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 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 Minutes follow-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.”