As Connecticut gears up for one of the most important elections of the modern era, many Connecticut voters will wrestle with the challenge of trying to separate truth from fiction when examining political contenders.

While it is said that “you can’t judge a book by its cover,” as voters contend with the barrage of campaign ads and mailings, they may do well to remember another adage “a man (or woman) is known by the company they keep.” 

As early as the mid-16th century or much earlier if one attributes the original concept to Euripides (480 BC-406 BC), people recognized that we can learn a lot about a person by whom they choose to associate.

While many observers talk about who a candidate takes campaign funds from, a more telling exercise may be to explore who a candidate donates to when they are using their own money.

In my case, a review of the various campaign donation websites would reveal that the bulk of my contributions go to progressive Democrats that I know or work with.  For example, over the last decade or so, my immediate family and I have donated about $19,800 to Joe Courtney’s various campaigns, with another $6,000 and counting to Nancy Wyman.  Over the years I’ve donated a similar amount to Chris Dodd.

Theoretically, those contributions say something important about my political values although from time to time I’ve made a contribution or two that I later regretted after discovering that the candidate didn’t share my views on some important issues.

When it comes to this year’s candidates for governor and the U.S. Senate, a review of the data reveals very different patterns of donations to political campaigns. Over the last decade and a half, Republicans Tom Foley and Linda McMahon and Democrat Ned Lamont have donated hundreds of thousands of dollars to politicians and parties while Republicans Michael Fedele and R. Nelson “Oz” Griebel and Democrats Dan Malloy and Richard Blumenthal have donated much more modest amounts.

Foley, the Republican nominee for governor, donated more than $210,000 to national and state Republican candidates and PACS in the last 15 years or so.  Former Congressman Chris Shays was a Foley favorite, garnering more than $12,000 in contributions from the Greenwich millionaire, while Rob Simmons received about $5,000.  During the same period, Foley gave $5,000 to John Rowland’s campaigns and another $1,200 to Republican Paul Silvester – although neither were convicted felons at the time. Foley only managed to give $500 to M. Jodi Rell, which is the same amount he donated to the outgoing Attorney General Richard Blumenthal. One of the most interesting contributions Foley has made was to Mitch McDonnell, the archconservative, pro-Iraq war senator from Kentucky.  Ironically, as director of private sector development for the Coalition Provisional Authority in Iraq, Foley and his friends benefited nicely from that war.

While Foley was using most of his money to support Republican candidates, Linda McMahon and her husband, Vince, have been much more bipartisan with their donations.  Together they dropped about $120,000 in the last decade or so. Beneficiaries included Rham Emanuel, President Obama’s chief of staff and Democratic strongman who collected nearly $7,000 from the McMahons. Emanuel’s Democratic congressional campaign committee also received $15,000 during that same time period. The McMahons provided Virginia Democratic Senator Mark Warner with $2,300 and gave another $5,000 to Warner’s PAC.

Like Foley, the McMahons have also dug deep to help the Republican Party, providing more than $45,000 to the national party, $15,000 to the state party, and another $15,000 to various Republican congressional campaign committees.

However, here in Connecticut, the McMahons campaign donations seeded both Republican and Democratic races. They gave about $8,000 to Susan Bysiewicz, $4,000 to John Rowland, and held a successful fundraiser for Rell.  Following this generosity in 2006, Rell nominated Linda McMahon to Connecticut’s State Board of Education. Interestingly, it was a nomination that drew letters of support from Bysiewicz and separately from Malloy.

Not to be outdone by Foley’s support for McConnell, Linda McMahon’s donations included a check to Sen. Rick Santorum, a Pennsylvania Republican. Aficionados will remember Santorum as the one who tried to amend the No Child Left Behind law with a requirement that schools teach intelligent design, a theory that essentially questions the legitimacy of evolution.

Griebel, another contender for the Republican nomination for governor, has donated about $35,000 since the late 1990s. Griebel is truly bipartisan in his approach, which may, in part, be because of the fact that he has been head of the MetroHartford Alliance and has felt it necessary to curry favor with Democrats and Republicans. Whatever his reasoning, he and his wife have made about half of their political donations to Democrats, including contributions to Dodd, Lieberman, Connecticut’s Democratic members of Congress and the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee.  At the same time they’ve given generously to George W. Bush, Connecticut’s Republican members of Congress and the Connecticut Republicans. Rowland and Rell also received sizeable contributions and, in the “small world department,” Griebel has donated to both Democratic contenders for Lt. Governor, Nancy Wyman and Mary Glassman.

Meanwhile over the same period, Lt. Governor Michael Fedele donated a paltry $8,000 with his largest contributions going to Rell, his political partner, the very same person who refuses to endorse his candidacy for governor.

Regardless of party, when it comes to making political contributions Democrat Ned Lamont, who is presently challenging Malloy, the Democratic nominee for Governor, has eclipsed all of the other contenders for public office this year. Along with his wife and daughter, Lamont donated more than $265,000 over the last 15 years with most of that given since he first entered electoral politics in 2006.

Lamont’s money has gone almost exclusively to Democrats and Democratic political committees, and mostly progressive candidates and organizations at that.  Obama, Dodd, Clinton, Al Franken and have all been recipients of Lamont donations, as has the Democratic National Committee, which received more than $66,000.

The Lamonts also have given generously to Connecticut Democrats, including the state Democratic Party. During the last gubernatorial campaign, Lamont donated $1,000 in January 2006 to his present rival, Malloy, but then equaled the situation out when he gave another $1,000 to Malloy’s opponent, John Destefano, in February 2006. The donations that don’t quite fit the pattern are the $1,500 he has donated to Joe Lieberman over the years and a contribution to Republican Chris Shays in 1998.

When it comes to campaign donations, Malloy can be found at the other end of the spectrum, having donated less than $15,000 over the last 15 years. Malloy has given exclusively to Democrats with the bulk of the money going to Connecticut’s state and congressional candidates.

Perhaps most interesting off all is that while Richard Blumenthal is a member of the “Greenwich Millionaire’s club,” one would never guess it from his record on political donations. Other than donations to his own campaigns, Blumenthal is at the bottom of the list. He and his wife have donated about $12,000 during the review period with most of those funds going to freshman Congressman Jim Hines, Dodd, Obama and the national and state Democratic Parties.

Whether a candidate’s record of donations truly tells us something about their values is open for debate, but if nothing else, their donation patterns are certainly fodder for discussion.

Jonathan Pelto served as a member of the House of Representatives from 1984-1993. He was Deputy Majority Leader and member of the Appropriations Committees during the income tax debate of 1991. He presently works as a strategic communications consultant.