In just the past two years, Donald Sussman has donated $100,000 to the Senate Majority PAC, $2.15 million to the House Majority PAC, and $2.5 million to Priorities USA Action, the trio of outside groups that make up the bulwark of the Democratic Party’s super PAC spending.
And yet of late, Sussman’s most notable — and controversial — contributions are in Maryland’s Democratic primary for Senate. The mega-donor has spent $2.1 million on behalf of Rep. Donna Edwards, a Washington-area congresswoman who is locked in a tight battle against Rep. Chris Van Hollen. In a state that traditionally turns a deep shade of blue in presidential elections, the winner of the primary will almost certainly replace the retiring Sen. Barbara A. Mikulski.
Sussman’s cash, most of which was funneled through an EMILY’s List super PAC, has been a lifeline for an Edwards campaign that has otherwise been badly outspent. And it has drawn criticism from Van Hollen’s supporters, who say they are confused why one donor would go to such lengths for a candidate with whom he has few apparent personal connections.
In his only public remarks about the campaign, Sussman told Roll Call in a statement that he was backing the African-American Edwards because of the experience and agenda she’d bring to the Senate.
“I care deeply about making sure out democracy reflects the makeup of our country and represents the values we share,” he said. “I believe Donna Edwards is one of those candidates and that was the reason for my support.”
Sussman spokesman Hal Lux sent the statement to Roll Call and declined to comment further.
The money is a large investment for Sussman, a hedge-fund manager who founded Paloma Partners in Greenwich, Connecticut. But it’s only part of a much larger foray into Democratic politics, which has seen him spend more than $12 million on Democratic candidates, political committees, and super PACs since the 1990s, according to the Federal Election Commission .
Democratic officials who know Sussman describe him as an affable true believer who, in the words a friend, was committed to the progressive cause with “every cell in his being.”
“In all my interactions with him, he simply wants to see a country that has policies that provide opportunity for everybody, particularly those who need a little help,” said Stephanie Schriock, who has known Sussman since she became president of EMILY’s List in 2010. “He really believes that with a diversity of voices in our government, we will get policies that will represent the needs of the entire community.”
The 69-year-old Florida resident — who sits on the board of EMILY's List — has largely stayed out of the public spotlight: He married and later divorced Maine Rep. Chellie Pingree, and he bought and later sold a series of newspapers in Maine. The former resident of the Pine Tree State hasn’t been the subject of much media attention, except for stories about his deep investment in Maine Democratic politics and the time he lent his private plane to a dying man.
But Democratic strategists who have been the recipient of his donations say Sussman is one of the party’s most important donors, both in the money he gives and the signal it sends to other contributors.
“When other donors and supporters see that Donald is investing in something, they consider it worth their investment,” said Guy Cecil, chief strategist for Priorities USA Action. “I do think he helps set a standard for how to smartly invest resources and to accomplish the goal.”
But he hasn’t rallied many donors to back Edwards. EMILY’s List, the pro-choice women’s group that has endorsed the congresswoman, has spent $2.9 million backing her through its super PAC, Women Vote! Sussman alone contributed $1.5 million to the super PAC since 2015, and added another $600,000 to a different super PAC backing Edwards, Working for Us. (That group stirred controversy this month when it ran a negative ad against Van Hollen that the White House declared misleading.)
Edwards’s own campaign has raised only $3.36 million this election cycle, compared to the $8 million raised by Van Hollen.
Schriock said Sussman’s generous donations to Edwards can’t be explained by a personal relationship — the two know each other but not well, she said. Instead, the hedge-fund manager has been a fan of the congresswoman’s since before she became a lawmaker, back to her days as a liberal activist.
“He’s a huge fan of Donna Edwards from her work in the House and before she was in the House, particularly when she was fighting for the Violence Against Women’s Act,” Schriock said. “He really sees her, as we do, as a progressive champion and someone whose perspective is really needed in the U.S. Senate at this moment.”
That one man, much less one who made his money on Wall Street, has provided so much financial support for Edwards is a source of controversy on the campaign trail — and makes for an easy target for critics.
"Chris Van Hollen has been leading the fight to close the loophole that lets hedge fund managers pay less in taxes than working people, while super PACs supporting Congresswoman Edwards have received over $2 million in donations from a single hedge fund manager,” said Bridgett Frey, spokeswoman for the Van Hollen campaign. “That she claims to take on Wall Street is clearly the height of hypocrisy.”
Polls suggest Sussman won’t get his way. A survey from Monmouth University released Thursday showed Van Hollen, who despite Sussman’s contributions has badly outspent Edwards in the weeks leading up to next week’s primary, leading Edwards by 16 points, 52 percent to 36 percent. That poll showed a much larger Van Hollen advantage than others, but the his campaign is confident it has momentum ahead of next week's April 26 primary.
The Edwards campaign declined to elaborate on the relationship between the congresswoman and Sussman.
“Over the years, Donald Sussman has been an incredible ally for Democrats around the country, and we're grateful to have earned his support,” said Edwards spokesman Benjamin Gerdes.