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March 02, 2022

How David Trone went from Total Wine to opioid opponent in Congress

Credit: Roll Call, Jim Saska

Usually, when you hear about a politician who came to Congress after growing his family’s very small business into a multibillion-dollar juggernaut, fighting regulators along the way, you probably assume he’s a Republican.

“Not a chance,” said David Trone, a proud Democrat representing Maryland’s 6th District. Trone made a fortune building a single beer distributor in Pennsylvania into 229 Total Wine & More locations, each the size of a supermarket.

Since coming to Congress in 2019, Trone has focused his energy on a nonpartisan issue near to his heart: fighting the opioid scourge. He co-chaired the Commission on Combating Synthetic Opioid Trafficking, which recently released its final report with calls for legislative action. “Every one of us knows someone who’s succumbed,” said Trone, whose nephew died of an overdose five years ago. 

This interview has been edited and condensed.

Q: You were a prolific coach for your kids’ sports teams — I heard 93 teams.

A: That’s an accurate number. My best season ever was 13 teams in one year. I had four basketball, four soccer, four baseball-slash-softball, and one lacrosse. I have four kids, so I coached each of the kids in all those sports. We found out the number when I was doing a TV commercial and talking about things I did for enjoyment. 

I have three daughters who are not athletes, so I wanted to be there for them so they could learn and enjoy the camaraderie of sports. We didn’t win a lot of games, because we weren’t about winning. We were about learning fundamentals and enjoying ourselves and everybody being able to play. Nobody was left out.

Q: You’re a wealthy businessman who’s dealt with aggressive regulators. In fact, that’s putting it mildly, because the Liquor Control Board went after you in Pennsylvania and state authorities arrested you three times. Why aren’t you a Republican?

A: I’ve been a Democrat all my life. My mom and dad were Democrats. My dad’s brother formed the first union at the York Dispatch. Our values are such that we think we have a responsibility for those being left in the shadows, like Hubert Humphrey talked about. 

The issues that we care about are bipartisan, but we’re not Republicans. Not a chance. I ran on the three C’s — compassion, civility and then bringing that business competence to actually get stuff done. And we’re pretty hard core. I’ve worked with the ACLU for 20-some years, and we set up the Trone Center for Justice and Equality to work on criminal justice, whether it’s the death penalty, mandatory minimums or prosecutorial overreach. It’s where I’ve always been.

Q: You like to take an MBA’s approach to your lawmaking. You even have a whiteboard. What does that look like?

A: We use a whiteboard in our meetings so we get focus. We’ve got to keep our priorities in mind — addiction, mental health, criminal justice and medical research. Then we have to get focused on each bill, how we’re going to get it bicameral, how we’re going to get Republican Senate leads. Because we can pass anything in the House, but we need to bring it home. John Lewis said, “Keep your eyes on the prize.” If you’re an MBA, you’re keeping your eye on the bottom line, and in this case, the bottom line is the prize on the president’s desk.

Q: You gave your alma mater, Wharton, $5 million with your wife a couple years ago to help develop the Penn Wharton Budget Model. Now that model has pumped out some numbers that have been used to beat up Democratic proposals. Do you have any regrets, and do you catch any flack from your colleagues?

A: I’ve never had one piece of flack and zero regrets. The model is really all about just trying to call it like it is. I mean, look at the Trump tax cut. He claimed it was $1.5 trillion. We ran a model at $1.9 trillion, and [$400] billion is not chump change. Now everyone’s using our number. We’re trying to look at a wider group of variables and use high-level computing. What the CBO uses is not the most modern computing capabilities we have in this country, and at Wharton that’s what we’re using. I think it’s a great model.

Q: Fighting opioid addiction is probably your No. 1 issue, and one that’s near to your heart. Can you talk about that?

A: We had a nephew, Ian Trone. My wife and I spent five years with him in the trenches, working through addiction, working through housing, working through five arrests, working through challenges with anxiety and depression, because all these are connected together. And unfortunately, after being clean for almost eight months, he broke his sobriety and went out and used heroin, and it was of course laced with fentanyl. 

We’ve lost over 700,000 people now in America. It’s changed from street heroin, and now it’s pills. Two flakes of fentanyl are all you need, and you can overdose. Ian overdosed and died alone in a hotel room.

We’re not going to stop the supply side, because the cartels largely control the Mexican economy. And so we have to work on the demand side. Our Bipartisan Addiction and Mental Health Task Force has 140 members and 70 bills now that we’re moving forward, every one bipartisan. That’s our passion, and that’s our drive. Every one of us knows someone who’s succumbed. 

Quick hits

Last book you read? “The Splendid and the Vile,” about Churchill and his family in the early ’40s, and how they dealt with the Blitz. I read a lot of World War II nonfiction.

In politics, can the ends justify the means? No, you don’t want to burn bridges behind you. If you’re just going to look for a quick victory at any cost, that’s a mistake.

Least popular opinion? In my district, it’s supporting the Steelers and the Pittsburgh Penguins.

If you could do anything else for a job, what would it be? Return to Total Wine & More, because being the founder and CEO of that company was the best job I ever had. Much better than this job. 

Closest friend across the aisle? John Katko.