PORTLAND, Maine — Hedge fund manager S. Donald Sussman never has sought the spotlight. But like it or not, the fiance of U.S. Rep. Chellie Pingree has become a campaign issue in her re-election bid.
Republicans are making hay over Pingree’s use of Sussman’s private jet and raising questions about whether his investment company benefited from the federal bank bailout. Critics say Pingree, a Democrat, has been living the high life while portraying herself as a small-business owner with Main Street values.
Maine GOP spokesman Lance Dutson said Pingree is living an “opulent lifestyle” with Sussman’s “royalty-level wealth” while regular Mainers struggle with high unemployment and a stagnant economy.
“We’ve got this picture of Chellie Pingree as a fighter for the common person in Washington, standing up to special interests,” Dutson said. “But as the onion layers unpeel, we see that’s really not the person she is. She’s traveling on a $10,000-an-hour private jet.”
Pingree, who plans to marry Sussman next year, insists Sussman’s success and wealth hasn’t changed who she is or how she has voted in Congress.
“I feel my opponents are trying to turn it into a tabloid story instead of an election campaign about where the differences are and how I cast my votes, who I fight for, how I represent the people of Maine,” Pingree said.
Polls show Pingree ahead of Republican businessman Dean Scontras in the race to represent Maine’s Democratic-leaning 1st Congressional District. Pingree first won the seat in 2008.
While much of the campaign has focused on typical Democrat-Republican themes such as taxes and the role and size of government, it also has drawn in the 64-year-old Sussman, founder and chairman of Paloma Partners, an investment firm in Greenwich, Conn., that manages more than $1.7 billion in funds.
Sussman and Pingree, 55, met at a mutual friend’s birthday party in 2007, fell in love and got engaged after the 2008 election, she said. Both are divorced.
Sussman’s net worth is vast, and his holdings include real estate in the Virgin Islands, New York City and Washington, D.C., as well as in in Deer Isle and Portland, Maine, and on North Haven island, where Pingree lives.
Republicans stirred the pot last month regarding Pingree’s relationship with Sussman when they accused her of ethics and campaign finance violations by traveling on Sussman’s private jet. Critics note that Pingree blasted lawmakers who traveled on corporate jets while she was with Common Cause, the Washington lobbying group that she headed from 2003 to 2007.
In recent days, the Maine Republican Party has asked Pingree and Sussman to reveal how Sussman’s firm spent $200 million in taxpayer funds the party said Paloma received through the bailout of American International Group in 2008.
Pingree has denied any wrongdoing flying on Sussman’s jet. A Portland law firm representing Paloma Partners issued a letter this week saying neither Paloma nor Sussman received any money from the AIG bailout.
Sussman’s office said he was too busy this week to talk to The Associated Press.
But acquaintances in Maine describe him as low-key and humble, somebody who doesn’t seek publicity. They say he has contributed to left-leaning political causes and candidates for years and also has given money to at least 50 Maine organizations that include conservation groups, health care facilities, art museums, libraries and historical societies.
“I feel bad for him having his life and his work mischaracterized because he made the mistake of falling in love with a politician,” Pingree said.
Sussman’s money and position also give Pingree’s campaign coffers a boost. But the contributions from the Sussman camp also raise questions, Scontras said.
“Paloma Partners and various people affiliated with Mr. Sussman — including gardeners and cooks and pilots — have given the maximum amount,” Scontras said. “Chellie has been an outspoken critic of the influence of money in politics, and I was always told to practice what you preach.”
While Pingree is favored in the race against Scontras, it’s hard to know how much damage — if any — Sussman has brought to her campaign.
Scontras still has to prove himself to voters and earn the election, but Pingree’s relationship to Sussman could have some voters thinking twice, Dutson said.
But Sandy Maisel, a Colby College political science professor, isn’t so sure Scontras will benefit.
“I don’t think there’s that much traction because that’s not what the voters are going to focus on,” Maisel said. “The voters are going to focus on whether she has served them well over the past two years.”