponents, including Miller, who has been endorsed by Emily’s List, Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand (D-N.Y.) and some state lawmakers. At the moment, Maryland Republicans appear more focused on Miller as a potential threat in November, targeting her in mass mailings and ignoring Trone.

Trone’s campaign aides say the fact that he has received fewer endorsements than Miller shows that his wealth is no real advantage in gaining political support. Yet fellow Democrats and political analysts say Trone’s contributions ensure his influence, if he’s victorious or not.

“When you’re giving that much money, any attempt to say it isn’t about getting access just seems on its face so hard to believe,” said Todd Eberly, a St. Mary’s College political science professor.

Trone has sought to take the attention off his wealth, entering the race earlier than in 2016 and hosting community forums across the district. Instead of self-funding exclusively, Trone has accepted more than $350,000 in contributions, along with $5.2 million of his own money. He told the Baltimore Sun that “one of the most important lessons” he learned in 2016 is that voters “draw the wrong impression from self-funding.”

He also has contributed money to politicians and Democratic organizations in the 6th District, which includes Garrett, Washington and Allegany counties, and portions of Frederick and Montgomery counties.

The Young Democrats of Frederick County got $1,000 in October. The Allegany County Democratic Central Committee received $3,500 a year ago. Last month, Trone gave $3,500 to the Washington County Democratic Central Committee.

The Garrett County Democratic Central Committee had $140 in the bank when it cashed a $2,500 check from Trone a year ago. Later, he added $135.

“We looked at it as ‘Thank you, God,’ ” said Regina Holliday, the committee’s chair.

But whether Trone’s money will deliver votes is still in question. The committee, a liberal oasis in a county that voted overwhelmingly for Trump, does not make endorsements. And if it did, there’s no guarantee Trone would be its pick.

“Our committee tends to be a little more progressive,” said Jeff Hovis, a member. “Other than being grateful, I don’t think it has swayed anyone.”