During the last weeks of his 1998 race for Texas lieutenant governor, Rick Perry was tied with Democrat John Sharp, and many expected him to lose. That’s when James Leininger, an archconservative San Antonio multimillionaire, and two other Texas tycoons stepped forward with a $1.1 million loan for a last-minute media blitz. It was more than 10 percent of the total Perry raised for that race, and it probably was decisive—Perry won with 50.4 percent of the vote. “I congratulate Leininger,” Sharp later told The Austin Chronicle. “He wanted to buy the reins of state government. And by God, he got them.”
In Texas political circles, the fact that Perry owes his career to Leininger is well known. Leininger has consistently been a top Perry donor and even financed Perry’s first campaign plane. “Time and again, the political and personal fortunes of James Leininger and Rick Perry have intertwined,” says a new report from Texans for Public Justice, an Austin-based group that tracks the influence of money and corporate influence in Texas politics.
At the same time, Leininger also helped bankroll the transformation of the Texas GOP from a merely conservative party to one dominated by religious fundamentalists. Partly because of his influence, the Texas political culture that Rick Perry emerges from is significantly more right-wing than the one that shaped George W. Bush. And now that Perry is running for president, Leininger is working to make sure that national conservative Christian leaders coalesce behind him, even if he’s not quite the purist that Michele Bachmann is.
Leininger is a physician who became a multimillionaire thanks to founding a company, Kinetic Concepts, which distributes specialty medical beds that rotate to prevent bed sores. He went on to diversify into other businesses, including Promised Land Dairy, which sells milk in bottles printed with Bible verses, and eventually amassed a fortune of hundreds of millions of dollars.
Initially, he got involved in politics to promote tort reform, but he quickly threw his weight behind social conservative causes as well. He’s been a particular foe of secular public education, pouring millions into primary challenges against Republicans who failed to support school vouchers, and funding school board candidates who push creationism and a Christian nationalist view of American history. On the national level, he was one of the founders of Patrick Henry University, a college for evangelical home-schooled students.
These days, we’re used to fierce ideological battles in Texas about the teaching of evolution or the role of the Enlightenment in American history. But some in Texas say it wasn’t always thus. “Dr. Leininger has been instrumental in transforming the Texas State Board of Education and the state capitol into major battlegrounds in the nation’s culture wars,” concluded the Texas Freedom Network, a group that favors separation of church and state, in a 2006 report about the Texas religious right.
In 1994, for example, one Leininger-funded group sent out a campaign mailer showing two men kissing; it accused an incumbent school board member of promoting homosexuality. The school board member was defeated by Leininger’s candidate, Donna Ballard, one of a series of victories by the social conservatives who soon took over the body.
Photos of gay men, intended to repulse, have been a hallmark of Leininger’s campaigns, and not just against Democrats. In 2002, the Dallas Morning News reported, “Acting Lt. Gov. Bill Ratliff and key GOP legislators say they have been falsely portrayed as promoting ‘homosexual lifestyles’ and gay sex education in public schools in political fliers sent out in recent days by a Dallas-based conservative group.” Leininger was one of the biggest contributors to that group, the Free Enterprise Political Action Committee.
Perry criticized the controversial fliers, though in terms far too mild for Ratliff, who told the Houston Chronicle, "You are either with the purveyors of this filth or you are with those of us who are willing to come forward and condemn it.” It’s not surprising, though, that Perry was reluctant to say more. After all, he’s been close to Leininger since his days as Texas agriculture commissioner.
“Leininger was the first really wealthy guy I saw who was deeply embedded with Perry,” says Harvey Kronberg, who runs the influential Texas political newsletter Quorum Report. In the early 1990s, Leininger actually tried to buy Quorum Report, hoping to turn it into a conservative counterweight to the too-liberal Texas press. “Rick Perry was in the room as the deal was being discussed,” says Kronberg. Later, in 1996, Perry turned a quick $38,000 profit thanks to a fortuitously timed investment in Kinetic Concepts stock.
