Attendees of a fundraiser for Lt.Gov. Anthony Brown in Potomac Tuesday night probably gave more thought to getting to rub elbows and maybe get a selfie with former President Bill Clinton.
But those who pay $1,000 to $4,000 for the honor will probably give less thought to David Trone, who hosted the event in his Potomac home.
Trone, along with his brother Robert Trone, owns Total Wine & Spirits, a Maryland-based national company that has donated more than $200,000 to political candidates since 2011 — much of it to Brown, his running mate, Howard County Executive Ken Ulman, and state Comptroller Peter V.R. Franchot. The big-ticket event Tuesday also highlights Trone’s growing political activism inside and outside Maryland and comes at a time when the company has been seeking to change some liquor laws that would benefit the business.
The event drew the attention of members of the Maryland Licensed Beverage Association who have at times opposed Trone’s attempts to expand his liquor superstore empire.
“He’s gotten very active in the last few years,” said Jack Milani, legislative chair for the Maryland State Licensed Beverage Association and the owner of Monaghan’s Pub in Woodlawn.
Attempts to interview David Trone were unsuccessful.
Edward Cooper, a spokesman for Total Wine & Spirits, acknowledged Trone’s political activity at home and in other states. He said the efforts pursued by the company not only make good business sense for the company but also are attuned to consumer desires.
“We know that if we’re with the customer, we’re going to win,” Cooper said.
Since the start of the current election cycle that began in 2011, companies owned by Potomac-based Total Wine & More have donated $215,200 to candidates in Maryland, according to campaign finance reports filed with the Maryland State Board of Elections.
Much of that —$74,000 — has gone directly to the individual coffers of Brown’s campaign and that of Ulman. Franchot, whose office enforces state liquor law and collects related taxes, received $40,500 since 2011, according to state records.
All of the donations, given through multiple companies controlled by Total Wine & Spirits and registered at the company’s Potomac headquarters, are legal.
A spokesman for Brown said there is no link between the fundraiser and potential changes in the state liquor laws.
“Nope – fundraisers are about the campaign and have nothing to do with governing,” Schall said in an email.
He declined to answer questions about Brown’s positions on either expanding the number of licenses that can be held by an individual or expanded Sunday liquor sales.
The state licensed beverage association also donates, mostly to legislators, and in smaller amounts. Milani said he understands his group cannot match Trone’s deep pockets on a dollar-for-dollar basis.
“Our donations are the result of hundreds of licensees across the state pooling money, not one guy writing a check,” Milani said. “It’s a David and Goliath issue here.”
Still, Milani said he believes the activities of the association would not go unnoticed.
“I’d like to believe the governor would return our calls because he knows we represent thousands of Marylanders who operate independent businesses,” Milani said.
Political activity is not new to the Trone brothers, the sole owners of Total Wine & More, a national chain with 110 stores in 16 states including two in Maryland, and its marketing arm, Retail Services and Systems.
Over the last few years the company has been involved in efforts to end government-controlled liquor sales in Washington state and expand Sunday sales in Georgia. It also lobbied the state legislature in South Carolina to pass laws allowing the sale of beer with higher percentages of alcohol.
In Maryland, the company filed a federal lawsuit against Maryland claiming that state laws prohibiting discounts based on volume sales amounted to a restraint of free trade. A federal appeals court ultimately agreed.
In recent years, Trone has hired lobbyists to seek changes allowing he and his brother to own more then once license — David Trone is the license holder for the store in Towson while Robert Trone is the licensee for the Laurel location. The group also met with the Baltimore County delegation to the General Assembly as part of an effort to encourage opening the county up to expanded Sunday sales.
“We are active and involved,” said Edward Cooper, a spokesman for the company.
This was the second time former President Clinton, who was a last minute fill-in for his wife and presumed presidential candidate Hillary Clinton, has come to Maryland to support Brown’s gubernatorial campaign.
The May fundraiser, held weeks before the June primary election, netted Brown about $1 million. A similar return could provide a much-needed boost to Brown as the campaign enters the final month.