David Trone knows what critics are saying about him.

The 68-year-old Montgomery County businessman has heard the exhortations to step aside and let Angela Alsobrooks become the Democratic nominee for a rare open U.S. Senate seat in Maryland — setting her up to be the first Black woman to hold that office.

He knows some voters wonder whether he, a moderate Democrat first elected to Congress in 2019 to represent a district that includes conservative Western Maryland, will stand up for abortion rights as strongly as a woman would — especially when Alsobrooks speaks of her college-aged daughter losing rights she holds dear.

He’s aware of the accusations that he’s trying to buy a seat at the most influential political table, especially when his own seat is safe. Trone has spent almost $42 million of his own fortune, much of it from personal investments he made while running Total Wine & More, a national chain of liquor stores, on the race. He’s said he’ll do “whatever it takes” to win; if he does, he could face former Gov. Larry Hogan in the general election — two wealthy, white men in their 60s facing off to represent one of seven states where the majority of residents are part of a racial minority.

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He’s heard it all, and he still believes he is the best candidate — unbought, unbiased, unafraid and undaunted. And he wants it, maybe more than he’s ever wanted anything, so he can keep doing the job he’s been doing, albeit on a larger stage where he can be more effective and where senators have to take meetings with him because he’s one of them.

A woman wearing a grey sweatshirt and sitting on a stool in a brewery smiles and raises her arms above her head while watching a debate.
Tulani Hasan, a dock worker who did a commercial for Trone, cheers during his debate with Angela Alsobrooks. (Rona Kobell / The Baltimore Banner)

“What I care about is moving the needle,” Trone said. “I want my four kids to say, ‘I’m proud of my dad on what he’s done to help in these areas that are taking 110,000 lives lost on overdoses and 50,000 lives lost to suicide last year [nationwide].’ These are big numbers, and we’ve got to pull together as a community and do better.”

What’s important to Trone is evident to everyone who has a television, a smartphone, social media or a streaming service, where his ads seem to run on a loop. He cares about substance abuse, mental health, second chances for returning prisoners, workers’ rights, reproductive rights and reducing the costs of college. These are, he says, the issues important to Americans of both parties, which is one reason he touts his bipartisan record.

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Early hard times

Trone is trying to convince voters he’s lived these issues.

His nephew Ian died of a fentanyl overdose. His father’s drinking problems plunged the family into bankruptcy and ruined his parents’ marriage. He needed loans and grants to pay for his education at the University of Pennsylvania’s Wharton School of Business, where he encountered students far wealthier than he was. And he is a staunch supporter of ban-the-box initiatives and other efforts to bring formerly incarcerated citizens back into the workforce, in large part because he understands what it’s like to come back from a prosecution.

Three decades ago, a grand jury indicted Trone, his wife, June, and his brother for owning multiple stores under a consulting company entity, which was a violation of state law. The charges were dropped, and the prosecutor, former Pennsylvania Attorney General Ernie Preate, eventually went to prison for corruption in an unrelated case. The experience prompted the Trones to give $20 million to establish the Trone Center for Justice and Equality at the American Civil Liberties Union’s headquarters in Washington. The center fights to end the death penalty and seeks equity in sentencing.

“I didn’t start out at the top of the success ladder,” Trone said. “I had an outhouse. But I built my success over a period of time. Because of that, I understand what people are going through.”

Born in Cheverly to a mother who was a teacher and a father who worked as a salesman for the airlines, Trone moved to a farm at age 11 with his family. His father had little experience managing the operation and eventually declared bankruptcy. Trone got his start with a small store selling eggs and then branched out to beer and wine. After he earned his MBA, he founded Total Wine & More, which is now the largest independent wine and spirits enterprise in the country. He employs 12,000 people in 260 stores across 28 states. It’s one reason he shows up as a donor to Republicans with whom he disagrees politically, he said. To do business in red states, he has to contribute to red politicians.

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To win over voters, Trone combines restless energy with the feel-your-pain approach of former President Bill Clinton. Ruddy-faced and energetic, Trone has the bearing of a boxer ready to take on all comers. He says he can’t wait to beat Hogan in the Senate race.

His staff is half his age yet struggles to keep up with his eight-event-a-day schedule, not to mention the multitude of important votes that keep him rushing back to Capitol Hill. At 10:15 p.m., after a tiring debate with Alsobrooks, Trone boomerangs around a supporter party at Union Craft Brewing. If a union leader or a state delegate goes in with a handshake, he responds with a bear hug.

He feeds off the energy, seeming to enjoy every interaction. “Great to see you again!” he shouts at Tulani Hasan, dock worker who filmed a commercial for him. Then he pulls her in for a selfie.

How much does identity matter in Maryland?

One factor why Trone has spent so much money is that he faces significant headwinds convincing voters he can represent Maryland.

There are no women in Maryland’s current congressional delegation. Maryland has never elected a Black person to the U.S. Senate. And only two Black women have ever been elected to the U.S. Senate. Alsobrooks has appealed to voters to change that history in a state where more than 3 in 10 residents are Black and that just elected a Black governor and attorney general.

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Prince George's County Executive Angela Alsobrooks is attempting to become the first Black person from Maryland to be elected to the U.S. Senate. (Kylie Cooper/The Baltimore Banner)

The idea of representative representation appeals to Joanna Snyder. The 46-year-old curriculum specialist from Silver Spring supports Alsobrooks and hopes she can beat Hogan, whom she said she “would like not to have to see making decisions for our state anymore.”

”I would love to see a woman of color as a senator for our state.” Snyder said. " I think that is long overdue.”

