Why Pingree’s love life is none of our business
By Chris Busby
There are two reasons I was standing, drenched with rain and beer, repeatedly ringing the doorbell of a vacant house on Munjoy Hill at 1:30 in the morning.
The first and (admittedly) primary reason was my strong suspicion Chellie Pingree was in there with S. Donald Sussman. Hours earlier, Pingree had won the Democratic primary in the race to replace Congressman Tom Allen. Sussman had done, some would say, more than his fair share to make that happen.
The fabulously wealthy hedge fund manager and big-time political contributor brought more cash into Pingree’s campaign coffers than any other individual — well over $100,000 from employees of his companies and family members, by last count; close to 10 percent of the total she’s raised so far.
In the months leading up to the June 10 primary, I’d been intermittently investigating rumors the two divorcees are romantically involved. Several sources confirmed that off the record, but the Pingree camp was hedging. I needed more before this story could be told.
So I swung by Pingree’s election night party at The Porthole on the off chance the jet-setting Sussman would show up. He was already there.
The bar was crowded with campaign staff and other supporters. I squeezed in and ordered a Shipyard draft, which arrived, to my disappointment, in a flimsy plastic cup. (Due to a mild hereditary condition, I don’t have a steady hand to begin with, and the pot of coffee I’d consumed to make it through election night wasn’t helping. By the time I squeezed back through the crowd, I was wearing half the draft.)
This was not the most appropriate place to ask Sussman about his sex life, so I introduced myself and asked if we could do an interview another time. Sussman was in a good mood, laidback and affable. He said sure, I should call his office and make arrangements. He travels almost constantly.
Hours passed. I hung back and observed the scene. Sussman was also hanging back, standing far from the crowd of reporters, photographers and camera-people surrounding the newly victorious candidate. At one point I noticed he was holding a mostly full bottle of Pyrat rum. Then a bartender saw it and made him take it outside.
I was determined not to leave until Pingree and Sussman did, but closing time was fast approaching, the thinning crowd providing less and less cover for my reconnaissance. Looking down, I noticed my last-call draft was getting low. When I looked up again, Pingree and Sussman were gone. Shit!
I chugged the rest of my beer — spilling more down my shirt in the process — and stepped outside just in time to eyeball them walking together through the mist along Custom House Wharf. Following from a discreet distance, I watched as their hands, nearly touching, joined for several paces, then unclasped just before they reached the brightly lit sidewalk of Commercial Street. Score!
They took a right and got into a pickup truck parked around the corner. I crouched behind a dumpster as they pulled out, Sussman at the wheel, and drove off toward Munjoy Hill. I had a strong hunch where they were headed.
I’d made it as far as India Street on foot when a bolt of lightening arced over South Portland, and soon the rain was coming down hard. I retreated to the Hilton Garden Inn, where the friendly desk clerk called me a cab.
Sure enough, there was the pickup in the driveway of 60 Kellogg Street, a property I’d been monitoring for months. Sussman bought this four-bedroom home at the edge of the Munjoy South apartment project back in January, through one of his limited liability companies.
On the surface, the purchase doesn’t seem to make sense. Why pay $470,000 for a house assessed at just over $305,000, in a buyer’s market, then leave it vacant for six months? And why is a guy with billion-dollar business interests around the world dabbling in residential real estate on Munjoy Hill? Could the fact Pingree has been renting an apartment in the neighborhood have something to do with it?
Her campaign had insisted she has no connection to the property, but that doesn’t explain all the Pingree campaign signs in the truck bed, or why her daughter’s boyfriend was working on the house this spring. A window on the second floor at the back of the house was illuminated, as was the interior of the empty truck cab — Sussman must’ve left the light on.
That’s the second reason I was ringing the bell: it’s the neighborly thing to do before the battery dies.
I knocked and rang the paint-sticky doorbell for a couple minutes, but no one came down. When I drove by at 7:15 the next morning, the truck was nowhere in sight.
None of our business?
Opinion is divided on the question of whether Pingree’s love life is newsworthy — that is, whether it’s an appropriate subject for reporters to explore. Perhaps not surprisingly, her campaign aides and supporters think it should be off-limits, while critics (political rivals, in particular) and other observers I’ve spoken with say it’s fair game.
