A year after his surprise entry into the arena of electoral politics—finishing in the runner-up position in a nine-way Democratic primary for Congress in District 8—Total Wine & More co-owner David Trone said Friday he is “focused very heavily right now” on exploring a race for county executive in 2018.
“I’m looking at the county executive race, and we’re working to try and do really some good listening to understand what the issues are and what concerns the voters in Montgomery County,” Trone said, adding that he has been meeting with current and former county officials as well as business and community groups. He also confirmed a report late last week that he is polling on the race; the polling has not yet been completed, Trone said.
While saying he has no “hard timetable” on reaching a decision on a county executive race—and occasionally conditioning his responses with “if I decide to run”—Trone frequently sounded like he was already a candidate during a half-hour telephone interview. “The county needs new leadership, and we need change,” he declared. “We need someone who wants to embrace change, who wants new ideas—and that’s my real focus right now.”
Trone also downplayed widespread speculation in local political circles that he is exploring two other political options: a run for the District 6 congressional seat next year if U.S. Rep. John Delaney, D-Potomac, runs for governor, or a Trone bid for the governorship if Delaney opts not to get into that race.
“John Delaney is an awesome congressman, and right now, everything he has said is that he is planning to run again,” Trone said. “If for some reason, John would change his mind, that’s something to think about—a bridge to cross down the road.” As for making his own run for governor if Delaney doesn’t, Trone said, “We’ve made no comments to anybody, anywhere about the governor’s race, other than I read something in The Washington Post about it.” He said he has no current plans to conduct polling for any possible races other than county executive.
Trone is among at least eight contenders for county executive who are either running or closely looking at a candidacy in 2018, when County Executive Ike Leggett will retire after three terms.
Three County Council members—Roger Berliner, Marc Elrich and George Leventhal—are barred from seeking re-election as a result of last November’s term limits referendum, and are considered all but certain candidates for the executive’s job. Others known to be seriously exploring a bid include County Council member Craig Rice, former County Council member and business executive Mike Knapp, state Del. Ben Kramer and former Kensington Mayor Peter Fosselman.
Trone would bring more than deep pockets to a county executive race; he pumped $13.4 million of his personal fortune into last year’s race for Congress, an all-time national record. His interest in the contest also comes at a time when some segments of the county business community are actively seeking to identify and recruit a candidate with a background in business and management who will focus on growing the county’s tax base.
If he runs, Trone is expected to tout his record of building Total Wine & More into the country’s largest privately held retailer of alcoholic beverages, with sales last year in excess of $2.5 billion.
“I started a business with nothing, zero, and have been able to build a multibillion dollar business,” Trone declared. “As a progressive Democrat, I’m very pro-government, but at the same time…we need to be pro-business, because business creates the jobs and most importantly the better jobs—and if we have the better jobs, we can fund the transportation [projects], we can fund the schools we need.”
He is also likely to position himself as a political outsider, critical of the pace of government and those who now run it. “I think right now county government is way too much about process, and not enough about results,” Trone said. “My business career is all about finding solutions.”
Saying he had “strongly supported term limits” in last year’s referendum, Trone complained: “The current County Council just goes back and forth, back and forth. None of them has ever been an executive. All they have managed to do is to vote themselves more pay increases and more pay increases—and raise taxes.”
Trone confirmed he has been holding discussions about the possibility of putting together a slate of council candidates who would run with him. Slates have been a relative rarity in county elections in recent years; the last previous instance occurred in 2002, when then-County Executive Doug Duncan put together the “End Gridlock” slate favoring the building of the Intercounty Connector and other road projects.
“I have not made a decision on which way to go,” Trone said of a possible slate, while adding: “It makes a lot of sense to put together a slate. We certainly have been talking to a number of folks about that concept. Most people agree that we need some new blood, and, with term limits the opportunity is there. And certainly, if I do indeed run, I’m hoping to get a lot accomplished—and the key to that is to have a council that sees the same vision and embraces change.”
While not saying how much of his personal funds he might be prepared to spend in a race for county executive, Trone did indicate he would be more reliant this time on outside contributions if he runs. Of the $13.4 million he spent on his run for the District 8 congressional nomination, all but about $6,700 was self-funded by Trone.
“Whatever decision I make, I am not going to 100 percent self-fund,” Trone said. “We will figure out what groups we will not take funding from—because we’re not looking to be influenced by anybody, but we do want to hear [from] everybody … . Our focus is going to be again on the small donor, the $50-, $100-type donor. It sends a message that there are a lot of folks here that are involved and supporting new ideas, supporting change.”
The amount of Trone’s self-funding became an issue in last year’s Democratic primary, in which he finished second to now-U.S. Rep. Jamie Raskin. Asked if he regretted not making more of an effort to raise outside donations in that race, Trone said: “In retrospect, that would have been a better way to go about it. My focus was so driven, to make a clear statement that all I wanted to do was get it right for the voter—and not have anybody have any type of influence. I think it would have been better to involve more people, and that’s the way I’m going to go this time.”