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The Skinny: James Leininger

This weekend, the San Antonio physician and prolific donor to conservative candidates and causes hosts a Hill Country gathering for Gov. Rick Perry and some of his evangelical supporters. Who is Leininger? Here's a primer.

Dr. James Leininger at an Austin reception on Sept. 11th, 2009

James Leininger, the San Antonio businessman and longtime supporter of Gov. Rick Perry, is hosting a meeting of the governor and evangelical conservatives today and Saturday at Leininger's Hill Country spread near Fredericksburg. 

Well known to the state's political class, Leininger 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, an influential conservative think tank that has worked closely with Perry. 

What's interesting about Perry's weekend Hill Country meeting with like-minded folks is that Leininger has had a somewhat lower profile in recent years. (His last contribution to Perry's state campaign fund appears to have been $25,ooo in 2009, according to our database of Perry donors from 2000-11.)

For more on Leininger, a good place to start is our Tribpedia entry on him, which describes him as a San Antonio-based businessman — his company, Kinetic Concepts (now the subject of a lucrative bidding war to be taken over), started with the selling of a specialty medical bed — and former physician.

Quick read:

He is a devout Christian conservative who, in the 1990s and 2000s, became one of the most prolific political donors to Republican candidates, conservative causes and Christian ministries in Texas. 

A strong supporter of school choice, Leininger started CEO San Antonio to give private school vouchers to low-income students to allow them to attend the school of their choice. He typically focuses his campaign giving on candidates who support vouchers or school choice.

Leininger grew up in Indiana and Florida before settling in San Antonio after serving in the Army as a doctor. He later became an emergency room physician for more than a decade.

His fortune grew out of his side business as a salesman for a Chicago company that made specialized hospital beds. The company fell on hard times in the mid-1970's. Leininger bought the firm and renamed it Kinetic Concepts. Business bounced back and Kinetic Concepts became the foundation of Leininger's personal wealth. 

Leininger hasn't give many media interviews, but he has sat for a few, including a June 2006 Texas Monthly conversation with Evan Smith, then the editor of Texas Monthly and now the Tribune's CEO and editor-in-chief, about his political contributions and his work to promote school vouchers.

Quick read:

Smith: What else don’t we understand about you?
Leininger: 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; 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.

According to a September 1997 Houston Chronicle story, Leininger did not become politically involved until the tort reform battles of the late 1980s. He told reporter R.G. Ratcliffe that he was motivated to act, in part, after he saw a report on 60 Minutes about plaintiffs lawyers using campaign contributions to exert control over the Texas Supreme Court. 

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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."

Recent interest in Leininger's role in Perry's political career has been revived not only because of Hill Country meeting this weekend but as the national media begins to examine the governor's record and his finances. Last month, the Tribune's Jay Root wrote about Perry's success in land deals. He also noted that Perry had made money when he sold his shares in Leininger's company, Kinetic Concepts. 

Quick read:

Apart from the money he made on land deals, Perry reported a profit of $38,000 in 1996 after selling shares of Kinetic Concepts Inc., a hospital equipment company founded by one of Perry’s most generous donors, James Leininger of San Antonio, the school voucher proponent.

There's also been new interest in how the governor's Texas Emerging Technology Fund aided firms with ties to his donors, including Leininger. The Dallas Morning News broke that story in October 2010.

Other helpful reading includes Karen Olsson's November 2002 Texas Monthly story

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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.

The education fund of the Texas Freedom Network, a liberal organization of 45,000 religious and community leaders that monitors the activities of conservative activists, their influence and funding, has written extensively about Leininger, including in this 2006 report on the religious right and this 2008 report on the state Board of Education. 

Quick read:

James Leininger has used his fortune to support the religious right’s rise to power. Money – mountains of it – has long been important in Texas politics, whether it has come from oil and other business interests, trial lawyers or other powerful constituencies. In the last two decades, however, Texas has witnessed the increasing influence of extravagantly wealthy donors who use their vast fortunes to advance a hard-right social agenda. Dr. Leininger has been the most important of these ideological super-donors.

Finally, there is the new report issued by Texans for Public Justice, a money-and-politics watchdog group.

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Perry might never have been governor — nor now be a presidential candidate — but for James Leininger. In a game-changing 1998 race then-Texas Agriculture Commissioner Perry was elected Lieutenant Governor. That victory secured Perry’s automatic promotion to governor two years later when President-Elect Bush abandoned the Governor’s Mansion. Perry narrowly won his fateful 1998 race against Democrat John Sharp, capturing just 50.04 percent of the vote. This squeaker victory was secured by an eleventh-hour media blitz that Perry paid for with a last-minute, $1.1 million loan. Leininger and two other Texas tycoons guaranteed the loan, which supplied more than 10 percent of the $10.3 million that Perry raised for that election. Leininger’s family and company PAC contributed $62,500 to that Perry campaign. Leininger also was the No. 1 contributor at the time to the Texas Republican Party (then chaired by former Leininger employee Susan Weddington), which sank $82,760 into that Perry campaign. “I congratulate Leininger,” Perry opponent John Sharp said at the time. “He wanted to buy the reins of state government. And by God, he got them.”

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