By John Christie, Naomi Schalit and Marina Villeneuve, Maine Center for Public Interest Reporting
AUGUSTA — They are the elite of the elite.
They may not be one-in-a-million, but they are ten-in-a-million.
The top 10 individual Maine donors to state and national political campaigns represent just .001 percent of Maine’s adult population of about one million.
But that minuscule percentage represents 21.5 per cent of all donations to candidates, parties and causes from contributors with a Maine address.
What the elite of the elite lack in numbers they make up in dollars.
How many dollars? $3,950,236 since Jan. 1, 2013, according to state and federal campaign finance reports for the current two-year election cycle. The rest of the state’s population gave about $10.5 million.
When you look at just contributions at the federal level – U.S. House and Senate races for example – the influence from the top ten is even greater compared to their fellow Mainers – about 34 percent.
In order of their giving, most to least, the top ten are:
No. 1: Donald Sussman, founder of hedge fund Paloma Partners, principal owner Maine Today Media (Portland Press Herald, Sunday Telegram, Kennebec Journal and Morning Sentinel), developer, North Haven: $2,971,741
No. 2: Ed Bosarge, former IBM and NASA scientist, cofounder of Quantlab Financial, a high-frequency trading firm, Southport: $180,000
No. 3: Paul Coulombe, former principal of White Rock Distilleries and owner of Boothbay Harbor Country Club, Southport: $162,875
No. 4: Chellie Pingree, Democratic congresswoman from Maine’s first district, Sussman’s wife and co-owner of Turner Farm, North Haven: $121,653
No. 5: Margo Milliken, early supporter of feminist causes, daughter-in-law of the late Roger Milliken, the South Carolina textile and chemicals tycoon, Cumberland: $118,200
No. 6: Cyrus Hagge, owner of Project Management, Inc., a developer with a property management company in Portland, and a major player in Portland-area civic and cultural groups, Portland: $112,650
No. 7: Daniel Hildreth, chair of the board of Portland-based Diversified Communications, Falmouth: $94,800
No. 8: Sydney Roberts Rockefeller, former wife of David Rockefeller Jr., artist and competitive sailor, Mount Desert: $69,094
No. 9: Stephen King, one of the best-selling American novelists of all time, Bangor: $60,700
No. 10: Justin Alfond, president of Maine Senate, representing Portland, grandson of Harold Alfond, founder of Dexter Shoe, which was sold to billionaire Warren Buffett for more than $400 million, developer, Portland: $58,523
The Maine Center for Public Interest Reporting, working with its national counterpart, the Investigative News Network, compiled and analyzed thousands of lines of data from the Maine Commission on Governmental Ethics and Election Practices and the Federal Election Commission and other sources to develop the profiles of Maine’s big money players.
The data is current as of the Oct. 23 and 24 filing deadlines for federal and state candidate and committees respectively. The data excludes money given by candidates to themselves.
Eight of the top ten donors are on the liberal side of the political spectrum and support Democrats almost exclusively. Of the $3.95 million, all but about $344,000 went to Democratic and traditionally liberal causes, such as the Planned Parenthood PAC that is supporting the Democratic candidate for governor, Mike Michaud, and other Democrats.
The No. 1 donor, Sussman, gave more money than the other nine combined and then tripled: $2,971,741.
Coming in a distant second and third are the only two Republican donors to make the list. They have a lot in common: both own estates on the Boothbay peninsula; both live there only part of the year; and both made their money in business – liquor for one, investing for the other.
There is one married couple: No. 1 Sussman and No. 4, U.S. Rep. Chellie Pingree, a Democrat up for reelection. Their combined giving to Maine and national candidates exceeds $3 million.
The major beneficiaries of the $3.95 million spent by the top ten on Maine state elections are: the Maine Republican Party ($340,000), the Maine Democratic State Committee ($288,808), Planned Parenthood Maine Action Fund PAC ($283,600) and the Senate Democratic Campaign Committee ($245,100).
The major beneficiaries of the money recorded with the federal election officials – money spent either on Maine or out-of-state federal seats – are Democratic House Majority PAC ($1,350,250, with Roberts Rockefeller contributing $250 of that, and Sussman contributing the rest); Women Vote!, a PAC of Emily’s List, which supports pro-choice Democrats ($150,000, all from two Sussman donations this June); and the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee ($140,245, almost all of which came from Sussman and Pingree).
Much of the debate over campaign financing has been about giving from organizations – corporations, labor unions and interest groups. But experts in the influence of big money on politics say the public shouldn’t overlook the impact of big individual donors on democracy.
Political scientist Lee Drutman, writing for the Sunlight Foundation, a nonpartisan Washington-based group that advocates for open government, explained in a June 2013 article that the top individual givers “are the political gatekeepers of American politics.”
He wrote, “They determine who is an acceptable candidate (i.e., those individuals whom they trust to represent their interests). Their influence is very rarely found in simple favor trading. Rather, their influence arises from something subtler yet far more significant: shaping the limits of acceptable political discourse one conversation at a time.”
Maine Citizens for Clean Elections, which supports publically funded campaigns, struck a similar tone in a report this year, “Private Money from Wealthy Contributors Dominates the Campaign” for governor.
“All of this private money threatens to drown out the voice of the people,” the report concluded, recommending that increased public financing is “the best way to combat the undemocratic influence of private fundraising from wealthy special interests.”
The big donors, though, don’t see themselves as a threat to democracy. In interviews with the Center, they cited more altruistic and ideological reasons for their giving.
“I hope that through our collective efforts, we can make Maine a better place,” said Alfond. “And I know that change doesn’t begin or end with giving; I also knock on doors, drive candidates and make phone calls. I act because we all have a responsibility to be engaged and active in our community, state and country.”
Hildreth cited global warming and a desire to be a “small counterweight to the influence on politics exerted by the conservative movement.”
Hagge also said he wanted to counter the effect of big dollars from Republicans and help “the Maine Democratic Party … regain control of the Maine state government.”
Milliken said, “I do my work with hope for an environmentally sustainable, spiritually fulfilling and socially just human presence on this planet.”
Coulombe, one of only two of the top ten donors who support Republicans (the other, Bosarge, did not respond to a request for an interview) said he leans that way because he believes the welfare state has gone too far. He also said he identified with Gov. LePage as an exemplar of a hard-working Mainer “and, overall, an honest individual.”
Sussman had something to say about LePage, as well. “Democrats are the ones standing up for fairness, equality and a democracy that gives everyone a voice, and they are the ones who are going to move us beyond the mismanagement and missed opportunities of the LePage era.”
Where does all of this leave the small-time contributor?
Raymond resident, Leo Algeo Jr., gave $25 this campaign cycle to independent candidate for governor Eliot Cutler. The contributions of the state’s biggest donors diminish the power of his voice, Algeo said.
“Obviously, money has become the equivalent of votes,” said Algeo. “That’s a problem we have to address, and it’s difficult because the people we expect to address this problem are the people who benefit from it.”
The Maine Center for Public Interest Reporting is a nonpartisan, nonprofit news service based in Augusta. Email them at [email protected] Visit pinetreewatchdog.org.