Paymaster of the Radical Republican Religious Right in Texas
Businessman invests capital in his causes
Leininger's millions helped conservatives make gains
By R.G. RATCLIFFE
Houston Chronicle Austin Bureau Staff
Sunday, September 21, 1997
"Commit thy way unto the Lord; trust also in Him; and He shall bring it to pass.'' Psalms 37:5. - From Kinetic Concepts Inc. annual report.
Dr. James R. Leininger, a conservative and devoutly religious Republican businessman, probably is known by few Texans outside his hometown of San Antonio.
During the past decade Leininger has spent more than $1.4 million of his personal fortune to affect how Texans vote and another $3 .2 million to change how Texans think on political issues such as tort reform and private school vouchers.
Others have spent more money to affect Texas elections, but likely none has spent so much so broadly to affect both elections and Texas public policy.
Leininger, with a focus on candidates who support private school vouchers, was among the largest contributors in the 1996 elections. His political giving topped $550,000 last year, about 50 percent more than the $365,775 spent by the wealthy political action committee of the Texas Medical Association.
"He believes in putting his time, effort and money behind things he believes in," said Tex Lezar, the 1994 Republican nominee for lieutenant governor and former president of a Leininger -backed think tank. "I've never sensed an ulterior motive for Jim. It's all philosophical."
Through the years, Leininger 's political committees have helped secure a Republican majority on the state Supreme Court and have pushed for a GOP majority in the Texas House of Representatives. He also financed gains social conservatives made in holding seats on the State Board of Education.
Leininger has founded and financed public policy foundations that have promoted statewide public support for tort reform and challenged the federal Endangered Species Act. He has been instrumental in creating a private school voucher movement both in Texas and nationally.
Leininger also has personal financial ties to some of the state's most influential Republicans.
Agriculture Commissioner Rick Perry, who is running for lieutenant governor, earned more than $25,000 last year trading in stock issued by Leininger 's company, Kinetic Concepts Inc. Leininger and his brother, Peter, also bought a $475,000 airplane that was partly owned by Perry's political committee. Leininger, his family and his company's political committee so far this year have donated $62,500 to Perry's campaign.
Economist Wendy Lee Gramm, wife of U.S. Sen. Phil Gramm, earns $25,000 a year as a member of the Kinetic Concepts board of directors. She also holds stock options in the company, which manufactures specialized hospital beds.
Texas Republican Party chairwoman Susan Weddington earned more than $25,000 last year as a consultant to a Leininger -financed political committee.
Leininger, an unassuming man who has avoided the limelight, said he never has a grand game plan for his giving. It comes from his heart based on issues he believes in, he said, such as private school choice.
"It's always an emotional thing for me," Leininger said. "If I sat down and planned it out, I think I'd just go to Bermuda instead."
To his supporters, he is a philanthropist who mixes a free-market business philosophy with Christian beliefs to promote a better Texas.
His detractors portray him as the state's premier financier of "religious political extremists" whose agenda is shaped by the Christian Coalition.
"I don't find it offensive. I find it kind of sad," said Leininger, who denied being an extremist. "If someone disagrees with you, you're either Attila the Hun or a leftist liberal. It's a sad commentary on where politics is today."
Leininger 's personal fortune and cash flow is on the verge of improving on the eve of the 1998 election season. A consortium of investors led by the financier husband of U.S. Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-California, has offered a friendly buyout of Leininger 's Kinetic Concepts, according to records at the federal Securities and Exchange Commission.
Leininger owns about 47 percent of Kinetic Concepts' stock, with a market value of more than $350 million, according to SEC documents. The value of Kinetic Concepts stock in the past has put Leininger among the 100 wealthiest Texans.
Donations of Kinetic Concepts stock have financed Leininger 's two personal foundations, the Covenant Foundation and the JCL Foundation, formerly known as the Kinetic Concepts Foundation.
Since 1991, the two foundations have made $5.6 million in contributions. About 57 percent of that money has gone to politically oriented nonprofit organizations, with the remainder being given to churches and Christian ministries, studies and missionary activities.
Leininger said that looking only at his foundations' activities might give the impression that his philanthropy is limited to religious or conservative business causes. He points out that he personally gave $6.8 million last year to medical and educational institutions, including $1.5 million to Vanderbilt University and $3 million to the University of Miami for an endowed chair in the medical school.
In addition, he said, Kinetic Concepts gave $2 million for a building to provide temporary residences for the families of cancer patients in San Antonio and another $300,000 for diabetes research at the University of Texas Medical Center.
Leininger -- a basketball fan who is part owner of the San Antonio Spurs -- gave $170,000 to build the Home Dome there, a gymnasium for home-schooled children.
Leininger, 53, grew up in Indiana and Florida, and settled in San Antonio after serving as a doctor in the Army. He was the emergency room director of Baptist Memorial Hospital 1975-86.
His fortune grew out of a side occupation as a salesman for a Chicago company that made a specialized hospital bed. The bed rotates critical care and long-term care patients in ways that help reduce bed sores, circulatory problems and the development of pneumonia.
As the company headed toward bankruptcy in the mid-1970s, Leininger and his wife, Cecilia, bought the firm and renamed it Kinetic Concepts. Leininger turned the company around, and it became the bedrock of his personal wealth.
His diversified investments now included San Antonio real estate and a variety of food companies: dairy products with Promised Land Foods Inc., mail-order turkeys with Sunday House Foods Inc., and seafood through Seafood Wholesalers of Houston and Plantation Seafood Co.
Leininger also owns a direct mail firm, Focus Direct Inc., and a television station, Mission City Television Inc., which in the past have worked for Leininger 's political committees, according to records at the Texas Ethics Commission.
He said he did not become politically involved until he joined the tort reform movement in the late 1980s.
About that time, Leininger was preparing to take Kinetic Concepts public in 1987, he said, when suddenly the company lost its liability insurance. "We'd never been sued. I was shocked," he said. "That kind of woke me up."
Shortly after that, he saw a segment on CBS News' 60 Minutes about plaintiff lawyers controlling the Texas Supreme Court through campaign contributions. He joined business interests in the 1988 tort reform movement and launched his first political committee, Texans for Justice.
"We were pretty successful that year," said Fritz Steiger, who had been the public relations director for Wal-Mart before he was hired to run Texans for Justice. "We'd like to say we had some significant influence in that election, but there were a lot of people involved (with tort reform)."
Conservatives won four of the six Supreme Court seats up for election in 1988. Texans for Justice focused most of its efforts on the contest for chief justice between incumbent Republican Tom Phillips and his Democratic challenger, Supreme Court Judge Ted Robertson.
Texans for Justice, like other tort reform groups, attacked Robertson for voting favorably on a case that had been brought before the court by Clinton Manges, a South Texas oilman who had given him $120,000 in campaign contributions.
Eighty-six percent of the funding for Texans for Justice - or $196,000 - was donated by Leininger .
Voter mailings from Texans for Justice were not limited to tort reform. One was sent by Richie Martin, coordinator of the Rev. Pat Robertson's presidential campaign in Texas earlier that year. Martin's letter told voters that the U.S. Supreme Court was expected to rule that the issue of abortion should be decided by individual states.
"When that happens, the Texas Supreme Court will decide the life and death issue that affects generations to come," Martin said.
Growing out of Texans for Justice in 1989 was the first conservative state think tank founded and initially funded by Leininger - the Texas Public Policy Foundation.
"I realized there wasn't any intellectual capital in the state of Texas," Leininger said.
The model was the national Heritage Foundation, Steiger said, and the idea was to affect state government policy by swaying public opinion through academic research. Texas Public Policy Foundation funded studies on issues such as tort reform and state tax policy.
Since creating the public policy foundation, Leininger has given it more than $980,000 - or about one-fifth of its total operating costs - according to information provided by the foundation.
But the biggest spin-off occurred after Leininger read a 1991 Wall Street Journal editorial about a private school voucher program for black students started by J. Patrick Rooney, chairman of Golden Rule Insurance in Indianapolis.
"I said, `That's just great. We ought to do that for poor kids in San Antonio who can't get out of a bad school,' " said Leininger, whose four children had been either home-schooled or sent to private school.
Leininger in 1992 founded CEO San Antonio to give private school vouchers to low-income students to allow them to attend the school of their choice. Leininger has put $1.8 million into the program, or 80 percent of its funding. Other funding has come from the USAA Foundation and the San Antonio Express-News.
CEO San Antonio is one part philanthropy and one part demonstration project to convince the Texas Legislature to create a taxpayer-funded school voucher program.
Leininger 's involvement in CEO San Antonio rapidly developed into the beginnings of a national movement. "We started to spend more time talking to people in Atlanta than in San Antonio."
John K. Andrews, a former president of the Texas Public Policy Foundation, said the foundation's main mission in the early 1990s became the spread of the private voucher movement.
"The Texas Public Policy Foundation would be the spark plug for national expansion," said Andrews, a one-time Republican candidate for Colorado governor. "We had 20 or 25 cities on our active list."
Meanwhile, Steiger re-established his ties to the Walton family of the Wal-Mart stores. With a pledge of $2 million from the Walton Family Foundation, Steiger broke the national movement away from the Texas Public Policy Foundation and formed CEO America. Leininger and Rooney are on the board of directors.
Since 1992, 30 private voucher programs have been established around the country with $40 million in funding from donors, Steiger said. Each program is designed to create public support so state legislatures will adopt taxpayer-funded private school voucher programs "where parents of all income levels" would have some sort of assistance.
In Texas, between 1994 and 1996, Leininger gave more than $700,000 to candidates and political committees dedicated to passing a private voucher program in the Legislature and implementing it at the State Board of Education.
Much of this spending was through two Leininger -controlled political committees: Texans for Governmental Integrity and the A+ PAC for Parental School Choice.
Texans for Governmental Integrity's most controversial action was a 1994 direct mail piece sent out on behalf of a Republican candidate for the State Board of Education claiming the Democratic incumbent had voted for textbooks that promoted abortion and homosexuality. The brochure featured a large photograph of a black man kissing a white man.
Cecile Richards, executive director of the Texas Freedom Network, declared during last year's elections that the brochure proved that "religious political extremists are buying control" of the State Board of Education.
"I worry about Leininger because he has the resources to determine the fate of public education," said Cecile Richards, executive director of the Texas Freedom Network. "From the PACs all the way over to the foundations with the candidates in between, the way his money is affecting public policy is tremendous."
Leininger defended the mailing. He said the textbook listed AIDS Services of Austin as a resource for students and if they called the telephone number the service would send them a poster that included the controversial photograph.
"I thought it was highly inappropriate," Leininger said.
During this year's legislative session, a private voucher group called Putting Children First came within one vote of winning House passage of a private voucher program. Putting Children First spent $650,000 on lobbying and public relations during the legislative session.
Austin businessman James M. Mansour, chairman of CEO America and Putting Children First and a member of the Texas Public Policy Foundation board of directors, said Leininger had no direct financial involvement in the effort.
Mansour said the school choice movement gained momentum because the idea appeals to parents and people worried about the quality of public schools, not because of Leininger 's money.
"It's about empowering parents," Mansour said.
Carolyn Boyle, a lobbyist for the Texas Coalition for Public Schools, said private vouchers would harm public schools by draining money that is used for supplies and equipment. Boyle's coalition is made up of 24 groups, including teachers organizations, school superintendents and the Texas PTA.
"People in these groups like Texas Public Policy Foundation and Putting Children First are not interested in improving public schools," Boyle said. "They are talking about people who want their children to get religious training every day at taxpayers' expense."
Leininger said that because of his wealth he was able to choose the kind of education he wanted to give his children. He said he wants nothing more than to give that same freedom to low-income parents.
"I'm amazed at all the adversity that has caused," Leininger said. "I'm amazed that makes me some sort of religious-right person."
Public records show James R.Leininger made more than $2 million in political and philanthropic donations in 1996. Three of every four dollars went to candidates or organizations with a political agenda. Some of those donations include:
$281,000 to the A+ PAC for Parental School Choice. This amounts to 53 percent of the funding the school choice committee received in 1996. Almost all the remainder of the committee's funding came from four other individuals. The committee supported legislative candidates and state board of education candidates who favor private school vouchers.
$185,275 to Texas House, Senate, and State Board of Education candidates.
$99,000 to national party committees, candidates for Congress, and the Republican Party of Texas.
$25,000 to Gov. George W. Bush.
$460,000 to the CEO Foundation of San Antonio, a private school voucher demonstration project.
$210,000 to National Right to Life and the NRL Educational Trust Fund.
$134,000 to the Texas Justice Foundation.
$100,000 to the Texas Public Policy Foundation.
$66,000 to the Texas Conservative Academic Network.
Leininger Contributes to Conservative Causes With Money and Prayer, Wallet and Spirit
by Debbie Nathan
The Austin Chonicle
One afternoon last October, Jo Ann King-Sinnett was looking at an anti-choice mailing that had come across her desk. As San Antonio Planned Parenthood's director of community affairs, King-Sinnett monitors such material, particularly when it is distributed locally. On this day, the item came from the Heidi Group, an Austin-based organization dedicated to shutting down Texas abortion clinics and making the procedure illegal. The Heidi Group literature included a shiny October 1998 calendar that abortion foes in San Antonio were urged to consult as they said their daily prayers. Many of the little squares marking the calendar dates contained names of women's health care and abortion clinics ("Pray that Reproductive Services would close," read one supplication). Others were more forbidding: They mentioned individual staff members at Planned Parenthood, and local pro-choice physicians.
One entry was downright ominous. It told the faithful to "Ask that Jesús Santoscoy" -- a San Antonio doctor who does abortions -- "will come to see Jesus face to face." King-Sinnett wondered if suggesting that someone see Jesus face to face constituted a veiled death threat. Her fears were hardly idle. Nationally, October saw a wave of assaults against abortion providers, including anthrax threats mailed to several clinics and the fatal sniper shooting of a physician in New York. King-Sinnett put the calendar into her file of anti-abortion material, though she had no idea who was funding the Heidi Group. A few weeks later, El Pasoan Rene Nuñez was reeling after looking at mail that had come across his desk. For a decade, Nuñez has served on the Texas State Board of Education. During that time, the board's membership has swelled with far-right Christian Republicans who want to ban sex education, institute classroom prayer, and otherwise impose pedagogical theocracy on the public schools. As a longtime Democrat, Nuñez is no Christian right-winger. But his most recent opponent was. Donna Ballard, who has served on the Board of Education before, has a reputation for attack-dog behavior at board meetings and in her campaigns.
