The Maryland wine mogul who is staking his fortune on reaching Capitol Hill
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Interview'Israel has a right to decide where their capital is'

The Maryland wine mogul who is staking his fortune on reaching Capitol Hill

David Trone broke a record for self-funding his first Congressional bid in 2016. Now he’s running again and support for Israel is etched firmly into his platform

Eric Cortellessa covers American politics for The Times of Israel.

David Trone, right, owner of wine superstore chain Total Wine and More, greets commuters at the Shady Grove Metro station, in Derwood, Md., on Wednesday, April 20, 2016. (AP Photo/Brian Witte)
David Trone, right, owner of wine superstore chain Total Wine and More, greets commuters at the Shady Grove Metro station, in Derwood, Md., on Wednesday, April 20, 2016. (AP Photo/Brian Witte)

WASHINGTON — David Trone thinks the second time’s the charm.

After an unsuccessful bid for Congress in 2016, the wine magnate decided to ante up again in 2018, running in an adjacent Maryland district. And just like he did in the 2016 race, he’s pumping in a lot of his own money.

Trone, a Democrat who founded Total Wine & More, the largest retailer of fine wine in the United States, became known for spending more than $13 million in 2016, making him the biggest self-funder for a Congressional primary in American history.

Then Rep.-elect Jamie Raskin, D-Md., right, Rep.-elect Anthony Brown, D-Md., second from right, and others, arrive for a newly-elected House members freshman class photo on the Capitol steps, Tuesday, Nov. 15, 2016, in Washington. (AP Photo/Andrew Harnik)

Thus far into his current campaign, he’s funneled roughly $2.3 million, according to the latest campaign finance report. But he’s also taking individual donations this time around, which he said was a lesson he learned from losing two years ago to Rep. Jamie Raskin, who raised just $1.2 million but mobilized a strong base of grassroots support.

“That was a mistake I made in 2016,” Trone recently told The Times of Israel in a lengthy interview conducted shortly after his return from a busy trip to Israel. “People want to write a check and be part of a movement.”

Trone has raised nearly $247,000 in outside contributions so far this time. But one of the main critiques he still faces revolve around the checks he writes to others, not the ones others write to him.

I’m not beholden to anybody

In the last two months, he received the endorsements of two Maryland politicians to whom he’s donated tens of thousands of dollars. In February, Trone was endorsed by Prince George’s County Executive Rushern Baker, who’s running for governor and whose campaign has received $39,000 from the Trone family. Last week, he was endorsed by Rep. Anthony Brown, to whom Trone has donated $35,000 since 2015.

All have denied the money had anything to do with the announcements. But for some, the connection seems too suspicious, especially for someone who already has the reputation of a pay-to-play politician.

“I think it’s a positive thing that we’re willing to put our own resources to win and do something to make the world a better place,” Trone said, when asked about his self-funding. “That’s a good thing. But the competition tries to portray that as not a good thing.”

The upside, he argued, is that he doesn’t need to take money from political special interest groups. “I’m not beholden to anybody,” he said.

And yet, not everybody is convinced. A high-level Maryland Democratic political operative who declined to go on the record told The Times of Israel: “Trone’s like the high school kid who always pays for the other kid because he wants him to be his friend.”

Trone’s Jewish family

Since growing up on his father’s chicken and hog farm in southeast Pennsylvania, David Trone has aspired to ascend Capitol Hill. “My dream was to be the congressman from York and Adams counties,” he said of his youth.

The farm had 55,000 chickens and 600 hogs on 200 acres. That was, until his father went bankrupt and lost it. Trone said that was a consequence of his father drinking too much.

“It was a difficult situation seeing the farm business failing and being unable to stop it,” he said. “I attempted to work with the banks and I was unsuccessful, because of my dad’s alcoholism.” His parents then divorced.

Asked if there was any link between watching his father suffering from alcoholism and his getting into the alcohol business, Trone insisted there wasn’t.

My dream was to be the congressman from York and Adams counties

“No, no, not at all,” he said. “I think there’s a tremendous link, the fact of how we realize that alcohol is a dangerous substance and that we have to be the leaders in the country to encourage responsible drinking and no sales to minors.”

But it was during his time on the farm when he came to idealize his congressman, the late Republican Bob Goodling. Trone fantasized about developing his father’s egg business into a success and then succeeding Goodling in the House of Representatives.

Last year, he mulled running for Montgomery County Executive in this cycle, but once the Sixth District seat opened up, with its current occupant John Delaney running for president, Trone pounced at the opportunity. He said he was seeking that job instead because it would allow him to address issues that “afflict the country.”

He also wants to have a voice on foreign policy, which is one of the reasons he visited Israel last month as his campaign prepares to ramp up. The Democratic primary is on June 26.

Democratic Maryland congressional candidate and wine mogul David Trone visits the Western Wall in Jerusalem with his wife June (Courtesy).

Trone’s trip was his second to the country, but this time he went with his wife June, who is Jewish. Trone grew up Lutheran —  “I was actually an altar boy” — but had no qualms raising his children in the Jewish faith.

He met June while they were both in the MBA program at the University of Pennsylvania’s Wharton School of Business. “She made it very clear that if we’re getting married, the children are going to be raised Jewish,” he said. “I was absolutely fine with that, so I no longer attend Lutheran services.”

