Describing himself as “the new guy in town,” David Trone Sunday participated in his first debate since jumping into the contest for the District 8 Democratic congressional nomination two weeks ago—and quickly found himself the object of pointed audience questions, as well as some direct and indirect barbs from rival candidates.
Barely had the eight candidates on stage at a gathering of the Leisure World Democratic Club in Silver Spring finished their opening statements when Trone faced a question about recent disclosures that he contributed more than $160,000 to Republican candidates around the country over a 15-year period.
“I have a question…and it’s a painful one, but it’s one that must be addressed,” Paul Bardack, a local Democratic activist and candidate for delegate in 2014, told Trone. “In recent years nationally, you have given a lot of money not only to Republicans, but to right-wing Republicans—and, indeed, you’ve done so in races, where there were competitive Democratic candidates. How does your nationwide support for right-wing Republicans translate to your desire to get the Democratic nomination for Congress here in Maryland?”
The co-owner of the Total Wine & More retail chain—which currently has more than 130 stores in 18 states—clearly was ready for the question, replying in measured tones, “My business interests are different than my personal interests.” That prompted scattered hisses from a packed auditorium that appeared to contain a significant contingent of supporters of one of Trone’s leading rivals, state Sen. Jamie Raskin of Takoma Park.
“So, with those candidates, I have no connection with them whatsoever on a personal basis,” Trone, a Potomac resident, continued, referring to the Republicans to whom he had contributed. “But on a business basis, if you want to work to get anything done in the state of Texas, or South Carolina or North Carolina—and all the things we have gotten done are very pro-consumer—you have to work with Republicans and Democrats.”
Trone also noted that he had “given millions” to the Democratic National Committee over the years, adding, “I was the largest DNC contributor in America last year.” Federal Election Commission reports show a $334,000 contribution last November from Trone to the Democratic Hope Fund, a joint enterprise of the DNC and President Obama’s campaign organization.
Trone’s response triggered an attack by another candidate, former State Department official Joel Rubin of Chevy Chase.
“With all due respect to Mr. Trone, what he described…is exactly what’s wrong with Washington. You do not need to be buying legislatures in order to get results,” Rubin declared. “You can make change in Washington if you fight for it. You don’t have to buy it, you have to work for it.”
But Trone utilized a series of subsequent audience questions—primarily aimed at him and former Marriott International executive Kathleen Matthews of Chevy Chase about their lack of prior experience in political office—to promote his outsider status in a contest that includes three incumbent state legislators.
“I don’t think having been part of the political process means you’re made to do a great job in the political process,” Trone said. “The approval rating [of Congress] is 14 percent. We might argue it’s a good thing to be coming from outside of the process, and bringing some fresh ideas. If we just keep having the same old, same old, we’re going to get the same old results—which are deplorable.”
For her part, Matthews—a reporter and anchor for Washington-based WJLA-TV before going to work at Marriott—repeatedly pointed to that experience as preparing her for political office. “I’m really proud to have served this community for 30 years as a television news journalist, telling you what was going on in your life, so you could cast smart votes every time there was an election,” she said.
Trone and Matthews were also called out by one questioner for having failed to vote in recent primary elections. Trone—who, according to voter registration rolls, did not vote in primaries in 2010 and 2012—did not reply directly, but Matthews issued an aggressive response to disclosures that she missed the 2012 and 2014 primaries.
“I have voted in every election [since 1974] except two primaries, when I had to go overseas to travel unexpectedly and didn’t have the opportunity…to be able to go vote in person or be able to do an absentee ballot. I will put that record out there with anybody,” she declared.
In addition to Matthews, Raskin, Rubin and Trone, the candidates at Sunday’s debate included veteran Dels. Kumar Barve of Rockville and Ana Sol Gutierrez of Chevy Chase, former White House aide Will Jawando of Silver Spring and David Anderson of Potomac, an official of a Washington-based seminar and internship program. Another candidate, former biotech industry official Dan Bolling of Bethesda, who entered the race just hours before the Feb. 3 filing deadline, was not present.
They are running in the April 26 primary in a heavily Democratic district centered in Montgomery County but that also includes portions of Frederick and Carroll counties. Rep. Chris Van Hollen is vacating the seat to run for Senate.
Trone entered the contest last month, and, to date, his self-funded campaign—including a 10-day TV ad blitz and two extensive mailings—appears to have spent more than his two leading rivals, Matthews and Raskin, have raised since announcing for the seat last spring.
It was therefore little surprise that campaign finance-related issues were a common theme in Sunday’s debate. “There are more millionaires in Congress than there have ever been—53 percent—so the common working person is not represented,” Jawando said.
Advocating a system of public financing in elections, Jawando—the only African-American in the contest—later added, “Ninety percent of our elected officials in this country are white. That’s not an accident. The people who have access to wealth, access to connections and power and money, are going to be the people who are in Congress under this current system.”
Complained Gutierrez, “Unfortunately, the media and the establishment look to measure candidates in terms of the money that they’ve raised. I still believe the voters are the ones that count, and that’s why I am running a true grassroots campaign—not running with money from outside our state and outside influences.”
At least in part, such a strategy appears to have been born of necessity. Announcing her candidacy last May, Gutierrez, the only Hispanic-American in the race, said: “This is a different campaign from what I have run before. I have access now to a national base of donors. I have been in touch with quite a few.” But subsequent FEC reports indicate her thinly funded candidacy has attracted little support from fellow Latinos outside the Washington area.
Anderson continued to seek to separate himself on policy from the rest of the field, asserting, “The bottom line is that I am the least liberal of the pack, but I am also the most inclusive. I am the anti-establishment candidate in this race.”
But, as with past debates, significant policy differences among the candidates were not easily discernible, with newcomer Trone—during a discussion of the minimum wage and health care policy—saying, “I’m certainly in agreement with 99 percent of everything that has been said.”
On the minimum wage, he echoed the other candidates’ calls for an increase. “It absolutely has to go up. It’s got to be indexed with inflation,” said Trone, who, with his brother Robert, owns the country’s largest privately held retailer of alcoholic beverages, with 5,000 employees.
Asked about his attitude toward labor unions, Trone replied, “Unions really had an important place in America when business treated the workers so unfairly.” He continued: “Our company is not unionized. Our company has never had anybody attempt to unionize [it] because we’re about family. We’re about people with really good wages, really good benefits—it’s a meritocracy. Everyone works together…as a team, as a family. I think that’s a pretty good model.”
Reflecting the debate in the Democratic presidential race between Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders over a possible move to a government-run, so-called single payer system of health care, some differences did emerge over that issue.
“I lived for a year in France. We saw a national single payer health care plan work in France, like in England, like in Germany, like in Canada…Let’s join the civilized world. Let’s get it done,” Raskin said emphatically to applause.
But Matthews responded, “I stand with Hillary Clinton on this issue—improving the system that we have, that President Obama fought so hard to get. We’re not going to get to single payer with the Congress we have now.”
Matthews joined Anderson, Rubin and Trone in saying they favored Clinton for the party’s presidential nomination. The other four candidates sidestepped the question, with Gutierrez saying “I haven’t made up my mind” and Jawando allowing he was “conflicted.”
Said Barve: “I would love to have the first female president of the United States, but I think Bernie Sanders gets it right when he talks about properly regulating Wall Street. I don’t think we’ve done enough to regulate Wall Street, and we run the risk of having another great recession because of it.”
Raskin, who has been endorsed by Congress’ Progressive Caucus—of which Sanders is a member—dodged the question with humor.
“As a middle child, I’m kind of feeling psychologically and emotionally that I would like to be in the role of bringing us all back together,” he said.