The mail Nuñez saw was sent to voters in his district, and was typical Ballard: It accused him of promoting bisexuality to Texas school children, and encouraging them to support the legalization of marijuana. Nuñez has approved health texts that discuss bisexuality in the context of AIDS-prevention education. He okayed a book whose teacher's edition suggests students debate the pros and cons of reforming the nation's drug laws. Such teaching materials are hardly radical these days, so Ballard's vitriolic accusations shocked Nuñez. But they didn't surprise him. He knew that four years earlier, Ballard had done the same thing to an incumbent who subsequently lost the election. Ballard's mail-outs cost a tremendous amount of money. That did not surprise Nuñez either. He already knew who was providing much of the funding.
Ballard's benefactor was the same person who has quietly made major contributions to the Heidi Group, the organization that creates the "prayer calendar." He is one of the richest people in San Antonio: Dr. James Leininger.
Very few people know much about Leininger. Few know that his anti-abortion and Christian-school-board campaign giving is only the tip of an iceberg of one-man benevolence -- much of it sunk into right-wing projects that have changed the political landscape in Texas, and to some extent, the nation. Some people who do understand what Leininger is up to call him the Daddy Warbucks of social conservativism in Texas. But Little Orphan Annie's moneybags patron was cartoonish, with vacant pop-eyes, and for years appeared daily in newspapers across the nation. Leininger is not cartoonish. He is a tall man, vaguely well muscled for his 54 years, with a pate of red-brown, balding hair that is textured at its thinnest spots like streaks of cotton candy. Otherwise he is totally unassuming. And unlike Daddy Warbucks, Leininger almost never appears in the press. He is so reticent about being interviewed that few reporters know how to say his name (the last syllable is pronounced not as "j" but with a hard "g"). Leininger did not respond to numerous requests for an interview.
This mix of modesty and secrecy partially explains why one of the state's biggest conservative political players is a public mystery. Granted, the local press often mentions Leininger as the heart and wallet behind San Antonio's Edgewood Independent School District voucher movement: His name regularly pops up in reports about the local Children's Educational Opportunity (CEO) Foundation, which he founded and funds, and which last year offered Edgewood parents $50 million to yank their children from the district and send them to private schools. And last month, the San Antonio Express-News published a long piece on Leininger that celebrated his business acumen, noted his participation in conservative projects such as the Texas Public Policy Foundation, and mentioned his partial ownership of the Spurs basketball team. Nelson Wolff's book, Mayor, talks about how Leininger accompanied then-San Antonio Mayor Wolff on a 1992 junket to Mexico, to lobby for San Antonio's piece of the action in the North American Free Trade Agreement.
But apart from vouchers, GOP leanings, NAFTA, and basketball, few in San Antonio -- let alone elsewhere -- know the farther out, seamier side of James Leininger's largess. Hardly anyone is aware of the role he has played in making the Texas Supreme Court one of the most anti-consumer, pro-business judicial bodies in the nation; or about his instrumental and sometimes smear-tactic efforts to pack the State Board of Education with Christian conservatives; or how he has been associated with a group implicated in federal campaign finance scandals; or of his support for attempts to gut the Endangered Species Act; or the way he funds anti-choice groups.
Further, almost no one knows the names of Leininger's many businesses, nor the products those businesses lease and sell to the public. Consumers who abhor far-right conservatism may be renting Leininger office space and buying all kinds of Leininger goods and services: everything from milk and ice cream to time on a basketball court (see box, p.24). That means people inside and outside San Antonio may be bankrolling causes they would never knowingly support -- Leininger's causes. How did this state of ignorance come about? Who is James Leininger, how does he spend his fortune, and why does he do it? What follows is an attempt to answer these questions by examining the Alamo City mogul's private and public worlds, and how those worlds have come together during the past decade.
It's no secret that he has a lot of money. In 1992, Forbes magazine hailed Leininger as one of the 400 wealthiest entrepreneurs in the country, and reckoned his worth at $285 million (the Express-News recently upped that figure by $55 million). Texas Monthly has listed him among the 100 richest people in the state and the top five in San Antonio. Leininger's wealth originally came from beds: ultra-high-tech hospital beds for very sick people. Critically ill patients and others unable to move often develop bed sores, lung infections, and other life-threatening conditions. Leininger's beds have air chambers, silicon beads, and motors in them. They can vibrate or rock or turn a person, mimicking natural movements that keep the body's blood and oxygen flowing. The beds save lives and speed healing. They are also extraordinarily complicated contraptions that cost in the neighborhood of $40,000 apiece. Leininger got the idea for making and marketing the beds while he was running Baptist Health System's emergency department in the 1970s. Earlier, he had been a doctor at Brooke Army Medical Center, and previous to that, had studied medicine at Indiana University. A generation earlier, his father, Hilbert Adolph Peter Leininger, had gotten his M.D. at Indiana. Hilbert -- known to his kin as Hib -- wanted all his five sons to follow in their father's footsteps. Doctoring, Hib thought, would be part of the family tradition.
For the Leiningers, tradition itself is a tradition. It has been ever since Hib's father -- James' grandfather -- ruled the clan like a Biblical patriarch. His name was Adolph, and recently, his descendants reminisced about growing up under the old man's thumb. One is Melinda Marshall. Today a resident of Portland, Oregon, Marshall was raised in Fort Wayne, Indiana, which during her childhood was home to Adolph, his children, and their children. Melinda is a cousin of James Leininger. Adolph was their grandfather. Marshall remembers Adolph as "a humble man, with maybe a third-grade education, a carpenter." And, she adds, he was "a turd": a man obsessed with genealogy and with applying an iron hand to his children and grandchildren. Another cousin, Walter Moravec, still of Fort Wayne, recalls sitting as a child by Adolph at Sunday dinners and being terrified to utter a word, "because if I did, my granddad would thump me." Adolph had five daughters and one son, Hib. The sisters married late in life; Marshall thinks that is because "Adolph expected them all to work to send Hib through medical school." Another reason for the spinsterhood: When the girls brought home their fiancees, Adolph withheld his blessing if the young men were any religion other than Lutheran. Indeed, for generations, it was rock-ribbed, fundamentalist Lutheranism that united the Leiningers. The family immigrated from Germany to rural Ohio in the 1830s. The region then was dense with Lutherans, who divided their church into deliberative bodies called synods. The Missouri Synod (whose membership spreads beyond the state for which it is named) is the most conservative of these groups. According to a Synod doctrinal statement published not long before James was born, the Bible is inerrantly true, and claims to the contrary are "horrible and blasphemous." The theory of evolution is sacrilegious, and anyone who disbelieves these tenets is an "instrument of Satan."
These stony beliefs informed the childhood of James Leininger's father. They translated to Sunday church attendance with all the kin, daily home prayer, mandatory listening to Lutheran radio programs, family reunions that always opened with a religious service, and Adolph's warnings that dancing was a sin. Amid these ossified routines of faith, Hib and his sisters, then later their children, were discouraged from expressing any skepticism. Marshall says they felt so overdosed with religion that as young adults, most rejected it entirely. That's what happened to James Leininger, though he spent his childhood far from his grandfather. In the early 1950s, Hib, who by then was a general-practice doctor, moved his family -- wife, Berneta, and sons James and Peter -- to South Florida to do a residence in urology. Three more boys would eventually be born. Florida is a long way from Indiana, but Marshall recalls that Hib was only a milder version of old Adolph: a strict disciplinarian, and still a devout Missouri Synod Lutheran. For James and his brothers, that meant -- according to Berneta, who now lives in San Antonio and who spoke to the San Antonio Current in a tight-lipped Indiana twang -- "sticking exactly to the Bible and no funny business." Berneta recalled Hib's later shock when all five sons renounced Lutheranism. James, according to the interview he recently gave the Express-News, became an agnostic.
But his youthful rationalism would not last long. By the late 1970s, Leininger had gotten interested in hospital beds. He bought a failing company that had already developed the product; he and wife Cecelia started nursing the business back to prosperity out of their apartment. But the enterprise foundered, and in 1979 creditors prepared to seize his assets. One evening, at the 11th hour of financial crisis, he joined hands with Cecelia. They knelt down, began praying, and tearfully offered their company to the Lord as though it were a terminally ill child.
But it was a business, and some months later, Leininger had a new supply of capital and a healthy trade in beds. The miraculous recovery of what is now Kinetic Concepts International (KCI) convinced James of the existence of God. Thus the prodigal son returned ... but to a faith that has more to do with Sun Belt entrepreneurship than the 19th-century beliefs of his Midwest forefathers.
Lone Star PAC-Man
James Leininger's bed business and wealth grew, and so did his family. Cecelia, a tall, regal woman with fine-chiseled features, gave birth to a boy, Brian, and two girls, Kelly and Tracey (a fourth child, Joshua, was later adopted). The apartment was exchanged for a nouveau-riche mini-estate, complete with deer wandering the neighborhood, in the San Antonio suburb of Hollywood Park. As KCI prospered, James' brothers Peter, John, and Daniel -- who had all studied medicine or optometry -- migrated to San Antonio to work in James' expanding enterprises (a fourth brother, Michael, is a Baptist minister who remained in Florida). Their parents, Hib and Berneta, came to San Antonio, too, after Hib retired from urology.
All seemed well until the late Eighties, when James Leininger had his second, political, conversion. He was preparing to take KCI public then, but suddenly the company lost its liability insurance. This was no small matter, since the U.S. Food and Drug Administration was receiving reports claiming that KCI beds were malfunctioning, and that patients had been trapped, mangled, and otherwise injured while in them. Some of those incidents would later lead to lawsuits, such as one which recently made the news, filed by a man who says he got sick after a KCI bed sprayed him with silicon beads.
As Leininger told the Houston Chronicle last year, a lightbulb went off in his head one day in 1987, when he saw a CBS News 60 Minutes report, "Justice for Sale." The program described how plaintiffs' lawyers in Texas were swaying cases in their favor by contributing to the campaigns of state Supreme Court judges. After watching the show, Leininger joined the "tort reform" movement that was growing among Texas business interests. Their stated goal was to defeat biased judges in elections, and replace them with candidates untainted by lawyer financing. In reality, however, the business magnates merely exchanged plaintiff money for defense money. They helped elect judges -- and later legislators -- who would make it hard for an injured consumer or worker to successfully sue a manufacturer or business. The tort reform movement was Leininger's introduction to big-player political giving. In 1988, he started a political action committee (PAC), Texans for Justice. A PAC normally collects money from many people -- from the members of a profession or line of business, for instance -- and funnels the cash to candidates in hopes that the winners will make laws favoring the profession or business who gave the money. But according to the Houston Chronicle, 86% of the cash in Texans for Justice, or $196,000, came from only one person: Leininger. The money went to conservative candidates in the 1988 state Supreme Court judgeship contests. Other PACs also contributed, and the ploy worked. Conservatives won four of the six seats up for re-election.
Until then, the Texas Supreme Court had been a relatively populist body. Ever since, its rulings have been so consistently anti-consumer and anti-worker that the court is now considered among the most pro-business in the country. The problem is so notorious that earlier this month, 60 Minutes ran an updated version of the 1987 program that recruited Leininger to the political world.
After his successes with the state court, Leininger got deeply involved in efforts to sway legislators and local judicial officials. Between 1992 and 1996, another PAC he founded, Texans for Governmental Integrity (TGI), helped fund the campaigns of dozens of state senators, representatives, and local lawmakers. In the San Antonio area, according to state Ethics Commission records, Republican legislative candidates such as Frank Corte Jr. and Ernesto Ancira took TGI money. But so did many Democrats, among them Judith Zaffirini, Frank Madla, and Ciro Rodriguez. Other candidates who accepted TGI support were then-District Judge Charlie Gonzalez, who recently was elected to Congress, and County Judge Cyndi Krier. By now, as it should be obvious, Leininger was getting the hang of naming his PACs. They could have been assembled from a Chinese menu of civic buzzwords -- Texas or Texans from Column A; Justice or Integrity or Reform from Column B. Using this method, so many organizations have been generated -- by conservatives and liberals alike -- that anyone writing about them risks putting readers to sleep.
Leininger, however, was wide awake. In 1995 and 1996, he was one of 18 top contributors to Texans for Lawsuit Reform (TLR). TLR is not to be confused with Texans for Public Justice. The latter is an Austin-based watchdog organization that unfortunately chose for itself a somnambulently Leiningeresque name. Texans for Public Justice monitors the way campaign financing influences judges and lawmakers, and it calls TLR "the 800-pound gorilla of the tort-reform PACs." During the 1996 state elections cycle, TLR gave hundreds of thousands of dollars to candidates, mostly Republicans. Since then, the Texas legislature has passed laws that have gutted worker's compensation and exempted industries from responsibility for worker and consumer safety.
Flush with his tort reform efforts, Leininger decided the state needed a think tank. He imagined a Lone Star version of the Heritage Foundation, the most influential conservative policy group in the country. According to University of California Berkeley sociologist Sarah Diamond, who has extensively studied the contemporary right, the Heritage Foundation makes far-right policy projects sound attractive by translating them into the language of "conservatism" and "traditional family values." In 1989, to replicate these national efforts on a statewide level, Leininger created and funded the Texas Public Policy Foundation (TPPF). According to the Houston Chronicle, TPPF has since received some $1 million -- a fifth of its funding -- from Leininger and his family. Its director, an affable man named Jeff Judson, has a degree in philosophy and once worked for U.S. Senator John Tower. The organization specializes in promoting the secular, laissez-faire side of conservative thought. TPPF's reports and op-eds advocate privatization of public services, downsized government, and other free-market projects that would warm the heart of Milton Friedman.
A TPPF spinoff, the Texas Justice Foundation (TJF), is another Leininger creation but with a woolier persona. TJF bills itself as Texas' conservative answer to the American Civil Liberties Union. The group recently helped in a lawsuit that tried to overturn the Endangered Species Act protection for flora and fauna native only to Comal and San Marcos counties. (TJF's reasoning: Since beleaguered life forms such as the Texas blind salamander are not involved in "interstate commerce," they do not deserve federal protection.) But what really gets TJF excited is protecting the faith -- as when the group threatened to sue a school district where a teacher forbade a student from looking at a Bible during free-reading class. Such interest by TJF is predictable, given that its director, attorney Allan Parker, is former head of the Bexar County Christian Coalition.