They now belong to a Reform synagogue in Rockville, Maryland, just outside of Washington, D.C., where all four of their children had bar or bat mitzvahs. Two have gone on Birthright trips.

Trone’s first excursion to the Jewish state was in 1999, when he travelled with 15 business leaders and met the late Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat, which he described as “surreal.”

A file picture taken in the West Bank city of Ramallah on June 7, 2002, shows Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat attending Friday Muslim prayers. (photo credit: AFP PHOTO / Thomas COEX)

“We took a small bus into Ramallah and went into his headquarters there,” he recalled. “Obviously, there were lots of guys with guns. It was like a fortified camp. We got to sit in a big boardroom with him — and a couple of large men flanking him with weapons — and just ask questions.”

Trone said Arafat spent most of that time complaining about Israel and the water situation, but there was one moment that sticks out in his memory.

“He had an interpreter,” Trone said. “But at one point, he didn’t like the interpreter, how he’d asked the question, so he broke out in English and yelled at him. So he’s sitting there getting everything interpreted, and yet he spoke pretty damn good English.”

Trone on Israel and Iran

If elected to Congress, Trone said he would vote in favor of the Taylor Force Act. The legislation would cut aid to the Palestinian Authority if it doesn’t halt its social welfare payments to the families of terrorists who kill Israelis.

He also said he supports the Israel Anti-Boycott Act, which was authored by Maryland Democratic Senator Ben Cardin and would ban Americans from joining boycotts against companies doing business in Israel.

Both of those bills are not universally accepted by Democrats and progressive groups. The American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) has vociferously opposed the latter as a violation of American’s First Amendment rights.

Trone is a major donor to the ACLU and counts its executive director, Anthony Romero, as one of his friends. He said Romero attended his children’s bar and bat mitzvahs. “We’re trying to figure out, working together, how his bill can get passed,” he said.

The Potomac, Maryland, resident said he was a supporter of the two-state solution, but insisted — a la Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu — that any Palestinian state would need to be demilitarized.

“We can’t have a militarized Palestinian state,” he said. “That’s not going to work. Think about the approach to Ben Gurion Airport. [Planes flying in and out of it are] coming right over the West Bank most of the time. That can’t work if they’re allowed to have rocket launchers and a military.”

He said he disagreed with US President Donald Trump’s decision to move the US embassy to Jerusalem under the circumstances he did, but not necessarily to formally recognize the holy city as Israel’s capital.

US President Donald Trump delivers a statement on Jerusalem from the Diplomatic Reception Room of the White House in Washington, DC, on December 6, 2017. (Saul Loeb/AFP)

“We shouldn’t have moved the embassy to Jerusalem at this particular time,” he said. “Israel has a right to decide where their capital is, their capital has always been Jerusalem. And that’s fine, but this was not the time to throw fuel on the fire and move the embassy.”

The Trump administration announced last month it would open its new embassy in May, to coincide with the 70th anniversary of Israel’s birth, which Palestinians took to be a provocation.

Trone diverged from the last Democratic president, Barack Obama, who put pressure on Israel to roll back its building of West Bank settlements, ultimately culminating in his allowing a UN Security Council resolution condemning the enterprise to pass.

Other presidents, including Republicans Ronald Reagan, George H.W. Bush and George W. Bush pushed Israel as well not to expand its presence in the West Bank.

“You don’t tell somebody else how to conduct their marriage,” Trone said.

“We can’t dictate to Israel how they have to run their country,” he continued. “And they don’t dictate to us how they run our country. I think that’s wrong. I think us telling them whether they can build settlements or not — that’s not our business.”

Trone also expressed disapproval of the 2015 Iran nuclear deal the Obama administration negotiated with world powers and Iran. “I would have voted against the deal,” he said.

Participants in the talks on the Iran nuclear deal pose for a group photo at the UN building in Vienna, Austria, on July 14, 2015. (Carlos Barria, Pool Photo via AP)

While he claimed he would now vote for a measure to amend the deal, as the Trump administration is demanding, he said it was imperative not to abrogate the accord outright.

“Now that it’s been made, we have to keep it and strengthen it,” he said. He expressed a desire to include into the agreement a ban on ballistic missile testing, increased access to Iran’s military sites and a  removal of the deal’s sunset provisions, which allow certain restrictions to expire.

“We don’t want to kill the deal. The deal is the best thing we have now,” he said. “It’s not a good deal, but we got it. So we have to make it stronger. We don’t want to throw it in the trash, because we’ve lost all of our leverage. The Europeans aren’t going to be with us. They’re working to do business and they’ve gone their own route.”

The business of politics

While in Israel, Trone also pursued some business interests, including visits to Israeli wineries whose products he sells in his stores. He said Total Wine buys 7,000 cases of wine from Israel each year for his nearly 175 stores, including from Barkan and Psagot wineries.

He is also working on importing Goldstar and Maccabee beer. They will test those in their top 30-40 stores, he said, starting in the next five to six months.

But he’s hoping to soon move on from the business of selling wine to that of passing laws. “I don’t need a job,” referring to his wealth. “I’ve had a great job at Total Wine and More.”

And while he’s spent a career hiring thousands to work at his stores, he now has to convince a plurality of Maryland’s Sixth District to hire him.

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