As governor, Perry has continued his symbiotic relationship with Leininger, though with a few bumps. Because many rural Republicans are attached to their local public schools, Perry was never able to make progress on school vouchers. And his first appointee to chair the state board of education was a moderate named Grace Shore who was later defeated in a conservative primary challenge. It didn’t take long, though, for Perry to fall into line. His next proposed board of education chair was a young earth creationist named Don McLeroy who first ran for the school board with Leininger’s support. When the Texas Senate refused to confirm McLeroy, Perry nominated Gail Lowe, another creationist. When the Senate refused to confirm her as well, he appointed Barbara Cargill, who has also been backed by Leininger. The founder of a Bible-based science camp that teaches “intelligent design,” Cargill opposed adding lessons about gender to the state’s sociology standards, saying they would lead to a focus on “transgender, transvestites and who knows what else.”
Education, of course, is not the only realm in which Perry has helped strengthen Texas’s religious right. “The governor of 2000 wasn’t stumping on antichoice legislation, and the governor of 2011 made the sonogram bill in Texas an emergency legislative item in face of a $27 billion budget deficit,” says Kathy Miller, president of the Texas Freedom Network. “There has been an evolution of the governor that denies evolution.”
Perry also has increased Leininger’s influence the old-fashioned way—by appointing his allies to state positions. He made Kinetic Concepts public affairs director Diane Rath chair of the Texas Workforce Commission, and appointed the company’s former CEO, Raymond Hannigan, to the Texas Board of Health. Susan Weddington, a former Leininger employee who went on to become chair of the Texas GOP, later became president and CEO of the OneStar foundation, a nonprofit created by Perry that administers the state’s faith-based grant-making.
As Perry has furthered Leininger’s agenda, Leininger has helped create a church-based political machine that has provided reliable electoral foot soldiers for Perry. Particularly significant is the Texas Restoration Project, a network of pastors who aim to “restore Texas and America to our Judeo-Christian heritage.” It’s funded primarily through the Niemoller Foundation, which is funded by Leininger and several other wealthy Texas conservatives.
The Texas Restoration Project is one of a number of state-based efforts to involve churches more closely in politics. Because churches are not allowed to get directly involved in partisan campaigns, the pastors involved organize around ostensibly nonpartisan issues such as gay marriage. The Texas Restoration Project, for example, ran a massive church-based voter registration campaign on behalf of Proposition 2, the Perry-backed 2005 constitutional amendment outlawing gay marriage and civil unions.
Naturally, the effort worked to Perry’s benefit. As Wayne Slater reported in the Dallas Morning News, “Perry aides view the issue as an ideal way to build the political base and refine tactics they hope will benefit them next year, such as targeted e-mails and appeals from the pulpit for ‘values voters’ to get involved in politics.” Perry spoke at each of six all-expenses-paid briefings that the Texas Restoration Project held for pastors in 2005; according to the Texas Freedom Network, no other gubernatorial candidate was invited.
Now that Perry is running for president, these networks are being mobilized once again. On the last weekend in August, 200 pastors and Christian-right luminaries assembled for a private, off-the-record retreat with Perry at Leininger’s ranch 70 miles west of Austin. As the Los Angeles Times reported, among the attendees were Focus on the Family founder James Dobson and Richard Land, president of the Southern Baptist Convention’s Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission. “Inside an air-conditioned tent, the Texas governor and Republican presidential contender was grilled about his beliefs and his record in extraordinarily frank sessions,” the Times reported. “He responded by describing his relationship with Jesus and pledging to pursue the antiabortion and anti-gay-marriage agenda championed by the evangelical right, according to multiple participants.”
Unlike Michele Bachmann, Perry does not emerge entirely out of the evangelical subculture. Over the years he has done things to upset the religious right, mandating the HPV vaccine for sixth-grade Texas girls in 2007 and supporting the pro-choice Rudy Giuliani for president in 2008. No one can know how privately committed he is to the Christian right’s goals. But in the end, the question of Perry’s personal faith matters less than his public allegiances and commitments. If Leininger is lining up his allies to support his protégé, it’s because he believes they can trust him to enact their agenda. He certainly should know.