Does James Leininger Own Perry and Rylander, Or is He Just Renting?
The Million Dollar Man
by Robert Bryce
The Austin Chronicle
January 29-February 4, 1999
John Sharp didn't lose to Rick Perry. Nor did Paul Hobby lose to Carole Keeton Rylander. Rather, it appears, the two Democrats lost their races to James Leininger's money.Leininger, a San Antonio multimillionaire with an ultra-conservative bent, helped guarantee two loans shortly before the November election -- $1.1 million to Perry on October 25 and $950,000 to Rylander on October 1 -- that likely made the difference in the races for lieutenant governor and comptroller. Those were the closest races on the statewide ballot. Perry beat Sharp by 68,700 votes. Rylander beat Hobby by just 20,223 votes in one of the closest statewide races in Texas history. In each race, about 3.7 million votes were cast. Sharp lost by 1.8% of the vote, Hobby by just 0.55%.
Handicapping political races is an inexact science. And there is no way to prove that Leininger's loans were the decisive factor in the two races. "It's almost impossible to narrow down the result to a single thing," says Bruce Buchanan, a professor of government at UT. "But when the races are as close as those two races, it's reasonable to suggest that money like that may have made the difference."
Leininger's money certainly provided critical ammunition to both GOP candidates. Consider these facts:
- Over 10% of the $10.3 million that Perry raised before the election came from a loan guaranteed by Leininger and two other businessmen.
- Nearly 25% of the $3.85 million that Rylander raised in the year prior to the election came from a loan guaranteed by Leininger and four others.
- On the same day that Leininger's loan was approved, Rylander's campaign wrote a check for $850,000 to National Media in Alexandria, Va., for media buys.
- Within five days of getting their loan money, the Perry campaign spent over $1 million on media, with the bulk of that -- $966,000 -- going to David Weeks & Co., Perry's Austin-based media consultant.
- Leininger's money came at critical times for both campaigns. When Rylander got the money, she was trailing Hobby in the polls, and being outspent by more than two to one. From July through September, Hobby had spent $3.7 million to Rylander's $1.7 million. In late October, when Perry got his loan, he was in a dead heat with Sharp, with polls showing both candidates with 37% of the vote. And Sharp was outspending him by a margin of nearly three to one -- $6.8 million to $2.3 million, from July to September.
Weeks, who did the media buys for the Perry campaign, discounts the notion that Leininger's money catapulted Perry to victory. "We stayed competitive all the way through," said Weeks. "Even without the loan, we would have been competitive."
But would Perry have won without Leininger's money? "Yeah, he would have won," said Weeks, who added that buying TV time at the end of a campaign is difficult. "We did increase [TV] buys at the end of the campaign, but not significantly. It was not a huge amount. We were already pretty maxed out. It's hard to plan for because you assume it's going to be sold out." However, Weeks conceded, "Every dollar helps. But it's an assumption to say they [Perry and Rylander] would have lost without [Leininger's money]."
Reggie Bashur, a political consultant to Rylander (and paid lobbyist for the city of Austin) refused to comment, saying he was not authorized to speak for the Rylander campaign. Messages left for Scott McClellan, Rylander's campaign manager, were not returned.
Kathy Miller, deputy director of the Texas Freedom Network, has no doubt that Leininger's loan made the difference. "When you have a race as close as the Sharp-Perry race, one or two million dollars can make one, two, or three percentage points difference," she said. And Miller argues that Leininger's activities "undermine the power of the electorate to see what they want done. It weakens Texas' democracy."
Miller's group is one of several that are working to counter Leininger's influence. Much has been written about the reclusive hospital bed magnate, whose net worth has been estimated at $340 million (see "Wallet and Spirit," p.22). And to be fair, he did not provide the loans to Perry and Rylander by himself. The Perry loan was co-signed by chemical company executive William McMinn of Houston and telecommunications executive James Mansour of Austin, who chairs the pro-school voucher group, Putting Children First. Leininger and McMinn also co-signed the note for Rylander, along with Harlan Crow of Dallas, Kenneth Banks of Schulenberg, and J. Virgil Waggoner of Houston.
But although the other co-signers on the loan have deep pockets, none can match Leininger's network of influence, nor can they match his record of dumping big money into political campaigns. In 1996, according to figures compiled by the Houston Chronicle, Leininger's political contributions topped $550,000. His political donations and loans in 1998 may well exceed that amount.
Leininger underplays his role in the elections, saying his cash donations were far less than his loans to candidates, and that it is deceptive to count the loans he co-signed.
"It's just a lot of talk," Leininger said in a story in Wednesday's San Antonio Express-News. "I don't have any desire to be a player or a powerhouse."
One member of the Sharp campaign estimated that Leininger, along with other advocates of school vouchers, contributed some $700,000 to Perry's campaign. As an individual, Leininger gave Perry $56,908. In addition, three of Leininger's brothers and his mother all gave money to Perry, with contributions ranging from $1,000 to $25,000. Perry's connections to Leininger also include stock and airplane deals. Perry made $38,000 trading stock in Leininger's hospital bed company, San Antonio-based Kinetic Concepts. And in 1996, Perry's campaign bought a 10% interest in a 1980 Piper Cheyenne I turbo prop airplane, while Leininger and his brother, Peter, bought the other 90%. In 1997, the Houston Chronicle quoted Leininger as saying that Perry convinced him to buy the plane. "Rick's the guy who talked me into getting an airplane," he said. In July of 1997, the Perry campaign bought the Leiningers' 90% interest in the plane for $346,000, a price that Sharp loyalists insist was far below its market value. Perry's campaign manager, Jim Arnold, defended the price to the Houston Chronicle, saying the plane was worth less than planes of similar vintage because of the high number of hours on the engines.
The Leiningers not only sold the plane to Perry's campaign, they agreed to finance the purchase as well. According to Perry's latest expense report, on December 1, the campaign paid Convenant Aircraft Investment Inc., a company run by Daniel Leininger, $3,040 for "airplane expenses." Ray Sullivan, Perry's spokesman, said that the Perry campaign has "approximately $300,000 outstanding on the airplane loan" that Covenant made to the campaign, and that the campaign makes payments to Covenant on a regular basis to pay it off.
In spite of Leininger's close ties to Perry, Sullivan said, Perry "owes one group of people in Texas, and that's the citizens who put him in office and entrusted him with that office. He owes nothing to any of our donors and contributors. He owes everything to the citizens of the state."
Perry may owe everything to the citizens. But is it true that he and Rylander owe nothing to Leininger? If nothing else, the two officeholders are making sure that they stay in the good graces of the Texas Public Policy Foundation (TPPF), a conservative, pro-school voucher think tank which gets the bulk of its financial backing from Leininger. Tuesday night, all of the statewide elected officials, including Gov. George W. Bush, attended the TPPF's 10th anniversary dinner, at $250 per plate, at the Four Seasons Hotel. And on Feb. 3, Rylander is scheduled to be the keynote speaker at the foundation's "1999 Legislative Conference" at the Four Seasons Hotel. Topics for discussion at the conference include "government downsizing" and "school choice."
TPPF is working hard to shape this year's legislative agenda. It is also hoping to get conservative operatives into state jobs. TPPF recently formed a "job bank placement service." The agenda, according to TPPF's Web site, is "to help place conservatives with public policy oriented employers." Toward that end, TPPF has posted a long questionnaire on its site (http://www.tppf.org/), asking job applicants to indicate how much they agree or disagree with a list of statements including: "Communism has been sent to the trash can of history. There is no chance it will resurface as a serious threat to world peace." And, "Busing of school children to achieve racial balance is wrong." The application also asks prospective employees to rank their feelings toward individuals from a wide political spectrum, including U.S. Rep. Lloyd Doggett, former Democratic Gov. Ann Richards, and Nobel Prize winner Alexander Solzhenitsyn. Other politicos -- presumably the ones who are more politically palatable from the TPPF perspective -- include Gov. George W. Bush, Senator Jesse Helms of North Carolina, conservative radio man Rush Limbaugh and -- surprise! -- Rick Perry and Carole Keeton Rylander.
In a January 8 column in the San Antonio Express-News, Rick Casey quoted TPPF president Jeff Judson as saying that Rylander had given the group "strong encouragement" for its job bank effort. And Judson told Casey that the comptroller's office "is the one institution that will probably use this more than anybody. ... Over time, there will be a shift of the focus of that agency. They'll need the people who are consistent with that policy," he said.
Two weeks after Casey's column appeared, Rylander spokesman Keith Elkins wrote a letter to the paper saying that Rylander was "informed in passing of the job bank, but at no time did she support, endorse, or make any commitments about the service."
For his part, Perry made certain that he paid back Leininger's loan. Records show that his campaign paid off the $1.1 million loan on December 17, an amazingly short turnaround. How did he do it? In part, by leaning on lobbyists. After the election, several lobbyists who had supported Sharp were contacted by Perry's campaign and told that they were expected to help retire Perry's campaign debt. In some cases, they were given specific amounts of money to raise and/or contribute, with amounts ranging up to $50,000. Said one lobbyist who asked not to be identified, "There was no direct mention of the Leininger loan, but you don't have to do any high math to put two and two together. Most of the people who were contacted understood where that debt came from."
Sullivan insists no fundraising quotas were given, and dismisses the complaints as "sour grapes from lobbyists whose guy lost the election." Perhaps so. But questions about Leininger's influence on Perry and Rylander will undoubtedly continue, particularly as the issue of school vouchers becomes more prominent.
Sharp, an opponent of vouchers, says he has no choice but to admire Leininger's effectiveness. "I congratulate Leininger," the former comptroller said. "He wanted to buy the reins of state government. And by God, he got them."
Leininger's Many Holdings
James Leininger owns all or part of a dizzying array of companies. Here's a partial list for consumers who want to know if they are doing business with him and helping fund his political projects:
Promised Land Dairy. Leininger is sole owner of this Floresville company that makes ice cream and milk in glass bottles emblazoned with Biblical verses. Products are distributed throughout Texas, at grocery stores such as Sun Harvest, Albertson's, H.E.B., and Whole Foods, and by the scoop at some places.
Whole Foods private label milk. Promised Land Dairy provides all the milk that Whole Foods markets under its own label in Texas, Colorado, and Louisiana. When asked about the company's relationship with Leininger's dairy, Whole Foods spokeswoman Patty Lang said in a written statement, "We do not boycott companies. We carry products that meet our core values." She praised Promised Land's quality standards and treatment of its livestock.
Home Court America. Leininger is part owner of the San Antonio basketball and gymnasium facility located in the northwest suburbs.
Focus Direct. A San Antonio direct mail facility, owned wholly by Leininger. Clients include Delta Airlines, Ralston-Purina, the Texas Republican Party, Oregon Public Radio, and the Southern Poverty Law Center (SPLC)/Klan Watch, an Alabama-based nonprofit that monitors far-right, potentially violent groups. (Mark Potok, SPLC spokesman and editor of its magazine, Intelligence, said his organization was "completely unaware" that Leininger owns Focus Direct. "We will be looking into the matter," Potok said.)
Kinetic Concepts International (KCI). The medical bed and supply company was sold for $875 million last year and is no longer public, but Leininger still owns about a third of it.
Mission City Properties. A San Antonio office-building rental agency.
Sunday House. Leininger co-owns this Fredericksburg company that makes and markets smoked turkeys.
Mission City Television. This San Antonio company produces videotapes for commercials and other TV formats.
The Beginners Bible. Children's Bible and coloring books. Leininger holds the license to the trademark name of these products.
TXN (Texas Network). A television news service that will air statewide on 16 stations, including KTVT in Dallas, KTRK in Houston, and KMOL in San Antonio, beginning in January. TXN officials insist that although Leininger owns the company, he will have no input into the production of the news.
The Spurs. Leininger holds an estimated 10% interest in the San Antonio basketball team.
Bad Management, Random Drug Tests Lead to TXN's Demise
by Robert Bryce
The Austin Chronicle
July 14, 2000
"For all his career, Leininger has sought to remove government intrusion in our private lives. So why is it that he thinks it's okay to insert himself into the most private aspects of his employees' lives?" -- Former TXN bureau chief Jim Moore
Starting a statewide TV and radio network is expensive. Drug tests are cheap. And those tests appear to have been an integral part of James Leininger's strategy to weed out employees and cut his losses on a $45 million media deal that went south faster than DrKoop.com's hearse.
At the end of this month, Leininger, the ultra-conservative millionaire from San Antonio, will pull the plug on TXN, also known as The News of Texas, the fledgling news organization that sought to cover the entire Lone Star State by establishing news bureaus in Austin, Dallas, Houston, and San Antonio, and then selling its radio and TV newscasts to affiliate stations in all of the major media markets. The company also launched an Internet operation, hiring more than a dozen people to operate the now-defunct Web sites under the names TXN.com and NewsofTexas.com.
TXN was headed by Bob Rogers, who gained renown in the Alamo City during his long stint as news director at KENS-TV. But Rogers had little success at gaining market share and recognition for the network. Despite the millions of dollars that Leininger pumped into the operation, TXN's news broadcasts were not being shown on any of the major networks in the state's four major cities when Leininger finally made the decision to fold his TV venture. And while it's unfortunate for anyone to lose that much money -- even someone as rich as Leininger, whose estimated worth is in the $300 million range -- the techniques that the hospital-bed magnate used to shut down his operation have infuriated current and former employees alike.
In the days leading up to last month's closing of bureaus in Dallas and Houston and the firing of Rogers, Leininger's company began conducting random drug tests on the more than 100 employees at TXN. Within the first few days of the pogrom, 13 employees had either tested positive or were fired after refusing to take the test, and Leininger was able to void the contracts of all 13. The move likely saved tens of thousands of dollars for the reclusive millionaire who shuns the press. Nicknamed the Daddy Warbucks of social conservatism in Texas, Leininger has backed numerous causes, including anti-abortion groups, tort reform groups, school vouchers, and the Texas Public Policy Foundation, which played a major role in defeating light rail in San Antonio. And his last-minute loans to Comptroller Carole Keeton Rylander and Lt. Gov. Rick Perry assured the two of victory in 1998.
