David Trone Lobbies To Protect Total Wine Empire. Small Businesses are Crying Foul.

Maryland Senate hopeful has poured $79 million into his own campaigns since 2016

David Trone in 2009 (Sean Naber/Wikimedia Commons)
February 28, 2024

Rep. David Trone, the Democratic frontrunner in the race for Maryland's open Senate seat, is throwing his weight behind a bill that could earn him millions of dollars by crushing mom-and-pop liquor stores across the state.

Total Wine & More, the nationwide $2.2 billion chain Trone owns with his brother Robert, is lobbying for a bill that would let individuals in Maryland hold up to four liquor licenses. Currently, the state allows just one license per person. Trone's small-business competitors say the measure, if passed, would enable Total Wine to dominate the market with its outsized buying power and potentially run them out of business.

Trone holds the liquor license for Total Wine's Towson, Md., location, which earned him up to $5 million in 2022, financial disclosures show. Robert Trone holds the license to the state's other Total Wine location.

Trone, who earned $42 million from Total Wine and other investments in 2022, has used his wealth to fuel his political career. He poured over $56 million into congressional campaigns between 2016 and 2022 and loaned an additional $23 million to his 2023 Senate campaign. Trone's wealth could prove a sticking point in a tight race against former Maryland governor Larry Hogan (R.), who took a swipe at Trone during a Monday visit to an independent liquor store.

"Stopped by Mills Fine Wine and Spirits in downtown Annapolis," Hogan posted on X, formerly Twitter. "Right now, politicians in Annapolis are pushing a bill that would benefit one billionaire at the expense of small business owners across the state like Jerry and Jen Donahoe. Our small business owners deserve leaders who will stand with them. That's what I did as governor, and that's exactly what I will do in the Senate."

Maryland State Licensed Beverage Association lobbyist Steven Wise warned during a Feb. 19 hearing of the Maryland House's Economic Matters Committee that "this bill does have a pretty significant impact on the industry."

"Total Wine, which is asking you for this bill," Wise said, "they're [a] very good, very good, very smart business."

Wise urged legislators to oppose the bill, saying it would enable Total Wine to access volume discounts at a level that would be "damaging to the smaller independent retailer[s]" his organization represents.

Trone contributed $2,000 to the bill's primary sponsor, state delegate David Fraser-Hidalgo (D.), in December. Total Wine lobbyist Ashlie Bagwell testified in support of the bill during the Feb. 19 House hearing, saying it would bring Maryland's laws in line with those of neighboring states.

Though Trone says he relinquished day-to-day control over Total Wine after he won his first term in the House in 2018, he hasn’t shied away from putting his thumb on the scale for Total Wine while serving in Congress. In 2022, Trone poured $1 million in support of a Colorado ballot initiative that would have loosened liquor licensing laws in the state. The measure failed on a 2-1 margin, Maryland Matters reported.

The Trone campaign did not return a request for comment.