They are the elite of the elite.
They may not be one-in-a-million, but they are 10-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 1 million.
But that minuscule number represents 27.3 percent 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 10 is even greater compared with their fellow Mainers: about 34 percent.
In order of their giving, most to least, the top 10 are:
No. 1: Selwyn Donald Sussman, founder of hedge fund Paloma Partners, principal owner of 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; co-founder 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 representative for Maine’s 1st Congressional 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., 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. (son of the former president of Chase Manhattan), artist and competitive sailor, Seal Harbor: $69,094.
No. 9: Stephen King, one of the best-selling American novelists of all time whose books, categorized as horror and fantasy, often have been turned into highly successful movies, 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, although Federal Election Commission staff said that not all of the data in those reports were posted online because of the high volume of contributions and spending during the period. The data exclude money given by candidates to themselves.
Highlights of the examination include:
— Eight of the top 10 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 supporting 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 on the list: No. 1 and No. 4, Sussman and U.S. Rep. Chellie Pingree, a Democrat up for re-election. Their combined contributions to Maine and national candidates exceeds $3 million: enough to buy every adult in the state a tall caffe latte at Starbucks and have a little money left over.
— The major beneficiaries of the $3.95 million spent by the top 10 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 the 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 ), Emily’s List Pac Women Vote! 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 warning 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 10 donors who supports 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. Paul LePage as an exemplar of a hardworking 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?
Near the bottom of the list that Sussman tops is the name of a Raymond resident, Leo Algeo Jr., who 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: firstname.lastname@example.org. Web: pinetreewatchdog.org.