"The drug tests were used as a way to cut down the number of people they had to pay severance to," explains one company insider who asked not to be identified.
Indeed, the surprise tests accelerated the pace of defections from TXN. Jim Moore, TXN's Austin bureau chief and arguably the network's best and highest-profile newsman, refused to take the drug test when Leininger's pee police showed up at the TXN bureau in Austin on June 7. Moore, who was recruited by Rogers to work at TXN after leaving his reporting job at KHOU-TV, was infuriated by the procedure and what it implied.
"For all his career, Leininger has sought to remove government intrusion in our private lives. So why is it that he thinks it's okay to insert himself into the most private aspects of his employees' lives?" asks Moore, who took an independent drug test after his firing from TXN to prove that he was drug-free.
All the Wrong Moves
Although the urine tests allowed Leininger to flush a number of employees, the company's mismanagement and poor business model had already doomed it to failure. Insiders say the company had taken in just $500,000 in revenue this year, while spending about $6 million. The company simply could not attract advertisers to news broadcasts that weren't being heard or seen on the state's biggest media outlets.
"We were doing pretty well in some of the smaller markets like Corpus Christi, Lubbock, and Amarillo," says Moore. "But those were not the markets advertisers want to sell to. We needed to be on the major networks in Dallas and Houston and Austin. But instead we were being shown on the UHF and public television stations." In Austin, TXN's newscasts are being shown on KLRU. And while being seen on PBS affiliates is far better than no exposure at all, the deal with KLRU and other PBS stations forces TXN staffers to plug holes in the show that would ordinarily be filled by commercials.
Most of TXN ceased to exist on June 13, the day Rogers was fired as president and CEO of TXN, although he continues to have a consulting contract with TXN. That same day, the axe fell on news director Greg Pasztor, assistant news director Marcia Pons, and managing editor David Lauricella, as well as a dozen people working on the Web site and a half dozen who worked for TXN's radio division -- including former Austinite Bob Crowley, who was at KVET/KASE until losing his job in April 1999 after a rift with the station's management. Although TXN's radio and Web operations have been shut down, the TV news division will continue operating until July 31 in order to fulfill the contracts it has with affiliates.
TXN's demise offers a number of lessons on what not to do for a successful TV news operation. Company insiders point to a number of careless business decisions that cost the company massive amounts of money and credibility. For instance, most TV stations rent a satellite transponder, the machinery that sends and receives TV sound and images to satellites. TXN bought its own transponder, along with satellite dishes for each bureau to link to the apparatus. However, some of the bureaus couldn't convince their landlords to allow them to put the satellite dishes on their roofs. That meant bureaus had to transmit stories via microwave towers for which they had to pay about $300 for each 15- to 30-minute window of time. Thus, the company ended up paying twice for a recurring infrastructure problem that should have been handled when the network began.
Profligate spending began even before TXN began broadcasting in January of last year. Rather than wait for a studio and control room facility to be completed in San Antonio, company executives bought a $1.5 million production truck, like those used for big sporting events like Monday Night Football. The idea, according to TXN insiders, was to get the network on the air sooner, rather than later. After the control room was completed, TXN planned to rent the truck to other stations. That never happened. Instead, after the building project was complete, the production truck sat outside TXN's offices gathering dust.
A favorite story among former TXN employees is the Haggar clothing deal. With advertising revenues almost nonexistent, company executives decided to do a barter deal with Haggar. In return for supplying all of TXN's on-camera people with Haggar outfits, TXN agreed to run a tag line at the end of each broadcast saying that TXN's people wear Haggar togs. While many of the reporters objected to the style, or lack thereof, of the Haggar look, all objected to the tax burden the deal placed on them. In a May 17 letter to Rogers, Moore complained about the deal, saying the taxes on the clothes are "estimated to be about $700." Thus, said Moore, he'd be paying tax on $2,000 worth of clothes that he "did not ask for and was not allowed to select."
Moore and several other former TXN employees blame Rogers for the failure of TXN. They say Rogers failed to properly promote the venture and didn't use the company's media properties to lead viewers and listeners to the company's Web sites. They also say the company simply tried to grow too soon, too fast. Indeed, the company's dreams appear to have been far too grand. Starting any of the three operations -- TV, radio, or Web site -- would likely be enough for any start-up. Doing all three at once was likely the kiss of death for the venture.
Others say Rogers simply didn't have the background to run an operation as big as his dream. "Rogers was a news guy," says one TXN reporter who is currently looking for other work. "He'd never been a general manager of a station. You've got to have sales people. Plus, it was harder to sell the concept of a statewide news network than they thought."
Rogers who did not return phone calls from the Chronicle, may deserve some of the blame, but Leininger also deserves blame. He jumped into a very expensive business that he knew little or nothing about, and he did it without developing a complete business plan.
But in the end, TXN will likely be remembered not for the quality of its journalism or the soundness of its business plan, but for the cynical way Leininger chose to get out of it. Not only did he use drug tests to jettison employees, he also quit the business at a time when he was fighting with the Department of Labor over having to pay employees for their overtime hours. The dispute stems from a disagreement TXN had with some of its Dallas-based employees over the amount of time they were obliged to put in without being paid overtime. According to TXN insiders, the federal agency sided with the employees earlier this year, and several are pursuing claims against the company.
Leininger did not respond to the Chronicle's request for an interview. Bruce Kates, the news director at TXN, declined to comment on the reasons for the network's failure.
"I don't think you can place the blame," Kates says. "You can make a business plan and project what revenue will be. When you looked at it, it didn't match with what expectations were."
So was there mismanagement? "I don't think I'd put it down as mismanagement," says Kates. "Revenues didn't meet expectations."
Contact Robert Bryce at rbryce@swbell.
Meet "God's" Sugar Daddy
By Molly Ivins
AUSTIN -- Dr. James Leininger is known as the Daddy Warbucks of Texas social conservatism -- or, as the San Antonio Current recently called him, "God's Sugar Daddy."
The 54-year-old San Antonio physician, who made a fortune estimated at more than $300 million by making extremely fancy hospital beds, is an active funder and player in right-wing causes including school vouchers, home schooling, anti-abortion, tort reform, anti-gay rights, anti-unionism, anti-environmental efforts, a right-wing Texas think tank modeled on the Heritage Foundation, and Republican political candidates.
Leininger (pronounced with a hard "g") now has business interests that include part ownership of the San Antonio Spurs; Promised Land Dairy of Floresville, which is familiar to Texas shoppers at H-E-B, Albertson's and Whole Foods; Kinetic Concepts International, the medical bed and supply company; and Focus Direct, a direct-mail outfit. One of Leininger's newest business ventures was the Texas Network, TXN, which was to reach an estimated 10 million Texans a day with television news programs being marketed without political bias or interest.
Just keeping track of Leininger's political contributions is a major chore. Samantha Smoot, director of Texas Freedom Network, said: "He tends to start political action committees and then close them down after a year. Texas Home School Coalition -- now, that one you can tell what it is; he was their only funder. But the Entertainment PAC out of Los Angeles -- who knew?"
Leininger tends to give his PACs and foundations innocuous names -- Texans for Justice, the Texas Public Policy Foundation, the Texas Justice Foundation, Children's Economic Opportunity Foundation, Texans for Governmental Integrity, the A PAC for Parental School Choice, etc. According to the Current (a weekly alternative paper), Leininger is also a major donor to, or plays a leading role in, at least a dozen major right-wing groups. Politically, he has given not only to Christian-right school board candidates and right-wing legislative candidates but also to Sens. Kay Bailey Hutchison and Phil Gramm, and he was Rick Perry's largest campaign contributor ($500,000) in Perry's race for lieutenant governor.
That's why members of the Lege are bracing for a big fight over school vouchers this year. The people of Texas are not screaming for school vouchers -- the pols are in hock to Leininger.
In a recent edition of the Current is an extensive report on Leininger and his interests by Debbie Nathan -- the most detailed to appear so far in any Texas publication. Nathan not only traces Leininger's religious, philosophical and political interests but brings to light some obscure episodes worth mention.
It seems Leininger gave at least $50,000 to Triad Management Service, the mysterious Republican organization that surfaced during investigations of the 1996 campaign funding scandals. Triad set up two "social welfare organizations" that had no members; their sole purpose was to advise Republican candidates and produce television attack ads against Democrats.
According to the article, during the past decade, Leininger had given at least $1.5 million to Texas candidates and another $3.2 million to move public opinion in a conservative direction. In addition, he has given $5.6 million to politically oriented, far-right nonprofits, including the American Family Association, the Christian Pro-Life Foundation, the Family Research Council, Focus on the Family, the Heidi Group, the Republican National Coalition for Life PAC, etc.
There's nothing wrong with supporting groups you believe in, although I did have to laugh upon reading that Leininger had founded his Justice Foundation as "a response to the American Civil Liberties Union." He will wind up on the same side as the ACLU in no time, as the ACLU does more to stop government interference in the lives of individuals than anyone else. (Ask Ollie North.)
But Leininger's current leading cause, school vouchers, is simply a rotten idea. In the November issue of The Atlantic Monthly, Nick Lemann has an excellent article on what to do about failing public schools. He dismisses vouchers as an alternative because it's a ridiculous idea.
There are 45 million students in the public schools. Total enrollment in private, nonsectarian schools where the annual tuition is more than $5,000 (what most of us mean when we think of "private school") is about 400,000 -- less than 1 percent of public school enrollment. Catholic school enrollment is 2.5 million. You figure it out.
Is Texas' right-wing benefactor getting what he pays for?
by Louis Dubose
What do you get out of a legislature for $3.8 million? At the very least, anyone who writes that big a check should get two or three bills passed. Thus far this session, the state's biggest right-wing Christian funder, Dr. James Leininger, hasn't exactly gotten what he paid for: a voucher program that would move tax money from public to private schools (and additional tort reform legislation that would further limit the rights of individuals filing suits against corporate defendants).
The fault doesn't lie with Dr. Leininger or his stars but with Lieutenant Governor Rick Perry -- who can't seem to move the Leininger bills. As has been reported in this publication and elsewhere, Leininger provided Perry the $1.1 million loan that allowed him to make a last-minute media buy that quite likely provided the narrow margin by which he defeated Democrat John Sharp. Dr. Leininger and his extended family also provided Perry with $191,577 in campaign contributions, according to an exhaustive study of voucher funding recently released by the Texas Freedom Network, an Austin-based non-profit group that monitors the extreme right.
When Texas Freedom Network researchers looked beyond Leininger, they found other Christian right funders who (with the San Antonio physician and med-bed manufacturer) put together a total of $5.2 million that the voucher proponents spent on last year's elections. "That doesn't take into account the $1 million-plus spent by voucher proponents on public relations and lobbying during each of the last two legislative sessions, the $10 million spent by Dr. James Leininger to acquire a statewide cable news network, TXN, which broadcasts into seventeen of Texas' nineteen media markets, or the $50 million spent on the nation's largest private voucher program in Edgewood I.S.D.," the T.F.N. reported. "In San Antonio [location of Edgewood], $45 million of that $50 million is pledged by Dr. Leininger."
Despite all that ungodly freespending, the session's one big voucher bill remains bottled up in the Senate, where eleven Democrats have signed a statement promising they will vote against bringing the bill to the floor. So Amarillo Republican Teel Bivins cannot muster the required two-thirds vote to bring his bill to the floor &endash; despite intense pressure from Perry. The pressure is growing, as the session winds down and more senators are willing to cut deals to move their own bills.
To make a deal easier, Bivins has reduced the scope of his once ambitious voucher plan and allowed the management of the bill to be given over to the Lieutenant Governor and his staff. Perry, in fact, is telling the press the bill should be more widely acceptable now that it is limited to two smaller school districts rather than four large urban districts. And the latest version of the bill has no income cap, a change that Perry says he always supported.
So what was originally proposed as a mechanism to provide academically struggling, low-income children tuition aid to attend private schools is now wide open to any child who fails to pass the TAAS test, regardless of family income. And as the session comes closer to its May 31 conclusion, voucher proponents in the Senate are getting more desperate &endash; as was evident in the last week of April when they failed in an attempt to tack Bivins' bill onto a separate teacher pay raise bill.
"They've gone from four major urban districts, to two smaller school districts," said a Democratic Senate staff aide. "Next is one district as a pilot, and then they will strip it down to a vote on the concept of vouchers." Through the first week in May, the bill has moved on and off the Senate's intent calendar, but the eleven senators are still committed to blocking the bill, said Kathy Miller of the Texas Freedom Network.
Leininger isn't the only voucher supporter to whom Perry is indebted. According to the Freedom Network's study, Houston chemical company C.E.O. William McMinn provided the Lieutenant Governor $80,000 in campaign contributions. McMinn was the second largest voucher funder, contributing $299,832 to candidates and $207,000 to political action committees. And Dallas oil and gas magnate Louis Beecherl, a former member of the University of Texas Board of Regents, gave Perry $37,000. Beecherl provided other pro-voucher candidates with $299,724 in contributions and added an additional $207,000 in voucher PAC contributions. Along with McMinn, Beecherl serves on the board of directors of Putting Children First, the largest pro-voucher political action committee in the state.
Leininger, McMinn, and Beecherl have secular interests beyond the religious right's voucher initiatives. The three top funders of the voucher lobby are also heavily invested in tort reform, the decade-old assault on citizens' right to file suit against corporate defendants. Texans for Public Justice, an Austin research and advocacy group, has run the numbers on tort-reform contributors and found that Leininger, McMinn and Beecherl all made the list T.P.J. calls "Tort Reform's Sweet Sixteen." Leininger is the number one funder of tort reform candidates and lobby efforts, with McMinn placing third and Beecherl rounding out the Sweet Sixteen list at number sixteen.
But tort reform has also been struggling in the Senate this session. The first time Teel Bivins tried to bring up the session's big tort reform bill &endash; which would make class action lawsuits more difficult to pursue &endash; Democrats denied him the necessary twenty-one votes to bring it to the floor. The Senate is so protocol-bound that one or two such incidents can erode a bill's credibility, but one week later Bivins had improved his counting and on April 26 his class action bill passed the Senate. It is hardly assured passage in the House, where it will have to either get through Fred Bosse's often uncivil Civil Practices Committee or be attached as an amendment to a related bill on the floor. The other major tort reform effort (a third party liability bill) is, according to its Senate sponsor, dead.
