AUGUSTA – S. Donald Sussman, the billionaire hedge fund manager engaged to Democratic U.S. Rep. Chellie Pingree of Maine, was the top individual donor to Maine political causes in 2010, according to state campaign finance reports.

Sussman contributed about $1.3 million to causes championed by Maine Democrats in 2010. Since 2002, he has spent more than $3.6 million on candidates and ballot questions, and political action and party committees, according to reports filed with the Maine Commission on Governmental Ethics and Election Practices. Sussman, who has owned homes in Maine for many years, made his first donation — to the Maine Democratic Party — in 1997.

Typically preferring to remain out of the spotlight, Sussman was thrust into the headlines during this fall’s election amid reports that Pingree had taken flights aboard his private jet.

That controversy focused on Pingree, her re-election campaign and her status with Sussman. (The couple revealed their engagement after the jet trips came to light. Before her election to Congress, Pingree had criticized some politicians for accepting private jet travel.)

Maine political observers and academics, however, note that Sussman’s political contributions are also newsworthy.

“I don’t recall anyone donating that amount or even close to that amount — large campaign spending is only a recent phenomenon in Maine and we don’t have a great deal of history to go on,” said Doug Hodgkin, a historian and political science professor emeritus at Bates College in Lewiston. “What this means in terms of a larger picture, I would say it’s consistent with the trend nationally for certain individuals to spend large amounts of money on campaigns.”

Hodgkin and Paul Mills of Farmington, a noted Maine political historian, both said there are plenty of examples of Mainers spending millions of dollars to self-finance political campaigns — most recently failed gubernatorial candidates Eliot Cutler, who spent $2.1 million on his bid, and Les Otten, who spent $2.75 million — but few have spent that kind of money to support political causes in the state.

“Robert A.G. Monks has sprinkled funds to both political parties over the last 40 years really, ever since 1970, both Republicans and Democrats, but not quite to the scale that Sussman did,” Mills said. “But in terms of today’s dollars, (Monks) certainly spent significant sums of money, hundreds of thousands, and he spent over $3 million of his own on his last campaign for the U.S. Senate, the third time that he ran in 1996.”

In Maine, campaign donations to individual candidates are limited to $750 per election cycle, but donations to political action committees are unlimited. Sussman’s largest donations in 2010 were about $390,000 to Equality Maine, more than $300,000 to the Maine Democratic State Committee and about $110,000 to a PAC that supported pro-environment candidates for governor and the Maine Legislature, the Maine Conservation Voters Action Fund.

Sussman, 64, is founder and chairman of a billion-dollar investment fund called Paloma Partners, based in Greenwich, Conn. In Maine, he resides on North Haven — which is also where Pingree lives.

“I see Maine as a place that is filled with opportunities for everyone — opportunities for good jobs and economic growth, for enjoying our natural environment and for raising healthy kids who can all achieve their dreams,” Sussman said in a statement. “I support organizations and candidates who share these values and that’s always money well-spent.”

Sussman also spent $300,000 on the No Higher Taxes for Maine PAC, a group that campaigned in the spring against repealing the tax reform package passed by Democratic lawmakers. The repeal, driven predominately by Maine Republicans, was successful.

Other referendum issues garnering large Sussman donations have been same-sex marriage (he supported it), the Taxpayers Bill of Rights or TABOR (he opposed it), reducing the state excise tax (he opposed it) and increasing the beverage tax to help pay for Dirigo Health (he supported it).

There is no apparent single Republican donor that is equivalent to Sussman; the Republican Governor’s Association, however, comes closest in total donations, spending $1.2 million during the gubernatorial race on behalf of Paul LePage, the incoming governor.

Sussman has been a frequent GOP target for his bankrolling of Democratic causes. Charlie Summers, Maine’s newly elected Secretary of State, held a news conference this fall to decry Sussman’s spending.

“One individual trying to put that kind of money into a small state like Maine, that’s more than a dollar per person. He’s trying to have an influence on an election,” Summers said at the time. Summers had lost to Pingree in a 2008 congressional bid.

Maine Democrats are happy to have Sussman’s support, said Mary Erin Casale, executive director of the Maine Democratic Party. But she said his donations, though significant, do not influence how, or for what, the party campaigns.

Hodgkin of Bates College said political donors rarely give money in hopes of turning a lawmaker’s vote, but rather to get those that already support their causes elected.

“In terms of political science kinds of analysis of this, it is quite largely a matter of the donor contributing to people they already support,” he said. But Hodgkin did point to a study that showed politicians often spent more time working on issues important to donors.

“They have to make choices about how to spend their time and they may spend more time on their donors’ issues than on others and so that’s the apparent impact,” he said.

Sussman, whose donations dramatically increased in 2008 and peaked in 2010, said the Republican resurgence in Maine will not impact his giving.

“My donations are based on my values, not the political winds,” he said, adding that his goals are to support small businesses and natural resource-based industries like farming and fishing. 

MaineToday Media State House Writer Rebekah Metzler can be contacted at 620-7016 or at:

rmetzler@mainetoday.com