Angela Alsobrooks stood with her back to the bar on a bright January morning in Annapolis.

No cocktails were being served, and even the electric coffee urn produced only an unsatisfying dribble for anyone arriving less than 15 minutes early at the Almost 7:30 Democratic breakfast club meeting.

Yet the room was packed with exactly the kind of voters Alsobrooks needs if she wants to win the Democratic nomination for U.S. Senate over U.S. Rep. David Trone. Gray-haired party faithful by the score, filling every seat. They listened politely as the Prince George’s County executive and former state’s attorney introduced herself with a story about her grandmother, Sarah Alsobrooks.

“She worked at various hotels around Washington, D.C.,” the candidate said. “It was her great aspiration to work in the federal government and back then, in order to do that, of course, you had to take the civil service exam. Sarah really wanted to do that but did not have the money to pay for a typewriter.

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“So my father told me that she put a white piece of paper on a refrigerator in the family’s kitchen. She drew out the keyboard on that white piece of paper and taught herself the keystrokes in order to take the civil service exam.”

Appearances before groups such as these are among the keys to winning a primary fight in Maryland. Endorsements by the number, ad buys by the score — both matter.

But every moment spent this way is another chance campaigns long for, an opportunity to connect.

If Democracy were perfect, up close and personal, this is what it would take to win. In small gatherings — at a social club, American Legion Post, library meeting room or church basement — the Marylanders most likely to donate, volunteer and vote turn out in hopes of finding a candidate who makes them fall in love.

Trone stood in the same spot. It was a rainy November morning, and if the date were different, the empty coffee urn was the same. It’s a sign of just how much these events pull.

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Instead of beginning with a family story, the wine-retailer billionaire took questions as a microphone was passed around the crowded room.

“How many of your stores are union?” one voter asked.

“You take care of your team, everybody’s happy campers,” said Trone, in his third term representing Montgomery County and Western Maryland. “And we’ve never seen an issue. Never been a challenge. Everyone loves working there. And I think …”

“I noticed that,” a voter said.

“Yeah, I think you probably did,” Trone said. “We’re really proud of our people. People ask you what’s the most important asset you have. Really, the people. Because when you do your work every year, I learned to do my HR work first. Do your human resources work first. Take care of your people. Get that plan, then go from there. That’s how we all just started.”

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All of this, of course, happened before the Democratic primary morphed from main event to preliminary bout. When Trone and Alsobrooks spoke on separate occasions in Annapolis, the May 14 primary in deep-blue Maryland was widely viewed as the deciding event in replacing three-term U.S. Sen Ben Cardin, who is not seeking reelection.

Then Republican Larry Hogan — a two-term former Maryland governor with appeal to independents who had long maintained he wasn’t interested in serving in Congress — joined the race, turning the fall election into a true contest. A frequent critic of former President Donald Trump, Hogan drew national attention and gave Maryland the chance to tip the balance of power in Washington.

Hogan might go to early-morning breakfasts but probably not the Democratic ones. For now he seems comfortable with national media appearances and staged campaign stops, such as the one reported by Maryland Matters this week.

Hogan was at Mills Fine Wine & Spirits in Annapolis on Monday afternoon to criticize a General Assembly bill that would clear the way for Trone’s national chain, Total Wine & More, to expand from two to eight locations in Maryland.

Trone didn’t mention it at the breakfast club meeting. But he talked about making political donations to Republican state legislators in states where his company has needed similar changes.

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“If you want some law in Tennessee — they’ve already passed five laws against us, and I’ve got a lot of folks in Tennessee — the only way you’re gonna change something in Tennessee is if the company makes donations to Republicans in Tennessee. And, I’m sorry, that will always happen. And the same with Texas. The company will make donations because there are no Democrats in Tennessee,” Trone said.

No matter the question, Trone was good at making himself the answer. It was true for Alsobrooks, too.

“Now, Prince George’s County has the second-oldest school facilities in the state as of now. Over 40% of our schools are 60 years old,” she said. “And I believe that, for kids who sit in classrooms falling down all around, we send the very important message that their education is not important.

“And we decided to do something about this, and I’ve worked with our schools superintendent. And we put together the first public-private partnership with Maryland to build more quickly and at cost.”

Sometimes, they talked about Democratic priorities.

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Trone: “You know, I’m the only candidate in this race, if you do some more research, that supports public funding on abortion. The only one. It’s 100% pro-abortion. The only candidate out there, if you ask the question the right way.”

Alsobrooks: “I think it’s fair to raise the point that my opponent has spent tens of thousands of dollars supporting Republicans who do not support [reproductive] choice, people like [Gov.] Greg Abbott in Texas … who not only wants to ban abortion across the country, but he does not support voting rights.”

Sometimes, they talked without saying much.

Alsobrooks: “You know, I’ve come to understand, like all of you, we are running out of time on the climate. For those who are freaked out and seeing these 100-year floods every two years, we are in really perilous times.”

Trone: You know, the biggest issue facing America, the biggest issue facing the world, is climate change. If we can’t figure out how to get that right, nothing else matters. So, while I am absolutely laser focused on addiction, mental illness, systemic racism and criminal justice, medical research and [return on investment in] education — those five areas ― climate change is the biggest issue out there.”

They talked about their accomplishments, such as working with members of Congress to persuade federal officials to relocate the FBI’s headquarters from the District of Columbia to Prince George’s County.

Alsobrooks: “This is a huge accomplishment for the state that will literally change the economy in the area. … These are the things we bring to Maryland.”

Or seeing the son of a federal first responder who took his own life grasp Joe Biden’s hand after the president signed Trone’s bill expanding mental health benefits.

Trone: “That’s pretty good. That’s why you get into public service.”

Angela Alsobrooks and David Trone appeared at the same political club in Annapolis months apart. But they were debating the same question, which one of them can beat Larry Hogan for U.S. Senate?
Angela Alsobrooks and David Trone appeared at the same political club in Annapolis months apart. But they were debating the same question: Which one of them can beat Larry Hogan for U.S. Senate? (Rick Hutzell / The Baltimore Banner)

And they talked about their critics.

Trone: “People criticize me for spending my own money. I don’t know. I could buy a car, I guess. Maybe I could give more money to my children. I could support the ACLU [American Civil Liberties Union]. Absolutely. Oh, good thing, I guess. Or I could maybe try and change America.”

Alsobrooks: “I believe that we have too few in the Senate who live anything like, or think anything like, the people who they represent. In fact, I believe it is important to have people there who do reflect the everyday lives of the people they represent”

Did they win any converts at the breakfast club? Did any of those who showed fall in love? Maybe.

We won’t know for sure until after the primary, when the campaign starts again — and before a much wider audience.

By then, hopefully, the club will find a bigger coffee urn.

Rick Hutzell is the Annapolis columnist for The Baltimore Banner. He writes about what's happening today, how we got here and where we're going next. The former editor of Capital Gazette, he led the newspaper to a Pulitzer Prize for coverage of the 2018 mass shooting in its newsroom.

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