Added together, the voucherites and the tort reformers have poured $6 million into their electoral and legislative programs this year and yet they are not exactly getting a big bang for their buck &endash; which suggests that even in the Texas Legislature, a handful of determined elected officials and a wider grassroots effort that money can't buy can stop even the most well-funded initiative. And one more thing: you don't always get what you pay for.
Can you name the most influential Republican in Texas? It's not Rick Perry or any other elected official. It's James Leninger, a little-known San Antonio physician whose ideology and millions are pushing the GOP to be more conservative than ever.
by Karen Olsson
LIKE MANY CONTENDERS FOR ELECTED office these days, Sue Ann Harting says she ran for the Texas Legislature last March because her supporters urged her to do it. Unlike many other candidates, though, Harting seems to have been genuinely reluctant. The way she tells it, she had been trying to get out of politics for nearly a decade. She retired from the Greenville City Council in 1993, only to be persuaded the next year to enter the race for mayor, which she won with 80 percent of the vote. "I really didn't want to run again," says Harting, who before entering city government had served as the president of Greenville's Coca-Cola bottling plant, a business that had been in her family for four generations. "But there wasn't a soul interested in the job. People said, 'We need you. Please run.'"
She won, then retired again in 2000; her greatest ambition at that point was to spend more time tooling around Lake Texoma in her powerboat. Yet politics intruded once more last winter, when a group of Greenville Republicans grew concerned that state House candidate Dan Flynn would, if elected, occupy himself less with the needs of the district than with an ideological agenda. Flynn's ties to a group of conservative activists in neighboring Van Zandt County, where he had served as county judge, were well known, and says Harting, "I frankly don't want my state representative to be controlled and told what to do by any extremist group." Shortly before the filing deadline, Harting announced that she was entering the race.
The campaign would turn out to be one of the most bitter experiences of her life. One mailer, sent by a Flynn supporter, lambasted Harting for having received an open-container citation and for having helped bring "pornography" (i.e., cable television) to Greenville. Flynn claims he didn't know about that particular mailer before it was sent; yet his official campaign literature was itself strident, denouncing Harting as a sham Republican. "What's worse than a wolf in sheep's clothing? A liberal who claims to be a Republican," read one mail piece, citing among other things her past support for Democratic state senator David Cain and for keeping abortion legal.
Harting ultimately lost to Flynn by 1,146 votes. Today she lives in a redbrick house built by her great-grandfather in downtown Greenville, a town of 24,000 east of Dallas. At 55, she is slender and vigorous; she speaks quickly and allows her large blue eyes to flutter shut when she is emphasizing a point or remembering something unpleasant. As she recalled the primary, sitting in the parlor where she was born, she shut her eyes repeatedly. Flynn's campaign "would just take a hairline of truth and build the most monstrous story," she said. "It's one thing to respectfully disagree. But they tried to discredit everything I have ever stood for or believed in. I don't resent losing the primary, but I resent someone distorting the truth so completely that local folks had to question who I really am and what I stand for." After finishing that sentence, she promptly stood up and excused herself from the room. When she returned, she seemed to have calmed down.
In the Republican primary last March, Flynn was one of a cluster of conservative candidates whose opponents would accuse them of resorting to below-the-belt campaign tactics. What several of these candidates had in common, besides an emphasis on litmus-test notions of what the Republican party ought to stand for, was that a sizable percentage of their money could be traced back to a seemingly limitless source: James Leininger, a 58-year-old San Antonio physician. Leininger gave Flynn $5,000, while groups to which Leininger has contributed heavily chipped in another $27,500, making Leininger directly or indirectly connected to more than 60 percent of the nearly $48,000 Flynn raised during the primary. Flynn also rented the phone bank of a Van Zandt County company called Winning Strategies, which Leininger had started in San Antonio.
Few Texans have heard of James Leininger, as his involvement in politics takes place far behind the scenes. But his influence is pervasive. The founder of Kinetic Concepts, Incorporated, a specialty medical-bed company that made him one of the richest men in Texas, Leininger is among the state's most active political donors. He was the top contributor in the 1996 and 1998 election cycles, when he gave a total of $1.9 million and, in the latter, co-signed two last-minute loans, of $1.1 million and $950,000, respectively, to Rick Perry's campaign for lieutenant governor and Carol Keeton Rylander's bid for comptroller. (Many attribute Perry's and Rylander's narrow victories to advertising blitzes in the last week of the campaign, paid for by those loans.) In the 2002 election cycle, Leininger has again proven himself an aquifer of campaign cash: Between January 2000 and June of this year, he dropped $1.5 million on state campaigns and causes. And while Leininger's giving is liberal, his leanings are decidedly not; he supports Republicans and conservative groups almost exclusively.
What makes Leininger one of the most powerful people in Texas politics is less the amount of money he has given over the years than the broad reach of his spending and his commitment to a conservative agenda. By pumping tens of thousands of dollars into the previously ignored State Board of Education races, he turned an obscure committee of retired teachers into an ideological hornet's nest, whose debates over curriculum and textbook content have made national news. In addition to funding candidates personally, Leininger has launched several political action committees to support conservative judicial and legislative candidates and advocate for school vouchers. He has, moreover, established an entire politics and policy conglomerate in Texas. He founded and provided seed money for the Texas Public Policy Foundation, an increasingly influential conservative think tank, in 1989. He has invested millions in private school voucher programs in San Antonio, the first of which he initiated in 1993. Some regard the state Republican party as an extension of his empire; its chair, Susan Weddington, is a former Kinetic Concepts employee, and the $475,000 Leininger donated to state party and caucus committees in the 2000 election cycle far exceeded the amount contributed by any other individual or organization in Texas, according to a report by the Center for Public Integrity.
For all that Leininger contributes, he is hardly alone in his generosity. Texas places no limits on the amount of money an individual may contribute to state political candidates or committees, and there are plenty of donors whose pockets reach right down to their shoes. Businessmen like chemical company owner William McMinn, homebuilder Bob Perry, and oilman Louis Beecherl shower candidates, primarily Republicans, with hundreds of thousands of dollars while trial lawyers like John O'Quinn and Walter Umphrey give comparably enormous sums, mostly to Democrats.
Rightly or wrongly, though, it is assumed that John O'Quinn gives money because he wants to see the passage of laws that are favorable to plaintiffs attorneys, and Bob Perry wants laws favorable to homebuilders. Leininger's motivations appear to be more ideological, which, depending on whom you ask, makes him either more pure or more insidious. A soft-spoken man who prefers to remain in the background, Leininger does not often speak with the press (he declined to be interviewed for this story). Political giving is "always an emotional thing for me," he told the Houston Chronicle in 1997. "If I sat down and planned it out, I think I'd just go to Bermuda instead." No doubt many Texas Democrats wish Leininger would just go to Bermuda, or Nepal for that matter. In the meantime, they help propagate the various specters of Leininger that swirl around the Capitol like so much Austin haze. These shadowy projections alternately resemble a Rasputin or a political ingenue, a religious-right crusader or a businessman who dabbles in politics, owning a percentage of the Republican Party of Texas just as he owns a percentage of the San Antonio Spurs.
"He's the sugar daddy and godfather of the Republican right wing in Texas," says Austin Democratic political consultant George Shipley. "There are two theories of Leininger. One is that he is somewhat naive and he lets himself be used by these single-issue groups. Or else he's the most megalomaniac guy around." Weddington, the state GOP chair, insists that Leininger is neither an extremist nor power hungry. "He's a political philanthropist, as opposed to a business or single-issue donor. He has a long-term vision of a world where underprivileged children have the same opportunities as his own children. He doesn't fit the mold, and that's why people have trouble with him. He's a man who follows his heart. He's a man of deep faith." So in one corner stands Leininger the pious patron of underprivileged children and in the other, Leininger the right-wing power broker. Surely neither caricature suffices to explain who James Leininger is, nor do caricatures of the man address the larger question of what his influence on state politics has been.
James Leininger was born in Indiana, one of five sons of Hilbert Adolph Peter "Hib" Leininger, a doctor who encouraged his five sons to become doctors. Descended from Germans who emigrated in the 1830's, the Leiningers belonged to the strict Missouri Synod of the Lutheran Church, whose doctrine stipulates that the Bible is inerrant and that women may not be ordained as ministers. For the family, that meant "sticking exactly to the Bible and no funny business," James's mother, Berneta, told the San Antonio Current a few years ago. They moved to South Florida in the fifties, James went back to Indiana for college and medical school, and then he returned to Florida for his residency and internship, in family medicine, at the University of Miami School of Medicine. While there, he also founded a nonprofit organization to provide day care centers for migrant workers.
If he was interested in helping the poor from a young age, he was also eager to make money for himself. When he was four years old, he told an interviewer in 1994, he picked cherries from a tree in his family's yard and proceeded to hawk them to the neighbors. And as an adult, he seems to have remained in touch with his inner salesman. After graduating from the University of Miami, he joined the Army, which brought him to San Antonio's Brooke Army Medical Center; subsequently, he went to work for the Baptist Memorial Hospital System, where he became the director of the emergency room. The emergency department was, in the early seventies, itself a kind of start-up: Previously, doctors from other departments had rotated through the ER. "The specialty was new," says James Potyka, a physician who worked there with Leininger for ten years. "These were uncharted waters." Leininger meanwhile started to distribute a specialty medical bed, invented in Ireland and marketed in the U.S. by a Chicago company, Kincoa, that rotated immobile patients. In 1975 Leininger and his wife, Cecelia, bought Kincoa, which was nearly bankrupt, renamed it Kinetic Concepts, Incorporated (KCI), and ran it out of their one-bedroom apartment. (Moving the patient alleviates bedsores and circulatory problems and relieves congestion, which can lead to pneumonia. According to the company Web site, "Dr. Jim" had seen patients survive trauma in the ER only to develop potentially fatal complications because of their immobility. "He knew that if he could just keep them mobilized, they would survive," says the Web site text. "Then he discovered the Roto Rest bed.")
"He worked three jobs," says Potyka. "He was a practicing emergency physician, the emergency room director, and starting up his company." Despite the pressure of such a workload, Potyka adds, "I don't remember him ever being upset. He was calm and confident."
KCI, however, nearly foundered. "When KCI started, it was such a struggle," says Diane Rath, another prominent Republican who once worked for Leininger; she was KCI's public affairs director from 1991 until 1996, when then-governor Bush appointed her to the Texas Workforce Commission. Creditors prepared to seize its assets in 1979, and one night James and Cecelia knelt to pray for the survival of their struggling company. Whether because of their prayers or their business plan, the Leiningers found additional investors, and the company went on to flourish. Leininger stepped down as chairman several years ago but still owns a third of the company. It now stockpiles beds in some 150 warehouses around the country, renting them to hospitals and other facilities. The company also sells vacuum-assisted devices for closing wounds. "Jim more or less invented this industry of specialty medical beds," says Ray Hannigan, who was the CEO of KCI from 1994 to 2000 and has since been appointed by Governor Perry to the Texas Board of Health. (Democratic critics derided the appointment as a favor to one of Leininger's cronies; Hannigan and Perry insisted it was no such thing.) "He's an astute, smart businessman. He can take a concept and make it into reality," says Hannigan.
Over the years Leininger has invested in a slew of other companies, some of whose names suggest that he continues to seek divine backing. He owns Promised Land Dairy, which prints a biblical verse on its bottles of speciality milk, and he used to own a turkey plant called Sunday House Foods. According to the Texas Secretary of State's office, companies that list Leininger or his San Antonio business partners as officers also include Bionumerik Pharmaceuticals, which researches cancer drugs; ATX Technologies, which develops wireless navigation and communication tools; a direct-mail firm called Focus Direct; several other food companies; two investment companies; a children's Bible publisher; two charitable foundations; and even a company--purpose unknown--called Bugsy-N-Doc.
The route from the executive boardroom to the political back room often passes near--or through--the courthouse, and Leininger's career is no exception. Like many businessmen whose companies risk being sued, he became politically active in an effort to reduce that risk and to keep insurance costs down. KCI was certainly a potential defendant, since its beds would sometimes trap patients between the mattress and the guard rail, according to incident reports filed with the Food and Drug Administration. (Other reports describe all sorts of mishaps--a cable giving way, controls shorting out, the head of a bed spontaneously rising upright, white beads spilling out of a mattress, a company service representative receiving a severe electric shock while testing a bed.) In 1987 the company lost its liability insurance, though according to Leininger, it had never been sued.
That year, the pressure for tort reform was building in Texas, spurred on by a CBS 60 Minutes report suggesting that Texas trial lawyers were exerting undue influence on the state Supreme Court through their campaign contributions. Much of corporate Texas united to try to change the system; what set Leininger apart from the tort-reform crowd was the fact that he started his own political action committee (PAC), Texans for Justice, to which he donated $196,000, or 86 percent of its funding. Leininger entered politics with a flying leap, in other words, and he immediately established himself as a social conservative as well as a business Republican. One piece of voter mail sent by Texans for Justice, written by an alumnus of the Reverend Pat Robertson's presidential campaign, predicted that the U.S. Supreme Court would leave it to the states to determine their own abortion laws and that Texas Supreme Court justices would therefore decide the abortion issue in Texas.
It wasn't as if Leininger had never paid attention to politics before. "I had worked with him back in 1980, as a doctor supporting Ronald Reagan," says Cyndi Taylor Krier, a former state senator and Bexar County judge who in 1980 was an attorney frequently involved in election law. "He wanted to align with other doctors. He's been interested in government and politics as long as I've known him." Starting in 1988, though, Leininger emerged as a high-stakes player whose efforts helped Republican Tom Phillips defeat Democrat Ted Robertson in the race for chief justice that year. (The court would continue its conservative turn in the nineties, and in 1998 a 60 Minutesfollow-up report concluded that businesses and doctors are now the ones whose contributions seem to tilt the court's decisions in their favor.) Texans for Justice begat more conservative PACs: Over the next six years Leininger launched Texans for Judicial Integrity, the Committee for Governmental Integrity, and Texans for Governmental Integrity. In 1994, after his tort reform efforts had begun to bear fruit, KCI won an $84.75 million settlement in a patent infringement case in federal court--the sort of windfall that, when awarded to a personal-injury plaintiff, causes apoplexy in tort reformers.