Trone has made unforced mistakes that have undermined his pitch.

Last month, Trone apologized for using a racial slur during a budget hearing. He said he misspoke and meant to use another word.

“Regardless of what I meant to say, I shouldn’t have used that language and I apologize,” Trone said in a statement.

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But Trone bristles when asked if Alsobrooks would be the more vociferous advocate for reproductive rights. His foundation helped to fund an abortion clinic near Cumberland after the overturning of Roe v. Wade shut down options for women in neighboring West Virginia. Trone cut the ribbon; it’s one of several times, he pointed out, that he’s been out front on the issue.

“If you look at my record on abortion, anytime anyone’s asked me to do anything, I do it,” he said.

That’s what won Sharon Blugis over. The longtime Anne Arundel County activist said she’d planned to support Alsobrooks until she heard Trone speak.

“It wouldn’t be fair to write him off as an older white man, because that’s identity politics too,” Blugis said. “And that is what it is going to take to beat Hogan, so I am grateful for it now.”

Maryland voters will have reproductive rights on their minds — an amendment will be on the ballot to enshrine abortion rights in the state constitution. Hogan has said previously that abortion should be left to the states. But, if Hogan helps Republicans win a Senate majority, they could take up an abortion ban. Hogan has declined to say how he would vote on such a ban.

Both Trone and Alsobrooks have said they support a woman’s right to choose her reproductive path, whether it be abortion or in vitro fertilization. But Lori Richards said she believes Trone will do everything he can to protect that right. A Garrett County resident, Richards was one of several women who formed the Mountain Maryland Alliance for Reproductive Freedom, which opened the Cumberland clinic so that women would not have to drive two hours or more to Hagerstown for reproductive care.

In 23 instances, she said, Trone voted in favor of abortion rights, and he has worked to protect the right for women to choose reproductive freedom at every turn. While Alsobrooks says she’s pro-abortion rights, Richards said, she’s left wondering if the county executive would be a warrior on the cause as Trone has been. On the day they opened the clinic, she said, men with bullhorns were shouting that she and her friends were going to go to hell. Trone took the stage in defense of abortion rights and drowned out the bullhorns.

“I see real results from him,” she said. “I don’t want to just trust. I have to know it’s one of the most important issues for our senator.”

Trone built a network of endorsements

Most of the Maryland congressional delegation, including Sen. Chris Van Hollen, has endorsed Alsobrooks. Retiring Rep. Dutch Ruppersberger has endorsed Trone, as did House Minority Leader Hakeem Jeffries. U.S. Sen. Ben Cardin, whose retirement after three terms set up the Senate race, has not endorsed anyone.

Trone hasn’t been shy in touting his other endorsements, especially those from Prince George’s County. Among the most prominent is Attorney General Anthony Brown, who represented Prince George’s County as a congressman and delegate. Brown, a former lieutenant governor, offers a full-throated endorsement of Trone on a television ad. Brown said his decision was easy, even though he knows and likes Alsobrooks.

“David enjoys the work. Every day, in Congress, you are in the trenches. It’s messy and it’s difficult, and he rolls up his sleeves and gets it done. That guy works harder than any other member of Congress,” Brown said. “David was always there, a true partner.”

Others who have endorsed Trone include Baltimore state Sen. Jill P. Carter, Prince George’s County Sen. Joanne Benson and Del. Joseline A. Peña-Melnyk, who represents parts of Anne Arundel and Prince George’s counties. They are all Black women.

“You have to look at people’s track record,” said Benson, who has known Trone well throughout her 30 years in Annapolis. “He has not sat back to wait for things to happen. He has gone and made that happen. He has a reputation for looking out for the little people, and that is what I like.”

David Trone chats with attendees at Urban Reads Bookstore and My Mama’s Vegan after a panel on reentry programs in February. (Taneen Momeni / For The Baltimore Banner)

Benson also appreciates Trone’s experience over the past six years. “Capitol Hill is not new to him,” she said. “We need someone like that. He knows how to make friends and influence people.”

Peña-Melnyk said she once supported Alsobrooks but switched to Trone. As a Black Latina, she said, she was bothered that Alsobrooks had no Latino representation in her cabinet. With Trone, she said, “I feel like I fit in his big tent.” After the debate, she grabbed him for a hug and whispered, “I’m so proud of you.”

In recent days Trone’s campaign has begun running an ad critical of Alsobrooks featuring Prince George’s elected officials.

Trone has donated to the campaigns of many who have endorsed him, contributing hundreds of thousands of dollars to national Democratic campaigns and dozens of federal and state Democrats. Though Alsobrooks, and many others, have criticized Trone for what may become the most expensive race in state history, Carter thinks his self-funding makes him more independent.

“I trust him a little more to do what’s right as opposed to what he might be told to do,” she said.

Even some of those who endorsed Alsobrooks do not begrudge Trone for a spirited and expensive race. Former Prince George’s County Executive Rushern Baker said he thinks the money Trone has spent on the race will make whoever wins a better candidate against Hogan.

“You want people to be tested,” Baker said of the contested primary. “The times we’ve tried to clear the way for a favorite, that’s never worked out.”

That history, indirectly, may have led to Hogan’s political career. After Republican Robert Ehrlich upset then-Lt. Gov. Kathleen Kennedy Townsend in the 2002 governor’s race, he hired Hogan as his appointments secretary — laying groundwork that paid off in Hogan’s 2014 gubernatorial victory.

Rona Kobell is a regional reporter at The Banner focused on Baltimore County.

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