Mr. Right

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.

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

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