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Thursday, December 10, 1998

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 is the Texas Network, TXN, which will reach an estimated 10 million Texans a day with television news programs being marketed as 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.

Molly Ivins’ column regularly runs on Mondays and Thursdays.

Creators Syndicate, Inc.

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