The first time I met Pingree, after a candidate forum at Space Gallery in late March, I asked her what her relationship was to Sussman. “You could say we’re friends,” she replied, with just a hint of hesitation.
By late April, I had additional information that suggested there was more to the story, so I asked her campaign spokesman, former radio personality Willy Ritch, if Pingree and Sussman were dating. “Chellie and Sussman are friends. That’s my answer,” he said flatly. He had nothing more to add for the record.
Subsequent conversations with others close to the candidate did nothing to lessen my sense I was onto something. Her supporters started repeating the same lines of defense (I could almost hear the campaign wagons circling). But more tellingly, their main point was not that talk of a Pingree-Sussman romance was nonsense — no one offered any evidence to contradict the idea, like the existence of another significant other — but rather that it was inappropriate for this reporter to be asking about it.
The Pingree camp’s protestations sound more than a little hypocritical in light of the candidate’s eagerness to air other details of her personal and family life in public. For example, there she was on television talking about her brother’s losing battle with cancer and the financial toll it took on his family. On her Web site, chelliepingree.com, she boasted that her daughter Cecily’s “boyfriend” is Colin Gully of the hip roots-music group The Toughcats (a reference that remained on the site for some time after the two had broken up; Gully, who’s done work for Sussman at the Kellogg Street house, is now described as a “good friend”).
Then there’s her high-profile work for Common Cause, an organization that’s hardly shy about poking its nose in politicians’ personal business. After eight years in the Maine State Senate (including four as majority leader) and an unsuccessful run for U.S. Senate against Republican Susan Collins in 2002, Pingree was hired to lead the nonpartisan national watchdog group, whose central mission is to promote “honest, open and accountable government.”
Common Cause routinely decries shady aspects of the personal relationships between lawmakers and lobbyists, big donors and cronies — gifts, vacation trips, rides on corporate aircraft, and so on. Are we to assume the organization and its nearly 400,000 members get riled up only when politicians are “in bed with special interests” in the figurative sense of the term?
“I can tell you there are no disclosure rules that require Congressional candidates to disclose who they’re dating,” said Mary Boyle, Common Cause’s vice president for communications. “Common Cause has never advocated for them.
“That said,” Boyle continued, “Common Cause has a long history of advising elected officials to err on the side of transparency when there’s a public perception, or potential for a public perception, of a conflict of interest or preferential treatment for a donor…. Chellie’s not in [that] position right now, as a candidate.”
“I think a relationship between a big donor and a candidate — romantic or business or professional or whatever — certainly is a legitimate area of inquiry, and the candidates should be transparent in all that,” said Dennis Bailey, head of the public relations firm Savvy, Inc. “If it’s romantic, say so.”
Bailey handled PR for State Sen. Ethan Strimling’s unsuccessful primary bid against Pingree, but also heads CasinosNO!, the anti-casino group that’s received money from Sussman. He’s heard the rumors Sussman and Pingree are an item, and said that would go a long way toward explaining why Sussman is such a big backer of a candidate who, at least in one key respect, will not make him a richer man.
Pingree has said she favors closing a tax loophole for hedge fund managers that would take billions out of the pockets of people like Sussman. She also favors greater regulation of the industry. According to Mother Jones, Sussman gave $320,000 to Democrats in 2000 in an effort to quash a hedge-fund reform bill before Congress. The legislation subsequently “died a quiet death,” the magazine reported.
“If she was dating Joe Blow from Cumberland who gave 100 bucks, it would be immaterial,” said Bailey. “It’s a little different when the person in question here is responsible for [over $100,000 contributed] to her campaign and has all kinds of interests before Congress.”
Pingree has said political contributions have no influence over her politics. Bailey isn’t so sure. “To think [Sussman] isn’t going to have influence over her or her positions is, I think, naïve.”
The Other Donald
Should Pingree win this November — a likely outcome given this Congressional district’s history of electing Dems and her sizeable, early cash advantage over Republican challenger Charlie Summers — she may have a lot of disclosing to do. Selwyn Donald Sussman is a very busy guy.
