The Religious Right Sugar-Daddy Who Brought Us Rick Perry
"Perry might never have been governor - nor now be a presidential candidate - but for James Leininger"
-- Texans for Public Justice(PDF)
These days, the emergence of Texas Governor Rick Perry as the frontrunner for the Republican Party's presidential nomination must be warming the cockles of Dr. James Leininger's heart.
Who is Dr. James Leininger, and why is he considered one of the Texas Governor's "most stalwart helpmates"?
Outside of Texas, Leininger is a relatively unknown multi-millionaire. Inside the second-largest U.S. state by both size and population, however, Leininger is known as the "Sugar Daddy" of the religious right.
'Well known to the state's political class'
A recent piece in The Texas Tribune described him as being "Well known to the state's political class," who "rose to political prominence for his work promoting school vouchers, the campaign to ban same-sex marriage in Texas and his sizable financial contributions to Perry and other conservative political candidates. He also founded the Texas Public Policy Foundation [TPPF], an influential conservative think tank that has worked closely with Perry."
"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," Karen Olsson reported in the November 2002 edition of the Texas Monthly. "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 [the TPPF] in Texas .... 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."
The Texas Tribune noted that Leininger "has had a somewhat lower profile in recent years," and that "His last contribution to Perry's state campaign fund appears to have been $25,000 in 2009, according to [its] database of Perry's donors from 2000-11."
'Rick Perry's Heavenly Host'
Leininger re-emerged recently as the host of a retreat that brought together Perry and several leading evangelical leaders including retired judge Paul Pressler, a Southern Baptist leader, Christian historian David Barton, East Texas evangelist Rick Scarborough and others who supported Perry's Christian prayer rally in Houston, at his ranch near Fredericksburg, Texas, the Dallas Morning News' Wayne Slater recently reported.
Just prior to the retreat, Texans For Public Justice issued a report titled "Rick Perry's Heavenly Host" which pointed out that "Perry might never have been governor - nor now be a presidential candidate - but for James Leininger."
According to Texans For Public Justice (TPJ), ("Tracking the influence of money and corporate power in Texas politics"Leininger and his vast hospital bed fortune may have been responsible for keeping the political career of Perry from going under in 1998. At the time, Perry was involved in a close race for lieutenant governor. Many observers believe that it was Leininger's $1.1 million that helped push Perry win that contest over Democrat John Sharp; Perry captured just 50.04 percent of the vote.
It was that election that spurred Perry's rise.
Like conservative Christian billionaire Phillip Anschutz who has taken the entertainment industry by storm, Leininger may be a tad press-shy, but he does grant the occasional interview (see "Money Talks," a 2006Texas Monthly interview).
He also has his ownwebsite where his official bio details some of his impressive accomplishments, from his winning a "Spelling Bee [in 1953] as a 4th grader defeating 5th and 6th graders to represent Comstock Elementary in city wide tournament," to graduating from Indiana University Medical School, to being awarded "Hero of Children" by the Texas Board of Education, to being inducted into the Texas Business Hall of Fame in 2007.
According to the website, Leininger "currently owns, founded or was a major investor in over 100 corporations" including: Kinetic Concepts, Inc., the San Antonio-based extraordinarily successful hospital-bed company; Renal Care Group; minority ownership in the National Basketball Association's San Antonio Spurs; and Promised Land dairy.
"Over the past two decades, certain political issues have prompted Leininger to dig into a personal fortune worth hundreds of millions of dollars," TPJ's report "Rick Perry's Heavenly Host" explained. "These issues are his vehement opposition to tort laws, abortion and gay marriage and his devout belief in school vouchers and the teaching of such conservative Christian ideas as creationism in private and public schools. Leininger's deep-pocket fervor makes him a divisive force even within the GOP. He has spent millions of dollars attacking moderate Republican lawmakers."
Leininger is also an Advisory Board member for the controversial Institute in Basic Life Principles, an organization run by Bill Gothard (for more on Gothard's work click here).
The Leininger-Perry financial connection
While it is true that Perry comes from humble roots, he began accumulating his multi-million dollar fortune soon after he was elected Agriculture Commissioner in 1989, when he "began investing his considerably higher salary in land around Austin, getting in just before the housing boom sent Sun Belt real estate values skyrocketing. By 2007, Perry was reporting an income of over $1 million," according to Business Insider.
The Texans For Public Justice's report pointed out that the Perry-Leininger relationship goes back more than fifteen years:
"On January 24, 1996 ... Perry saw ... Leininger in San Antonio and personally bought 2,800 shares of stock in Kinetic Concepts, Inc., ... Later that day an investment group began buying 2.2 million shares of Kinetic stock in an effort to acquire the company. That shopping spree drove up the value of Kinetic shares and made Perry $4,487 in one month.
"Perry told the Dallas Morning News, which broke the story, that he had not received any insider information from Leininger. 'I certainly didn't talk to him about the stock price or anything like that,' Perry said. Commissioner Perry also said that he had no knowledge of the transaction because his broker had initiated it through 'a managed account' and it was a 'coincidence' that he did so the day Leininger and Perry met.
"A week later, Perry reversed this account, telling the Houston Chronicle that his broker reminded him that Perry himself had ordered Kinetic stock purchase. 'I may have called and said sell something that's not performing and buy some more KCI stock,' Perry told the Chronicle. 'It was a stock that was going up at the time.' Perry said he began investing in Kinetic Concepts in 1994 because he knew the Leiningers.
"Taken together, Perry made $38,000 off stock investments in Leininger's company. As a new governor in 2001, Perry appointed former Kinetic public affairs director Diane Rath as chair of the Texas Workforce Commission and former Kinetic CEO Raymond Hannigan to the Texas Board of Health."
"Rick Perry's Heavenly Host" details Perry's Leininger-related deals that included the purchase of a $475,000 used Piper Cheyenne 1 plane in October 1996, through some wheeling and dealing with Leininger's brothers; a Leininger-financed "luxury junket to the Bahamas" to talk about education policy; and, Perry's awarding of "$4.75 million in Texas taxpayer money to two biotech firms connected to James Leininger and John McHale, who contributed $100,000 to Perry's gubernatorial coffers."
Leininger's 2006 Texas Monthly interview closed with him complaining about how misunderstood he is: "Originally, I was supposed to be a recluse who lived in a cave, and then I was an absolute right-wing zealot, and now I'm this rich tycoon who's trying to buy democracy. None of those things are true.
"I certainly don't need to make any more money, and I'm not trying to make any money out of this [the privatization of Texas' public school system]; I've probably given $100 million away, so that's a totally false accusation. What I'd like to say is that I think the lives of every one of these little kids who are trapped in these unsafe and failing schools are too important, and I'm willing to take the abuse in order to help them. And that's my only motivation."
These days, he clearly has another "motivation"; helping Rick Perry to the presidency.
Don't laugh, stranger things have happened.