Democrats running for office in Montgomery County know they have to bring their A-game to Leisure World. The Silver Spring senior community of 8,000 is packed with active, knowledgeable voters who faithfully turn out for elections. It is a tough crowd, even for a seasoned politician.
Former news anchor Kathleen Matthews and wine retailer David Trone, two first-time candidates in the contest for Maryland’s 8th District Democratic congressional nomination, found out just how tough at a Valentine’s Day reception Sunday afternoon. Matthews and Trone, two of the three leading contenders in the April 26 primary, fielded two hours of often-blunt questions about their qualifications for office.
On Trone’s maiden voyage into the race:
Trone, making his first appearance at a candidate forum since entering the race Jan. 27 with a vow to self-fund his campaign, is one of the Democratic Party’s most prolific fundraisers at the national level. He explained that the money to the GOP was simply the cost of doing business in many of the red states where his company, Total Wine & More, operates.
“My business interests are different than my personal interests,” Trone said, adding that he had “no connection whatsoever on a personal basis” with the Republican candidates. His only objective, he said, was to expand markets for his stores.
“If you want to get anything accomplished, you want anything done in the state of Texas or South Carolina or North Carolina — and all the things you’ve gotten done are very pro-customer and narrow focus — you have to work with Republicans and Democrats,” he said.
On the absence of prior legislative experience of both Trone and Matthews:
Others asked Matthews and Trone how, in the absence of legislative records, their merits as candidates could be assessed. And why, questioners wondered, hadn’t they paid their dues by starting political careers at the board of education or county council?
“We might not all have legislative records, but we have records,” said Matthews, a former WJLA anchor and Marriott executive. “Twenty-five years on television night after night covering your stories and gaining your trust.” She also spoke of her decade as a top communications and government relations executive at Marriott, during which, she said, she moved a good but conservative company toward more enlightened approaches to the environment and treatment of LGBT employees and customers.
Trone delivered probably his strongest response of the day, asking Leisure World residents, in essence: How have career politicians been working out for you?
“So maybe we might argue that it’s a good thing to be coming from outside the process and bringing some fresh ideas, some willingness to have change,” Trone said. “Change can be a really good thing. But if you just keep having the same old, same old, we’re going to get the same old results, which are deplorable.”
Peck’s assessment was very similar.
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.
Both journalists noted the sharp response to Trone from fellow candidate Joel Rubin.
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.”
Trone wasn’t backing down. In one of his best moments in the debate, Trone responded to yet another question about his lack of legislative experience.
“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.”
A few comments from me. The line of people asking questions, and the crowd, were clearly slanted in favor of Jamie Raskin. That’s fine, but asking the same question over and over again got monotonous and repetitive. Some of the questions were borderline rude. And the assumption that the only appropriate background for a congressional candidate is as a state legislator is both skewed to Raskin and factually unsupported. No, neither Trone nor Matthews have legislative experience, but then again, neither do 212 current member of the US House and 56 US Senators, according to the National Council of State Legislatures. And the range of prior experience of representatives is very broad, as this report details.
There are good arguments for any number of candidates in this race. But Raskin supporters would do well to abandon the oft-stated belief that the candidacies of Matthews and Trone are illegitimate because they didn’t take the same path as their preferred candidate. It does their candidate no favors and it flies in the face of the actual membership of the current Congress. Both journalists and business executives are represented in the above list. That’s not to say that either Matthews or Trone should be elected - but simply to say that it’s not some bizarre and unprecedented idea if one or the other of them does win.