In a congressional primary where policy differences appear to be few, and where the ability to mobilize supporters looms large, Democrat David Trone’s presence in the race for Maryland’s open 6th District seat has emerged as perhaps the defining element of the campaign.At a recent candidate forum, at Gaithersburg High School, Trone was the only office-seeker to draw a candidate-specific question. In fact, he drew several during the 90-minute event, from both on-stage rivals and members of the audience. The most common criticisms involve his campaign spending (mega-millions, from his personal fortune), his home (which is located outside the district he seeks to represent), and his experience in politics (none, save for his second-place finish in the 8th District primary two years ago).The attacks are not unexpected, and Trone handles them professionally, offering crisp rebuttals without seeming offended, alarmed or even mildly irritated. And he makes frequent references to the departing incumbent congressman, “my friend John Delaney,” another deep-pocketed Democrat with a business background who also lives outside the contours of the Maryland 6th. The 6th District Democratic candidates. Left to right: David Trone, Del. Aruna Miller, Andrew Duck, George English, Chris Hearsey, Nadia Hashimi and state Sen. Roger Manno. Photo by Bruce DePuyt “We’re going to always take the high road,” he told the audience after one query. “We’re going to always talk about policy over politics, and I know the 6th District is going to vote for the best person, not a ZIP code,” a line that drew applause. “It clearly is part of the dynamic,” said D. Bruce Poole, former chairman of the Maryland Democratic Party and former state legislator from Western Maryland. “He’s getting banged on for not living in the district, not knowing the district and spending a lot of money.”“On the other hand, he’s got a strong presence, and I think he’s having an effect with at least some of that money,” said the former Washington County lawmaker, who is neutral in the contest. “The guy was very successful as a businessman, so he certainly is no fool.”Trone, the head of the Total Wine & More liquor chain, spent more than $12 million of his own money in 2016, coming in second to now-U.S. Rep. Jamie Raskin in the 8th District primary. Now Trone is among eight Democrats and four Republicans vying for the open seat, and again he is self-funding with a vengeance, hiring staff and buying lots of media time. “There’s a lot of similarities across the board,” Hood College political science professor Carin Robinson said of the Democratic field. “So, some media outlets are picking up on David Trone and highlighting [his wealth], which is perpetuating the narrative of.. can David Trone ‘buy’ this seat or not?”The other candidates in the race are struggling not to appear miffed by the man with the money, not always successfully.“I actually live in the district,” said Del. Aruna Miller (D) tartly, adding, “I’ve taken a pledge that I will not accept any corporation PAC money. This is what it’s about – this congressional seat belongs to the people.”State Sen. Roger Manno (D), upon greeting a Trone staffer, said “it must be nice to be able to do daily tracking polls,” a claim the aide denied.Andrew J. Duck, the party’s nominee against former Rep. Roscoe G. Bartlett (R) in 2006 and 2010, waited all of 10 seconds to go after Trone in his opening statement. “If you’re tired of millionaires who are trying to buy a seat, if you’re tired of a political establishment that’s giving $6.5 billion to the wealthiest man on earth, I’m going to offer you a better choice,” he said, appearing to lump Trone with billionaire Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos. Adding to the opponents’ angst, observers say, is that Trone is an improved candidate from two years ago.“I think he’s gotten better,” said Poole. “Seeing Aruna and seeing Roger, they both already had a veteran’s handle on how to work a room and how to speak, but David has definitely improved his game.”“Oh, definitely,” said Sen. Nancy J. King (D-Montgomery), a friend of both lawmakers who endorsed Trone last week. “He’s taken the time to get to know people and I think he understands the issues a whole lot better. He’s got the right team and it helps.”To combat the rich-guy label that opponents have and will continue to apply, Trone makes sure his life story is front and center at events, having apparently learned the TV-newsperson trick of dropping the occasional verb to save time. “I grew up on a farm, a chicken farm, worked hard. We shoveled a lot of manure. …. My father had some personal problems, and the farm failed. The banks took our farm. The banks took our home.”“My mom and I and the younger siblings and I started over again. I went to graduate school on student loans, and began to build a business from zero, unlike the guy in the White House. We understand what hard work is. We understand what it takes, new ideas, embracing change, those are things that we need — a disruptor in Washington.”Many of the Democrats highlight their life story: Miller, an immigrant who became a transportation engineer; George English, an economist with numerous degrees; Duck, an energy company official with a distinguished military resume; Chris Hearsey, an aerospace engineer whose father died of a drug overdose; Manno, whose father’s death inspired him to pursue a career in health policy where he helped President Obama shape landmark legislation in 2009; and Nadia Hashimi, a pediatrician and novelist daughter of immigrants.Poole, the former party chairman, said the unusual timing of the primary — late June — keeps this a wide-open race.“I won’t say we’re in the home stretch, but right now coming out of the back [stretch], we’re down to three horses. That’s Aruna and David and Roger, that’s where it stands now. … I think it’s a race that could really surprise people, just because it’s a matter of who really has the ability to get their votes to the polls.”[email protected]
Bruce DePuyt spent nearly three decades on local television, including 14 years as executive producer and host of News Talk on NewsChannel 8 in the Washington, D.C., area. He has served as reporter, anchor and producer/host of 21 This Week in Montgomery County and as reporter/anchor at NBC affiliate WVIR-TV in Charlottesville, Va. He’s a regular contributor to WTOP (103.5 FM) and frequently moderates community and political events.