Republican consultant Royal Masset says he first encountered Leininger in the late eighties, when Masset was working for the state Republican party. "He did something brilliant," Masset recalls. "He did a mail piece recommending candidates in both parties, and to test whether it was effective, he wanted to send it out to thirty precincts and not send it to thirty comparable precincts. In the precincts where he sent the mailer, the recommended Republicans did one percent better and the Democrats did two or three percent better than in the other precincts. It was staggering how effective that mail piece was. This guy was really scientific; he was looking at all the evidence and seeing what would work."
Democrats were less impressed by some of Leininger's missives. In 1994 Texans for Governmental Integrity sent out a mail piece in East Texas, illustrated by a photograph of a black man and a white man kissing, which warned voters that Democratic State Board of Education (SBOE) incumbent Mary Knott Perkins had voted to approve textbooks that promoted abortion and homosexuality. Leininger also directly supported conservative SBOE candidates to the unfamiliar tune of tens of thousands of dollars, in races that had previously been low-key. "He single-handedly changed the composition of the State Board of Education," says Samantha Smoot, the executive director of the Texas Freedom Network, an organization founded in 1995 to counter religious-right initiatives. "It went from a body that had been dominated by parents and teachers to a group characterized by a bloc of members who are there simply to push a right-wing ideology." The fact that Leininger's money sometimes traveled in circular paths also prompted muttering from his opponents: He would donate to PACs he controlled, and they in turn would hire Focus Direct, his direct-mail company, to produce their materials. This is not illegal, though Texas law does forbid corporations to donate directly to candidates.
PACs and campaign contributions were just the first step. In 1989 Leininger was instrumental in founding the Texas Public Policy Foundation (TPPF), because, he later told the Houston Chronicle, "I realized there wasn't any intellectual capital in the state of Texas." (Alas, he is neither the first nor the last to arrive at that conclusion.) Taking the Heritage Foundation, the conservative national think tank, as its model, the TPPF aimed to influence policy by publishing research reports on state issues; its early preoccupations mirrored several of Leininger's own: tort reform, vouchers, and reduced government. Working in tandem with the new SBOE members, the TPPF began objecting to textbook material deemed liberally slanted or morally suspect. The Legislature retaliated in 1995, forbidding the SBOE to question any aspect of textbook content other than "factual errors." Despite the restriction, the TPPF continued to analyze proposed books, hiring researchers to ferret out errors both of fact and of insufficient patriotism. Last winter the group helped bat down an environmental-science textbook (in large part because of a poorly written sentence linking democracy to pollution); this summer it criticized proposed social science and history textbooks for failing to disavow socialism.
Aside from its textbook analysis, the TPPF also develops policy proposals for conservative lawmakers. "Legislators turn to them for ideas about what to pass and also for political cover," says Andrew Wheat, the research director for Texans for Public Justice, a non-partisan but liberal-leaning group that studies the role of campaign contributions in Texas politics. During George W. Bush's presidential race, Wheat notes, the TPPF came to the defense of Bush's, and Texas', much-criticized environmental record, though the foundation had not previously concerned itself with environmental issues. Lately the TPPF seems to be backing away from Leininger; while he has often been described as the group's founder, Jeff Judson, the foundation's president, says that Leininger was merely one of several people who helped establish the group and that he now has little to do with its agenda. "He is one of sixteen people on our board," says Judson. "He has one-sixteenth of the say at our board meetings." The litigation-oriented offshoot of the TPPF, the Texas Justice Foundation, aims to advance conservative causes through legal advice and lawsuits. In addition to advocating for school vouchers and overturning Roe v. Wade, it seeks to invalidate the Endangered Species Act and restrict divorces.
Leininger's giving to other candidates, causes, and charities is also substantial. Since 2000, he has given $100,000 to Texans for Lawsuit Reform and another $200,000 to state Republican PACs. His federal-level contributions since 1999 total nearly $250,000. He has given large amounts to national right-to-life groups and Texas pro-life organizations, as well as to nonpolitical entities such as the Baptist Hospital Foundation, the University of Miami School of Medicine, and Vanderbilt University. He has given millions to send San Antonio children from low-income families to private schools. He has also set up several charitable foundations with combined assets in the millions of dollars. On top of all that, he has funneled large sums of money to the Republican Party of Texas, to entities promoting taxpayer-funded school vouchers, and to the state's top Republican officials, Governor Rick Perry in particular.
"He is in his own category because he has had the intent and the sophistication to create this interconnected web of political organizations," says Samantha Smoot, of the Texas Freedom Network. "There is no funder on either side of the political spectrum in Texas who has created an operation like James Leininger's, and that's why he's so dangerous." But Leininger's friends contend that because he puts his money where his heart is, activists like Smoot wrongly paint him as an extremist. "He's committed, he's wealthy, and he's very concerned about people like the children of San Antonio," says Ray Hannigan, KCI's former CEO. "If he were a liberal Democrat, PBS would be doing a documentary on him. But he's a so-called religious conservative, so therefore he's 'evil.'"
IN THE ORBIT OF ANY POLITICAL party, there are those who want to advance particular issues, those who are more interested in advancing the party as a whole, and those, like James Leininger, who want to do both. The two specters of Leininger--the philosophical conservative and the partisan one--have hovered over his participation in the school-voucher movement and in Republican party politics. While ideology and strategy are hardly mutually exclusive, inevitably there comes a time when they conflict, as Texas Republicans well know.
Not so many years ago, the Republican party in Texas might as well have had its headquarters at the Petroleum Club in Midland, for like the Petroleum Club, it was a small group of mostly well-off white men and their wives, many of them transplants from other states, who tended to be interested in foreign policy and golf. Although Texans voted in 1961 to send Republican John Tower to the U.S. Senate, it wasn't until 1978, when Bill Clements was elected to the governor's office, that the Republican party began to gain a real footing in state politics. And because the party took shape during the eighties, its identity was very much forged in the fires of those years. Ronald Reagan's election helped bring blue-collar Democratic voters to the GOP, and right on Reagan's heels came the rise of the Christian conservative movement, which spurred home-schoolers and abortion foes to stand as precinct chairs and attend the party's conventions. Thus, at the same time that Republican appeal was growing broader in Texas, the state party, as an institution, began to see more and more participation from a particular group of activists with a social agenda.
That tension persisted into the mid-nineties, when all of a sudden a massive new object barreled into the Texas Republican cosmos, Planet Bush-Rove, exerting its own strong gravitational pull. Its presence played a large role in bringing about the Republican sweep of statewide offices in 1998, and its departure for Washington, D.C., left a vacuum that the party, even as it aims to retain those offices and win control of the state House, has yet to fill. With the GOP likely to win a House majority, it's safe to assume that large new tax proposals will not emerge from the next Legislature; most other bets are off. What can be predicted, however, is that if Perry is reelected, David Dewhurst wins the lieutenant governor's race, and the Republicans gain enough seats in the House to elect Midland Republican Tom Craddick as Speaker, Leininger--who has contributed lavishly to all three--will have the ear of the most powerful figures in state government.
Then again, it's not obvious what difference that will make. Leininger's contributions have had the largest impact when directed toward a relatively circumscribed arena, such as the State Board of Education, or when connected to a much broader coalition, as has been the case with tort reform. His most prominent cause before the Legislature, by contrast, did not succeed. Leininger was the principal funder of Putting Children First (PCF), a group that lobbied for school vouchers during the 1997 legislative session; the PCF also turned to Texas Justice Foundation president Allan Parker and the Texas Public Policy Foundation for tactical support. Though the PCF attempted to cast itself as a bipartisan, coalition-based entity, it was the direct descendant of a group called the A+PAC for Parental School Choice, which had given $587,000 to Republicans, among them the long-shot opponent of House Speaker Pete Laney, versus $8,500 to Democrats.
School vouchers first caught Leininger's attention in 1991, when he read an article about a private voucher program in Indianapolis founded by insurance mogul Patrick Rooney. He fancied starting one in Texas, and as with other Leininger notions, it soon became reality. He advanced a substantial amount of money, asked other local businesspeople to do the same, and in 1992 launched the CEO Foundation, to help San Antonio children of low-income families afford private-school tuition. Two years later he and other funders further pledged $50 million to start a second voucher program, in San Antonio's Edgewood Independent School District. By focusing on one famously poor school district, the program had the potential to serve as a political demonstration project as well as a charity. In the meantime, Leininger's voucher interest had connected him to a network of wealthy supporters around the country, including Rooney, Wal-Mart heir John Walton, and Robert Cone, a Republican businessman in Pennsylvania, all of whom had contributed to a PAC in California that in turn contributed to the A+PAC.
To many a Republican consultant plotting strategy in the mid-nineties, vouchers were surely an appealing issue, the campaign Hula Hoop that would replace stale causes like term limits. In theory, vouchers would appeal to Christian conservatives who home-schooled their kids or sent them to Christian schools, to urban minorities whose kids were stuck in the worst public schools, and to the core of Republicans who preferred the free market to government on principle. Nevertheless, according to Austin entrepreneur Jimmy Mansour, who chaired the A+PAC and then the PCF, Leininger's enthusiasm for vouchers had nothing to do with strategy. "I was involved in this political effort for eight, ten years, and you run into all kinds of people, and many have a personal agenda," says Mansour. "Jim does not. His motives are clean. He thinks it's a way to help kids who are trapped in poor schools. He knows many of the kids [in San Antonio's voucher programs]. He's learned their names, followed their careers."
Putting Children First, however, could not escape its partisan aura, which Leininger had helped endow. (In particular, it could hardly expect support from Laney.) "We were supposed to be a moderate voice," says Greg Talley, the executive director of Putting Children First. "My charge was to go out and get a broader voice. We had a big chunk of LULAC [the Hispanic advocacy group] board members, we had [black Houston Democrat] Ron Wilson, and then we had some more traditional business guys. But there was no way to get away from Leininger, and the opposition would tie Leininger around us, like they knew it would scare people off." While no voucher bill made it out of committee, a last-minute amendment forced a vote on a pilot program; the amendment failed by a one-vote margin.
In the end, the Texas voucher battles fought in the nineties were about perception more than policy, says House Committee on Education chair Paul Sadler, a Democrat. "As long as the public believes we are underfunding public education and there's a single dime [spent on vouchers], it's a problem." Because of the money behind vouchers, Sadler adds, many legislators were reluctant to address the issue at all. "I had a large number of members on both sides of the aisle that simply did not want the issue to come up for a vote. Clearly there was a feeling that they didn't want to face an opponent in the next election. If I was a Republican member and Leininger said he was going to put money into my opponent, then I really would not want to vote on that. It's the same with tort reform; if Texans for Lawsuit Reform has threatened members with opponents, then they just as soon would not vote on tort reform." (Sadler says that he has never heard any such threats made directly, but that a little rumor goes a long way.)
Public support for vouchers, meanwhile, never swelled the way Republican consultants hoped it would. Even many religious conservatives opposed vouchers, out of concern that they would lead to government involvement in private education. The kiss of death for vouchers came the following year, when the news media got hold of a fundraising letter from Putting Children First asking wealthy out-of-state donors to give money to another effort to unseat Laney. Then-lieutenant governor Bob Bullock, who had joined PCF's board, promptly resigned from the board, and as Talley tells it, "Mansour got one of those classic ass chewings from Bullock." The letter incident, according to Talley, "was enough of a tread on our back that all of us sort of chilled on being school-choice advocates."
Leininger himself "never really put any pressure on us," says Talley. Nevertheless, Leininger's conservative stamp defined the effort, probably to the detriment of the cause of vouchers. At the nexus of ideology and power lies a basic political conundrum: To advance a particular issue, it is useful to have bipartisan backing, but to advance a political party, it is often necessary to attack the opposition. Because Leininger seems to want to advance both things, he has, at times, been at cross-purposes with himself.
Yet the voucher movement was not a total bust. Whether because of the money involved, the hope of appealing to minority voters, or because they just happen to like vouchers, Republican state officials rallied to the cause. In 1999 Governor Bush announced his support for vouchers in his second inaugural speech. "I was sitting on the dais behind him, and I almost fell out of my chair," says Sadler. "It was a pander to the hard right. This was a man who had looked me straight in the eye and said that he didn't like vouchers when we were rewriting the education code in '95. I could not believe my ears. That was the first ring of insincerity I ever heard in George W.'s voice." And as lieutenant governor, Rick Perry pushed hard for vouchers that year. "I would describe the lieutenant governor's interest in that issue to have been intense, whatever his motivations were," says Republican state senator John Carona, who voted against a voucher proposal in 1999, despite heavy pressure to support it. "He spoke to me several times in the chamber and expressed his views emphatically."
LAST YEAR, AFTER THE CLOSE of the legislative session, Austin political newsletter editor Harvey Kronberg was invited to speak at a dinner sponsored by the Texas Public Policy Foundation, which Leininger attended. "I was laying out the case on paper for [2002 gubernatorial candidates] Sanchez versus Perry," he says. "I've been pretty outspoken in talking about Perry's approach to the vetoes as a failure of the governor's office and one that could come back to haunt him." (Last year Perry vetoed 82 bills, in many cases after never having indicated his opposition to a bill during the session.) Kronberg continues, "There was a question and answer period after that. Dr. Leininger, who has always been very congenial and very relaxed when I've met him, asked me, 'So what kind of baggage is Perry going to have?' I said, 'Obviously the vetoes and the business dealings, including some of his business dealings with you.' And he just nodded."
Those business dealings surfaced in 1997: The Perry campaign co-owned an airplane with Leininger and his brother Peter and sought taxpayer reimbursements for its use. Perry also made $38,000 from selling KCI stock that he had bought on a day when an investment company began buying 2.2 million shares, raising the share value. Perry spoke at a TPPF luncheon that same day. (Perry has called the timing of the speech, the stock purchase, and the investment spree a coincidence.) But Leininger's donations to Perry's campaigns far exceed Perry's KCI profit: $56,000 in the 1998 cycle, plus the last-minute loan, and at least $75,000 since then. "If Rick Perry were a baseball team, Leininger would be the owner," says George Shipley, a Sanchez campaign strategist. "When he calls, Rick Perry jumps and shuffles." As of mid-October Kronberg's prediction had yet to be validated: The Perry-Leininger connection had not become a major issue in the campaign.