The son of a real estate developer, he was an executive with the Titan Industrial Corporation and a partner at a now-defunct New York law firm before starting his pioneering hedge fund, Paloma Partners, in the early 1980s. In 1981, he married Laurie Tisch, daughter of Preston Robert “Bob” Tisch, the famous businessman and philanthropist who co-owned the New York Giants until his death in 2005. According to the New York Times wedding announcement, Sussman attended a private boarding school in Lennox, Mass., before earning degrees from Columbia College and New York University. He and Tisch had two daughters before they divorced.
Sussman’s financial interests are vast and complex. In addition to his hedge fund — parts of which were acquired by JPMorgan Worldwide Securities in 2006 — he is the director and co-founder of the Cathay Capital Group. According to its Web site, Cathay has invested in over 35 companies in China, some newly privatized, involved in everything from pipelines and a toll bridge (rumored to be named after Sussman) to tissue paper and high school textbooks. Among them is Clear Media, a Chinese advertising company that’s half-owned by Clear Channel Communications; and China Aoyuan Property Group, which develops Western-style condo communities with golf courses and private schools in formerly rural areas of the mainland for the country’s rising upper classes.
Sussman’s political activities are similarly diverse. He’s a board member of the Israel Policy Forum, a Jewish-American group that lobbies for a two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. He’s given at least $1 million of “soft money” to the 527 organization Fund for America, which has recently run ads attacking Sen. John McCain.
In 2003, Pingree’s hiring to lead Common Cause was criticized because she’d raised over $1 million in soft money through national party committees — a practice Congress outlawed in late 2002 at the urging of, among others, Common Cause. Sussman wrote checks to those committees for over $300,000, the Portland Press Herald reported at the time. Other politicians who’ve benefited from Sussman’s largesse include independent Sen. Joe Lieberman, Geraldine Ferraro and Rep. Allen, though Sussman’s been known to throw money to Republicans, too — just not as much.
In 1997, when Sussman gave a combined total of over $800,000 to two groups opposed to Gov. Angus King’s Compact for Maine’s Forests, the late-stage cash infusion was cited as a big factor in the clear-cutting compromise’s defeat at the polls. Most recently, he gave $100,000 to Health Coverage for Maine, a group organized to oppose the effort to repeal the new state tax increase on beer, wine and soft drinks. Pingree’s daughter, Hannah, the Democratic majority leader of the Maine House, is a leader of that group.
Sussman has a vacation home on Deer Isle and is commonly reported to be from Greenwich, Conn. However, as the New York Times reported in 2004, the avid yachtsman “spends most of his time” down in St. Thomas, where a corporate tax break available to residents of the Virgin Islands allows him to pay about a tenth of what he’d fork over on the mainland for income he makes from Paloma, the multi-billion-dollar fund headquartered there.
Yup, it’s none of our business
I’m not the first reporter to try to pry the truth of Pingree’s relationship with Sussman from her campaign. Former Press Herald reporter Kevin Wack wrote an article last April in which he noted that Pingree refused an interview request to discuss Sussman, and Ritch refused to reveal basic details of their relationship (including how they met, saying only that they did not know each other in 2002, the year Sussman contributed several hundred thousand dollars toward her bid to defeat Collins).
Sussman wouldn’t talk to Wack, but released a statement comparing Pingree to famous Maine Senators George Mitchell, Margaret Chase Smith and Ed Muskie. “Chellie Pingree in my opinion is a leader in that tradition,” the statement said.
Despite his promise at The Porthole, Sussman didn’t respond to my interview request, either.
After the dust settled from the June 10 primary, I called Ritch again and told him what I’d seen. Would he care to change his story about this “friendship.” He told me Pingree was on vacation and he’d need time to talk with her about what I’d just told him. I gave them a week to mull it over.
When I called Ritch back, nothing had changed. “I don’t think that I or Chellie or anybody in the campaign is going to talk to you about this story on the record,” he said.
“OK,” I replied. “Then my other on-the-record question for you is, ‘Why not?’”
“I’m just gonna leave it at that,” he said.