Pagnucco on Trone

The following is by Adam Pagnucco:

The shadow of Total Wine co-owner David Trone has loomed large over CD8 since the day he got in the race.  Rivals fear his apparently limitless self-funding.  His opponents say they are “fighting big bullies” and “under fire from big money.”  Their supporters perceive Trone as a Potomac plutocrat bossing, blustering and buying his way into office.  Laptops and smartphones groan under the weight of his omnipresent digital ads, begging their owners to be shut off until after the election is over.

So who is this guy and why is he running for Congress?

In person, David Trone is a disarming character, far different from what one might expect of a wealthy, Wharton-educated CEO.  He is by turns ebullient, gregarious, intense, and blunt.  He possesses all the nuance of a nose tackle on the goal line.  Argue with him and you will get a roaring laugh and a jabbing index finger.  Trone’s political mastermind, Andrew Friedson, is no doubt trying to smooth out these edges.  Earth to Friedson: it’s not gonna take!

Understanding Trone requires appreciation of two key aspects of his life experience.

  1. He sees himself as an underdog even if others do not.

Trone called himself an underdog as he launched his campaign despite his nearly unlimited self-financing capacity.  This is a recurring theme in his life.  Trone’s father held a number of occupations before buying a farm and ultimately losing it due to alcoholism, leading to divorce and economic hardship for his family.  Later, Trone put himself through Wharton with a combination of loans, selling eggs and running his first beer store when he was not in class.  (Once his chickens caught avian flu and died, Trone concentrated solely on beer.)  These were clear disadvantages compared to Trone’s privileged, blue-blood classmates who aspired to be the next Gordon Gekko.  Trone may be wealthy now, but his mentality remains that of the I’ll-show-you Pennsylvania farm boy who surpassed his supposed betters.  That mentality gives him the edge he uses to win.

  1. He relishes disruption.

In certain localities, the alcohol retail industry behaves like a political-economic oligopoly in which trade associations collude with politicians to draft anti-competitive laws, thus benefiting both of them.  Trone ran into this shortly after he opened his first beer store in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania and began advertising his low prices.  His competitors persuaded the state legislature to outlaw the practice and Trone was arrested.  The law was thrown out when the U.S. Supreme Court ruled against a similar law in Rhode Island.  Trone is frequently opposed by native competitors when he attempts to expand into new markets, including Minnesota, Texas and Connecticut.  One local trade association even drafted a handbook on how to compete with him.  A state bill designed to keep him from expanding is now pending in Tennessee.

Trone is detested by his competitors across the nation, and he wears that as a badge of honor.  His business model combining low prices, large selection and highly trained customer service is massively disruptive, forcing his competitors to step up their game or shut down.  Trone’s view of the American political system is shaped by this experience.  Like local alcohol markets, he sees Congress as a place that is dominated by an iron cartel of special interests and venal politicians that ultimately does not deliver on behalf of constituents.  Trone has disrupted the alcohol business, and now he wants to disrupt politics.

How would he do this?  Trone waxes nostalgic for the days when members of Congress formed friendships with each other regardless of party and figured out how to move the ball forward.  He estimates that he has stores in 101 Congressional Districts and engages in significant charitable activity in all of them, thereby creating some commonality with colleagues on either side of the aisle.  Impervious to the constraints of fundraising and party hierarchy, he is not subject to the typical factors that whip House members into line behind their leadership.  Trying to intimidate him would be like trying to stop a rhino with a peashooter, as many competitors have learned to their detriment.  Trone’s beliefs in independence, relationship building, working with the opposite party, negotiation and common interest may seem naïve by today’s standards, but does anyone believe that the perpetual partisan warfare now in Congress benefits the country?

Trone is vulnerable on the issue of money and political influence.  Trone the businessman frequently hires lobbyists and makes political contributions to battle his competitors, who of course do the exact same things.  A notable example is in Connecticut, where he is trying to throw out a state law that sets minimum prices for alcohol.  (Can there be anything more odious to consumers?)  Trone the candidate takes credit for helping consumers in his mail, but decries the use of lobbyists and political contributions which he himself has employed as a businessman.  Trone declares on his website without a trace of irony, “I have learned firsthand the problems with political donations.”  We bet he has!  Trone’s opponents are sure to accuse him of wanting to have this issue both ways and he needs a convincing comeback to use in his defense.

In the eyes of the local political establishment, perhaps the most disquieting aspect of Trone is that he has defied the customary ways of moving up in MoCo politics.  Most people who aspire to elected office here rise up through the party precinct structure, the civic community, county advisory committees and/or political-governmental staff positions.  They go to event after event, network with the similarly ambitious, defer to those who require it and go for smaller positions before trying for bigger ones.  Congress is regarded as at or near the top of the heap.  Trone the disrupter eschews all of this, preferring to spend millions on TV and mail rather than kissing political rings.  A not insignificant portion of anti-Trone sentiment from local Democratic activists derives from his failure to pay his dues.  “You can’t do that!” they say.  But David Trone does what he wants and it has been that way ever since he was a young man, selling eggs and dreaming of better things.

David Trone has disrupted the alcohol business.  He has disrupted the CD8 race.  Will he get a chance to disrupt Congress?  That’s up to you, the voters, to decide.