Have the hundreds of thousands of dollars that Leininger has given to Republican statewide officeholders affected how they conduct the state's business? It is not a question that the officeholders themselves seem eager to address. Perry, land commissioner David Dewhurst, comptroller Carole Keeton Rylander, Attorney General John Cornyn, and Texas Supreme Court justice Greg Abbott have all received more than $50,000 from Leininger in the past; all declined to comment or did not return phone calls for this article. Critics say that to detect Leininger's influence, one need look no further than Perry's, Rylander's, and Dewhurst's support of vouchers; Perry's veto of a bill that would have transferred oversight of the Permanent School Fund, the multibillion-dollar endowment for public schools, from the SBOE to professional fund managers; Perry's far-reaching transportation plan (which has many similarities with that of one of the TPPF's researchers, a privatization enthusiast named Wendell Cox); or Cornyn's advocacy before the U.S. Supreme Court of prayer at football games (in a case for which the Texas Justice Foundation wrote an amicus brief). In February 2001 Rylander drew press criticism for having sent out a fundraising letter for the TPPF on official comptroller's office stationery. In the wake of that incident, Dewhurst also sent out a fundraising letter on the foundation's behalf, but on nonofficial stationery headed "David Dewhurst, Texas Land Commissioner."
Yet, those who know Leininger describe him as a hands-off donor. "Leininger is not somebody who picks up the phone and discusses issues," says Cyndi Krier, a former state senator and county judge from Bexar County. "He tends to support candidates he thinks would make good representatives and then lets them decide what to do. He probably receives many more phone calls than he ever makes. He's not your typical political power broker, behind the scenes trying to manipulate things."
THIS SUMMER'S STATE REPUBLICAN CONVENTION in Dallas drew more than eight thousand of the party faithful, who streamed back and forth between the meeting halls at the cavernous Dallas Convention Center and the Hyatt Regency Hotel, with its hospitality suites and atrium bar. Although Leininger, if he attended, did not appear publicly, evidence of his pervasive influence was everywhere. Promised Land Dairy was a corporate underwriter of the event--its logo everywhere, its flavored milks available for tasting in the exhibitor area, and its mascot, a clean, tawny Jersey cow named Molly, lazing in a trailer nearby. ("Yes, Molly's a Republican," said Jenny Claridge, Promised Land's public relations director.) Leininger's support of the party goes far deeper than helping underwrite the convention; over the past two and a half years he has given more than $340,000 to the Republican Party of Texas. The involvement of chair Susan Weddington seems to have spurred Leininger's generosity. (Leininger was not so generous when Weddington's predecessor, Dallas lawyer Tom Pauken, led the state GOP. Pauken says that Leininger was one of a group of donors who, at Karl Rove's bidding, declined to support the party after Pauken displaced a Bush ally as chairman. "Leininger wanted to have a foot in both camps, the Bush establishment camp and the religious-right camp," Pauken says.)
Weddington herself seems to embody the tension between the party's ideologically driven activists and its big-tent strategists. A thin and rather rigid woman with a fount of brown hair, Weddington is a Christian conservative who in 1990 placed a black wreath that read "Death to the Family" at the door of Ann Richards' gay-friendly campaign headquarters. At the convention's Saturday morning prayer rally, she called upon the Lord to watch over the caucus rooms and the convention hall ("For you are the King of Kings, and you are welcome in our family, Lord! Lord, bless the leaders of our state. . . . There is no one after you, Lord. Thank you for blessing the leadership of this party. Lord, this is not just a convention going on; you are doing mighty and awesome work, preparing and equipping people to be leaders in our communities, Lord! O Lord, praise your holy name! . . . People believe that Christians have no role in government, but God is the creator of every institution. Jesus himself understood the government of his day.")
In spite of her religious bona fides, she has been criticized in the past by conservatives for emphasizing party growth over party purity. She took the opposite tack in this year's primaries, however, appearing in a commercial to endorse John Shields, one of the most conservative members of the state House, in his race to defeat incumbent state senator Jeff Wentworth, who is a pro-choice, old-guard Texas Republican. As it happens, Leininger was a major Shields backer: He contributed just shy of $100,000 to Shields's campaign, Texans for Governmental Integrity donated $26,000, and Leininger family members pitched in another $30,000. "Leininger was the one who urged John to run," says auto dealership tycoon Red McCombs, who is Shields's father-in-law and served as his campaign treasurer. (According to Shields, many people urged him to run, including his mother. It was a close race; Shields lost.)
Accordingly, as Weddington addressed the assembled delegates during the convention's first general session, at least one member of the audience was unimpressed: Jeff Wentworth. The trim former Army officer shifted in his chair and rolled his eyes as her soprano twang resounded from the speakers. "A lot of people consider the role of the state chair to be to unite the party to fight the Democrats in November," Wentworth said at the time. "Let's don't fight among ourselves. The only issue that sticks in their craw," he continued, referring to the socially conservative party members, "is my refusal to support the platform plank on abortion. They would like to make that a litmus test. It's got to be a more inclusive party."
During last spring's primary, Wentworth was one of six Republican incumbents to be targeted by mailers that showed two men kissing. The mailers, which criticized the incumbents for supporting a hate-crimes bill, were the work of the Free Enterprise Political Action Committee (Free-PAC), a group to which Leininger has contributed $155,000 since 1996, according to an analysis of Ethics Commission records by Democratic lobbyists. Leininger apparently also steered other contributors to give to the group. Lieutenant Governor Bill Ratliff, who was targeted by one of the Free-PAC mailers and who held a Capitol press conference denouncing them, says, "some of the contributors [to Free-PAC] called me to say they regretted having contributed. I asked them if they would tell me who solicited the contribution, and they said Mr. Leininger had." All six incumbents targeted by Free-PAC won, and Ratliff believes that the mailers backfired: Public distaste for Free-PAC, he says, may well have helped Wentworth survive the primary. As for his own race, he says, "I think they increased my margin. Independent and swing voters are repelled by those kind of tactics."
Perhaps because the challengers fared so poorly, the flap over the primaries subsided quickly. How much of a direct role Leininger had in the Free-PAC debacle or in the Shields-Wentworth campaign is unclear, since he has declined to speak publicly about either. Yet those races were marked by the Leininger thumbprint: His contributions helped propagate a right-wing message, but in the end the Free-PAC mailers did not prove effective with the majority of voters.
What Leininger's millions, routed to his policy groups, candidates, and the Republican party, have done effectively is to push political discourse to the right in an already conservative state, whether the subject is textbook content or the party platform or one of the myriad issues raised by the TPPF. And while this pleases the staunchest of conservatives, some Republicans are concerned that Leininger's money has helped spread an exclusionary strain of politics that threatens to chase moderates out of the party. Ratliff says the Free-PAC approach "stands every chance of driving the citizens of Texas, who over the years have drifted toward the Republicans, back into the arms of the Democrats."
Sue Ann Harting is one such citizen. Brought up as a conservative Democrat at a time when nearly everyone in East Texas was a conservative Democrat, Harting started voting in Republican primaries in the eighties. Over the years, she has hosted Hunt County fundraisers for Phil Gramm, George W. Bush, and other GOP candidates. But in the wake of her recent campaign, that is over. "After almost twenty years," she says, "I have no desire to have any affiliation with that kind of mind-set, that kind of exclusionary way of dealing with members of your own party. I've decided I'm not a Republican. I'm an independent."
Tort Reform and Vouchers: Building a Better America
Bush's Conservative agenda written and bankrolled by Dr. James Leininger
by Stacey Moberly
It's a pretty well known fact that the new President, George W. Bush, hasn't had an original thought since about 1992. That's the same year he cut his teeth in politics, sitting on the board of advisors of the Texas Public Policy Foundation, or TPPF, founded by and up until recently, chaired by Dr. James Leininger and modeled after the Heritage Foundation.
According to the TPPF's website, http://www.tppf.org, the organization is "a 501 c(3) non-profit, non-partisan research institute guided by the core principles of limited government, free enterprise, private property rights and individual responsibility. The Foundation's mission is to improve Texas government by generating academically sound research and data on state issues, and by recommending the findings to opinion leaders, policy makers, the media and general public."
They neglected to mention that it is chaired by one of the Republican Party's most generous and invisible contributors, Dr. James Leininger. They neglected to mention that this organization has written Bush's policy for the last six years. They neglected to mention that this organization is simply a cover for both big business and the Christian Right in Texas to avoid taxes, lawsuits, and to hand taxpayer money to religious organizations.
Bush has championed Leininger's favorite causes, vouchers and tort reform, since he defeated incumbent Texas Governor Ann Richards in 1994. Soon after taking the oath of office, he repaid the financial and power brokering favors of Dr. Leininger (who contributed $4 million to the Republican Party in 1998 alone, and almost $90,000 to Bush himself) by declaring a judicial emergency and demanding swift tort reform. The tough reforms, backed by big businesses and manufacturers across the state, passed easily through a legislature that is a tool of PACs and special interest money.
Leininger had a keen interest in tort reform as a shareholder in Kinetic Concepts, a medical equipment company based in San Antonio that has been the defendant in at least 60 lawsuits over its rotating hospital beds, has lost its insurance, and has been cited and investigated by the FDA numerous times. The new tort reform would cap Kinetic Concepts' liability at $100,000 per lawsuit. This, of course, slipped like butter past the mainstream media in 1995, again in 1998, and yet again in 2000, when Bush was selected as this nation's 43rd President. In Bush's first month in office, he proved to us that he is no outsider; he is keen on returning favors to big business, and he is not interested in protecting people in Texas from industrial pollution, slipshod builders, or faulty manufacturing. (I attempted to delve deeper into Leininger's business ties in the state of Texas by asking Kinetic Concepts if they had any contracts with the State of Texas to provide medical equipment. They refused to give out that information.)
Tort reform is not the only area of Texas life Leininger is interested in, or that he wants to control. A born-again Christian, Leininger has a keen interest in securing taxpayer dollars to foist a Christian agenda on Texas' children while destroying the public school system. As the founder of the Children's Educational Opportunity Foundation, he put up most of the money for the Edgewood District's pilot voucher program, approaching $50 million. (For non-Texans, Edgewood is the district that sued the state for equal funding, setting off the ten-year Robin Hood battle that still rages to this day, with 22 districts in Texas agreeing to sue the state for the money they have lost to the program since its inception. The majority of these districts are rich, white, and Republican.)
In a discussion with Paul Ponce on PBS in 1998, Dr. Leininger stated "My desire, and the only reason that I'm involved with this is that every student in America would have the same educational opportunity as my children. I can afford to send my children to a private school, if I think that's what's best - any place they need to go. And I think that every child in America ought to have that same opportunity, not just be trapped into one school because they're poor so it only makes sense that at some point the government has got to do the right thing for those poor children and allow them to go to any school they want to go to." Unfortunately, this has not been the case in the Edgewood pilot voucher program. In a policy brief prepared by IDRA, or Intercultural Development Research Association, based in San Antonio, the Edgewood voucher program is discussed in great detail and is found to have many of the shortcomings that voucher opponents predict will befall other areas that institute voucher programs.
IDRA reports that out of 13,500 Edgewood* ISD students, only 998 received vouchers out of 2,202 applications. Only 600 eventually enrolled in another school. Why the 398 students who received a voucher did not enroll in another school is still a mystery, since the public does not have access to records kept by private schools. Proponents of voucher programs state that they will not "allow" discrimination, but private institutions have always been allowed to discriminate, notably in the case of the Boy Scouts last year.
Students not identified as "at risk" were overrepresented in the voucher program; voucher recipients outperformed their peers on the TAAS (Texas Assessment of Academic Skills) the year before leaving the Edgewood system, and students with limited proficiency in English were underrepresented in the pilot program. (16.9% of voucher recipients had limited English proficiency, compared with 22% of the students in the Edgewood district.) The already underfunded Edgewood district lost between $4 and $5 million in the first year of the pilot program in order for 600 students to attend private schools. The pilot program might have been "privately funded," but the taxpayers will foot the bill for the district's losses.
Leininger's litany on "opportunities" for all poor students was off base. As currently operated, private schools in Texas cannot absorb more than 1% of the 3.4 million students enrolled in public schools in the state. Far more than 1% (approximately 34,000) are poor and would qualify for the voucher program. Proponents of vouchers in Texas frothed and foamed about "school choice," but what they meant was "private school choice." The private schools are the ones with the choice to make, not the students. Private schools can, and would, reject any student with a record of causing trouble, any student with poor grades, and any student with special needs. It is academic eugenics. By selectively plucking out minds to cultivate, they are letting the rest of the students die on the underfunded vine.
Tort reform was one of the cornerstones of Bush's 1994 campaign, and education reform has been one of his favorite subjects since he took office. Given that these programs were essentially conceived by Dr. James Leininger (who bankrolls Republican elections in Texas) through his "non-profit" conservative think tank and pushed through the Texas Legislature by candidates he sponsors, I'm not inclined to believe that he has Texas' best interests in mind; rather, he is a kingbuilder who buys and sells politicians to push his conservative Christian agenda on Texas. Now, his protégé is in the White House.
Bush has already demonstrated an eager willingness to line up with the Christian Right and Big Business. He has already advocated knocking down the wall of separation between church and state by handing taxpayer money to promote religion in the form of vouchers, and preventing citizens from holding corporations and professionals responsible for their actions in the form of tort "reform." Now, he's in the White House. It makes me long for sappy love notes from interns and jokes about cigars.
*Particularly ironic is Leininger's choice to launch the pilot program in Edgewood, where the battle for equal school funding began over 25 years ago, especially considering that the same people who oppose equal school funding think vouchers are a grand idea.
College for the Home-Schooled Is Shaping Leaders for the Right
By DAVID D. KIRKPATRICK
The New York Times
March 8, 2004
PURCELLVILLE, Va. -- As one of 12 siblings taught at home by their parents in St. Croix Falls, Wis., Abram Olmstead knew he would fit right in at Patrick Henry College, the first college primarily for evangelical Christian home-schoolers. But what really sold him was the school's pipeline into conservative politics.
Of the nearly 100 interns working in the White House this semester, 7 are from the roughly 240 students enrolled in the four-year-old Patrick Henry College, in Purcellville. An eighth intern works for the president's re-election campaign. A former Patrick Henry intern now works on the paid staff of the president's top political adviser, Karl Rove. Over the last four years, 22 conservative members of Congress have employed one or more Patrick Henry interns in their offices or on their campaigns, according to the school's records.
