County Executive candidate Bill Frick Wednesday brushed off criticism of a planned January fundraiser that Total Wine & More co-owner Robert Trone is hosting at his Potomac home.
Democratic Montgomery County Council members Marc Elrich and George Leventhal—who are also running for county executive—criticized the fundraiser, saying it has the appearance of catering to special interests.
Elrich and Leventhal are using the county’s new public campaign finance system that limits contributions of $150 or less. The contributions they get are then multiplied by county funds. The system was designed to reduce the influence of large campaign contributions.
“The reason that I decided to participate in the public campaign finance program was so that no one would ask whether I was unduly influenced by large campaign contributions from special interests and this fundraiser surely will raise those questions for Mr. Frick,” Leventhal said.
“I avoid taking money from people that have expectations of me politically,” Elrich said. “I’m a big proponent of people standing on their own and not relying on large donors to pull off an election.”
At the Trone fundraiser, Frick’s campaign is suggesting individual donations of $6,000; $1,000; or $500, according to a flyer promoting the event. The maximum amount an individual can donate to a campaign in an election cycle in Maryland is $6,000.
In an interview, Frick, a state delegate from Bethesda, did not directly address Leventhal and Elrich’s criticisms, saying only that he and Trone have been friends for more than a decade.
But Frick’s campaign spokeswoman, Lucinda Ware, issued a statement saying that “Delegate Frick is honored to have the support of an all-star list of Montgomery County civic and business leaders in his campaign. This event is hosted not only by Anna and Robert, the county’s 2015 Philanthropists of the Year, but a member of the County Business Hall of Fame, multiple past presidents of the Chamber of Commerce, and highly regarded entrepreneurs and community leaders. By contrast, [Frick’s] competitors are funding their campaigns with millions in taxpayer funds, money raised through a massive tax increase that was supposed to go to schools, teachers, police and firefighters.”
In Annapolis, Frick sponsored a bill in 2016 that would have set a referendum for county voters to decide whether to keep the Department of Liquor Control (DLC), which has a monopoly over the distribution and sale of alcohol. The measure did not pass.
David Trone, Robert’s brother and the co-owner of Total Wine, has supported privatization of the DLC.
Elrich and Leventhal have opposed efforts to privatize the DLC. Although, in a November county executive debate, Leventhal said he would be willing to sell the department if the county could clear the approximately $100 million in long-term bonds the department’s revenue pays off.
Both Frick and Robert Trone said in interviews with Bethesda Beat Wednesday that David Trone had not coordinated with them in any way on the fundraiser. Alex Koren, a spokesman for David Trone, who is running for Congress in the 6th District, also said no coordination took place and noted that David Trone has not donated any money to Frick’s county executive campaign.
David Trone and Frick were briefly political opponents in the District 6 congressional race, before Frick decided to run for county executive instead.
Robert Trone said he and his wife, Anna, have known Frick and his wife, Bethany, for the last 15 years. Bethany Frick worked at Total Wine from 2003 to 2012.
“I believe Bill will be a great county executive and help move the county forward,” he said.
Robert Trone added that he’s supporting Frick as a person, rather than for any policies he has pushed in the past. “My belief in politicians is to support the best candidate who I believe has the ability to get the job done,” Trone said.
The county has allocated $11 million in this year’s operating budget to fund the public campaign finance program. Dozens of candidates running for County Council and county executive are using the system.
Leventhal noted that Frick voted for a bill in the General Assembly that authorized the county to establish the public financing system. “If he thought it was such a bad use of public funds, why did he vote to authorize it?” Leventhal asked. “He seems to be running away from his voting record.”
Frick said the authorization was part of a broader campaign finance reform bill that made several changes to state regulations governing campaign contributions.
Leventhal, who used traditional campaign financing to win his previous four elections, said he wouldn’t have used that method if public financing had been available. This is the first year candidates can use the system in the county.
Other people hosting the fundraiser include well-known Bethesda real estate agent Jane Fairweather; Tom Murphy, the former president of EagleBank; Tim Hwang, the CEO of FiscalNote; and Julie Veratti, a co-owner of Denizens Brewing Co. in Silver Spring.
An invitation flyer for the fundraiser, with the address blurred out by Bethesda Beat.
Robert Trone has contributed thousands of dollars to Democratic candidates and state Democratic parties in recent years, according to the campaign finance data website OpenSecrets. Candidates he has supported include Hillary Clinton, Rep. John Delaney and Sen. Chris Van Hollen.
In June 2015, he contributed $2,700 to the 8th District congressional campaign of Democrat Kathleen Matthews—about seven months before David Trone announced he would run for the same seat in the 2016 Democratic primary.
David Trone and Matthews lost the election to then-state Sen. Jamie Raskin. Trone spent a record $13 million of his own money on the race.
Other Democratic candidates running for county executive are Council member Roger Berliner; the county’s deputy planning director, Rose Krasnow; and Potomac businessman David Blair.
Krasnow is using public campaign financing, while Blair and Berliner are using traditional campaign fundraising.
Republican Robin Ficker is also pursuing the seat.
This article was updated at 10:57 a.m. to provide more nuance to Council member George Leventhal’s position on the DLC.