"I would definitely like to be active in the government of our country and stuff," Mr. Olmstead, 19, said as he sat in a Christian coffeehouse near the campus, looking up from a copy of Plato's "Republic." "I would love to be able to be a foreign ambassador, and I would really like to move into the Senate later in my career."
The college's knack for political job placement testifies to the increasing influence that Christian home-schooling families are building within the conservative movement. Only about half a million families around the country home-school their children and only about two-thirds identify themselves as evangelical Christians, home-schooling advocates say. But they have passionate political views, a close-knit grass-roots network and the financial support of a handful of wealthy patrons. For all those reasons, home-schoolers have captured the attention of a wide swath of conservative politicians, many of whom are eager to hire Patrick Henry students.
When President Bush signed legislation last fall banning the procedure it calls partial-birth abortion, Michael Farris, the founder of the Home School Legal Defense Association and the president of Patrick Henry, was one of just five prominent Christian conservatives invited to the Oval Office for the occasion.
Patrick Henry College is the centerpiece of an effort to extend the home-schooling movement's influence beyond education to a broad range of conservative Christian issues like opposition to abortion, same-sex marriage and obscenity in the media. The legal defense association, located on the Patrick Henry campus, established the college as a forward base camp in the culture war, with the stated goal of training home-schooled Christian men and women "who will lead our nation and shape our culture with timeless biblical values."
"We are not home-schooling our kids just so they can read," Mr. Farris said. "The most common thing I hear is parents telling me they want their kids to be on the Supreme Court. And if we put enough kids in the farm system, some may get to the major leagues."
That is an alarming prospect to some on the left.
"Mike Farris is trying to train young people to get on a very right-wing political agenda," said Nancy Keenan, the education policy director at People for the American Way, a liberal advocacy group, and a former Montana state superintendent of public education. The number of Patrick Henry interns in the White House "scares me to death," she said. "It tells us a little bit more about the White House than it does about the kids."
Mingling in the corridors of the White House and Congress is also a long way from the sense of retreat at the heart of the Christian home-schooling movement. It began in the early 1980's as a few thousand evangelical Christians began teaching their children at home in disgust at what they considered the increasingly secular, relativistic and irreligious culture ascendant around them exemplified by the ban on prayer, the teaching of evolution and the promotion of contraception in the public schools.
The Home School Legal Defense Association, which now counts 81,000 families each paying about $100 a year in dues, was founded in 1983 by Mr. Farris, a lawyer who had been a protege of Tim LaHaye, the conservative Christian political organizer and best-selling author. Mr. Farris and his wife home-schooled their own 10 children. Like Mr. LaHaye, Mr. Farris is a novelist. He has written three legal thrillers involving conservative Christian issues. His latest, "Forbid Them Not," begins with a Democratic landslide in the 2004 elections that leads to a nightmare of laws blocking parents from spanking their children, teaching their children fundamental Christianity or schooling them at home.
Membership in the home-school association grew by more than 50 percent a year for most of its first decade, association officials said. From the outset, the association fought state regulations requiring home-schooling parents to have college or high school diplomas, to pass certification tests, or to submit to visits by professional educators or social workers. It won a long series of legislative and court victories culminating in a 1993 decision by the Michigan Supreme Court, which eliminated the final major obstacle to home schooling in any of the 50 states.
By 1994, Mr. Farris was ready to flex the association's muscles. When Representative George Miller, Democrat of California, introduced a bill requiring teachers to have certain credentials, Mr. Farris warned the association's members that home-schooling parents might face the same tests (something Mr. Miller denied). Thousands of angry home-school parents and their allies deluged Congress with so many faxes and telephone calls that it temporarily shut down the Capitol Hill telephone system.
The House ultimately voted overwhelmingly to delete the provision. "They made a big impact on people's minds that fateful day," said former Representative Dick Armey, Republican of Texas, a longtime champion of home schooling who proposed the deletion. "They got a taste of the game and found out they could be a major player."
By 1997, however, most of the association's state battles had been won and its membership growth had slowed to about 12 percent a year. Mr. Farris began looking for a new frontier. "I try to figure out how we can fix systems, so I started focusing on a bigger system," he said in an interview in February.
His answer was a college just for home-schoolers.
"Parents would ask me, `Is there a school that has the Christian character I am looking for?' " Mr. Farris said. "And congressmen would ask, `Mike, do you have a sharp home-schooler who can come and work for me?' "
One of the first and most significant contributors to sign on was Dr. James Leininger, a Texas physician, home-schooling parent and part-owner of the San Antonio Spurs. Dr. Leininger had made a fortune as controlling shareholder of the medical-bed manufacturer Kinetic Concepts Inc. He also owned a conservative political consulting and direct-mail business, and he had already become one of the biggest political contributors in Texas. He became known for backing Christian conservative candidates to the state's influential school board. And, as a board member of Children First America, he was also a major patron of the push for school tuition vouchers.
At a 1999 dinner in honor of George W. Bush, then the governor of Texas, held by one of Dr. Leininger's several foundations, Mr. Bush called his host "a good man and a great Texan," The Dallas Morning News reported.
Dr. Leininger did not respond to calls for comment.
"Jim has been a very good and very faithful friend to the college," said Jack W. Haye, chairman of its board and a Texas executive of the Wells Fargo Bank. Other trustees include Janet Ashcroft, wife of Attorney General John Ashcroft.
The board helped establish a 106-acre campus with six red brick buildings on rolling green hills.
Thanks to the generosity of its donors, Patrick Henry operates with no debt, eschews federal financial support and charges about $15,000 per student a year for tuition, about $10,000 less than some comparable small colleges. The average SAT score is about 1320, roughly comparable to Notre Dame or the University of Virginia.
About two-thirds of the students major in government. It is one of the few schools that offer a special program in intelligence and foreign affairs.
Now Mr. Farris is trying to enlist even younger students in Christian conservative politics. He estimates that there are more than two million home-schooling children in the country, or more than the number of children attending New Jersey public schools, and in February he sent a letter encouraging home-schooling families to enroll their children in Generation Joshua, a new hands-on civics program for home-schooled teenagers. Participants will learn about government by helping conservative churches get voters to the polls and by volunteering for the campaigns of like-minded conservative politicians, he said.
"Home-school teens could become one of the most powerful forces in American politics, rivaling the labor unions in effectiveness," Mr. Farris wrote, adding, "The best way to train the leaders of tomorrow is to have our young people help to elect the leaders of today."
Two of James Leininger's Foundations
From the Texas Freedom Network
Texas Public Policy Foundation
The Texas Public Policy Foundation is the think-tank arm of San Antonio physician Jim Leininger's right-wing empire. Leininger is Texas' largest funder of right-wing causes and he has used his money to develop an extensive political operation and to buy influence with many Texas elected officials.
Leininger's political empire includes a litigation arm, the think-tank, Texas Public Policy Foundation (TPPF), a number of 'grassroots' organizations that deal with school vouchers, abortion, and other issues, a television station, a statewide news network, and a full-service political consulting firm which provides direct mail, signs, phone calls and other services for the candidates Leininger supports. His campaign funding machine encompasses several political action committees which give to ultra-conservative candidates for statewide, legislative and State Board of Education candidates, contributions of family members and individuals who sit on the boards of the organizations he founded, and most significantly, his own personal contributions, which are tremendous. For just the 1998 elections, the Texas Freedom Network identified over $2.5 million dollars in Leininger's political contributions and loans, and we're still counting.
Texas Justice Foundation
The Texas Justice Foundation (TJF) was formed as a spin-off of the Texas Public Policy Foundation in 1993 to litigate on behalf of "good government practices." TJF functions as the litigation arm of Jim Leininger's far right political empire. The group's mission is to "protect individual rights, limit government to its appropriate role, and promote a better business climate for job growth in Texas." To promote this mission, TJF files legal briefs in support of the right of people under restraining orders to bear arms, the right of students to impose their religious beliefs on others, and the Religious Right's campaign for 'parental rights', which pediatricians, child advocates and attorneys have said would make it almost impossible to prosecute child abuse.
Essentially, TJF uses the legal system to advance James Leininger's extremist agenda. The organization has been active in the voucher campaign in Texas by arguing for parental rights and vouchers in front of the Texas Supreme Court, sponsoring the Putting Children First private school choice conference at the Capitol, and "evaluating" charter schools for the State Board of Education.
TJF also opposes policies enacted to protect the environment. After being denied permission to intervene, TJF wrote an amicus brief in Sierra Club v. San Antonio, which argued the Endangered Species Act should be declared unconstitutional.
Most recently, TJF filed an amicus brief to the U.S. Supreme Court in Santa Fe ISD v. Doe, arguing in support of school prayer at Texas high school football games.
Attorney Allan Parker leads TJF. Parker is the Texas representative of the Washington D.C.-based American Center for Law and Justice. Parker also represents Catholics United for Life in Texas and was the former Bexar County Christian Coalition president. He participated in the pro-voucher lobby by providing a presence at the Capitol during the legislative session and testifying for vouchers before the Texas Senate.
The other directors of TJF are familiar names in other pro-voucher organizations mentioned above. Fritz Steiger, president of CEO America, is a TJF director. Thomas W. Lyles, who is on the board of directors for CEO America and TPPF and was involved with Texans for Governmental Integrity, a political action committee founded by Jim Leininger, serves as TJF's secretary.
A One Man Groundswell
By Lauren Reinlie
April 29, 2005
At the mid-Legislative session mark, the award for the slickest rally at the Capitol goes to the Hispanic Council for Education and Reform (H-CREO). On April 5, H-CREO, which bills itself as the largest Hispanic education group in the state, bused hundreds of parents to Austin to show that there is Latino grassroots support for school vouchers in Texas. Between 300 and 400 parents attended a pro-voucher rally--in plush style by public interest standards--prior to a hearing on voucher legislation in the House Public Education Committee that day. Organizers paid for a large white tent to stake out on the Capitol grounds, so the attendees could sit in the shade while having lunch served to them. They set up a professional sound system on the Capitol steps (it too had its own little white tent). The line-up of speakers was the power trifecta: Governor Rick Perry, Lt. Governor David Dewhurst, and House Speaker Tom Craddick (R-Midland). Before a bank of television cameras the three state leaders looked out into the brown faces gathered below and promised them that they heard their urgent cry to reform public schools by instituting vouchers. "School choice is one of the most important things we can do in this state," Craddick told the crowd. "I assure you from the House side, we support choice."
Organizers at H-CREO won't reveal how much the rally cost. Marcela Garcini, a Texas parent coordinator for the group, says they organized the rally in just three days. (If they had started any earlier, it meant someone tipped them off about the hearing before it was publicly posted.) Garcini says the rally's success was a reflection of H-CREO's community organizing efforts in Texas since 2001. Organizers for the group go into public schools and churches to talk to parents, says Garcini. "When you really work with communities, when you really understand them, when you tell them the truth about how their kids are doing in the schools--this is the result you get."
The rally, according to organizers, showed how much grassroots support vouchers have in the Hispanic community. Interviews in the crowd told a slightly different story. A majority of the parents present at the rally had children who were no longer in the public school system. They belonged to Children's Educational Opportunity Fund, or CEO, a pro-voucher group in San Antonio that provides privately funded vouchers, or scholarships, for parents to put their kids into private schools. CEO San Antonio's program director Jessica Sanchez estimates 250 parents from their parent organization, Las Comadres, attended the rally in Austin. Most of these parents already receive money to send their children to private schools through the CEO scholarship program.
But Carla Garcia, a parent who attended the rally and whose son has been on a CEO scholarship program since its inception in 1998, says the grants are ending. "Someone has donated the money for people needing it in San Antonio, but the money is running out. Once it runs out, people are going to have to pull their kids out of the schools they are in now because they are not going to be able to afford to keep them there."
So who is this generous donor who doles out voucher money?
The largest contributor to the CEO program also happens to be the second largest campaign contributor in Texas, Dr. James Leininger. According to Sanchez, Leininger founded CEO and made a 10-year commitment to the organization. To date he has poured between $30 million and $50 million into the scholarship program. In the 2002 and 2004 election cycles, he gave a total of almost $2 million to Texas Republicans, according to figures from the Austin-based campaign watchdog Texans for Public Justice.
It's not surprising that the large majority of attendees at the H-CREO rally were actually Leininger-funded CEO parents. Federal tax records further confirm that H-CREO and CEO are closely linked. Robert Aguirre, one of the original founders of the CEO program in San Antonio in 1998, is still managing director, but, according to Sanchez, is no longer on the payroll. Aguirre also helped to launch H-CREO in 2001 and now serves as chairman of the board of trustees. In 2003, he received over $100,000 in consulting fees from H-CREO, according to tax records.
H-CREO receives much of its funding from right-wing pro-voucher groups such as the Walton Family Foundation of Wal-Mart fame and Leininger's own pro-voucher political action committee, Children First America. (See Political Intelligence, June 4, 2004). It's a good time to be a Republican fat cat with a cause. In October, H-CREO received a five-year, $2.5 million grant from the Department of Education to inform the public about their options under the No Child Left Behind Act.
While refusing to reveal the origin of the money for the rally, organizers did insist that federal education dollars were not used. Chuck McDonald, serving as a spokesperson for the group's efforts in Austin, says "they spent enough to attract enough people to get the press to come out" and that it probably fell somewhere in the couple of thousands of dollars. (McDonald was most recently in the media testifying in the Texans for a Republican Majority (TRMPAC) civil trial about his work creating more than four million mailers distributed to voters by the Texas Association of Business (TAB). Bill Cerverha, the defendant in the civil trial, was also at the rally in support.)
Garcini, the Texas parent coordinator for H-CREO, says she feels the organization is being unfairly targeted on money issues. "Who cares about the funds? Is the program working? Are the parents getting informed? Why, when they see the organization is working, when they have the proof, are they questioning the funds?"
Leininger has poured millions of dollars into the fight for school vouchers--including political contributions, but hasn't seen the Lege give much movement to school voucher legislation. Nearly all the major contributors to the 2002 campaign that captured the Legislature--in a campaign currently under investigation by two grand juries--have already received something in return. Leininger and gambling interests appear to be the only ones left behind.
"I'm here to tell you, that there are people listening to you at the highest level of government," Perry told the cheering parents at the rally.
And, Dr. Jim, that means you, too.
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