What money can’t buy

Times Staff Writer

IN the last decade and a half, James Leininger figures, he has invested more than $100 million in a calculated bid to transform Texas.

His money helped elect the three most powerful politicians in the Lone Star State: the governor, the lieutenant governor and the House speaker. It helped Republicans capture both houses of the Legislature in Austin for the first time in more than a century. It allowed business-friendly jurists to take over the Texas Supreme Court. It let Republicans control the state Board of Education, allowing social conservatives to screen schoolbooks for hints of anti-Christian bias.

In short, the doctor-turned-entrepreneur is proof that one rich man’s ideology can change life for everyone in a state of more than 23 million people -- though most Texans have never heard of him.


When Leininger, 62, assesses his legacy, however, he can’t contain his disappointment. The one thing he feels most passionate about remains out of reach: He has never been able to get the Legislature to pass a voucher program allowing poor children to use tax dollars to attend private schools.

“If it doesn’t pass, it’s all been for nothing,” Leininger said.

The soft-spoken man friends call Dr. Jim could certainly be doing other things with his life. He took over a struggling company that made high-tech sickbeds and prayed for it to turn around. It did. He is now worth more than half a billion dollars.

He owns a piece of the San Antonio Spurs basketball team, which is competing in the NBA finals, and he jets around the planet on a private plane. But he’s not the kind of man to be satisfied with a leisurely life.

The former emergency room physician can’t forget the boys he saw bleeding from stab wounds -- boys he felt never stood a chance in neighborhoods where low expectations seemed predetermined by poverty. He can’t forget the day he learned that some high school graduates who worked for him couldn’t read.

“It doesn’t matter if you are rich or poor: Parents love their kids and want the best for them,” Leininger said. “But I’ve become acutely aware that not everyone gets the opportunity to succeed.”

So he has put his money behind school vouchers, because he is convinced that such a program would improve education for poor youngsters by forcing complacent public schools to compete for the right to teach them.

To sway skeptical Texans, he bankrolled a grand experiment in his hometown: He is spending $50 million over 10 years to take students out of one San Antonio school district and put them in private schools.

Since 1998, nearly 4,000 children, mainly Latinos, have attended private schools with help from his scholarships. Graduates have gone on to Yale and Notre Dame. The Edgewood Independent School District has not crumbled -- in fact, its performance improved.

“We ought to be sending more kids to college, less to prison,” Leininger said. “This is becoming an extension of the civil rights movement.”

Still, vouchers remain unpopular in Texas, and it appears that Leininger’s aggressive checkbook advocacy may have hurt the cause.

Weary after years of bruising fights -- including a primary election last year in which Leininger spent millions trying to oust members of his own party who opposed vouchers -- the Texas House overwhelmingly passed a budget amendment in March that declared that the state would not fund vouchers for two years. The amendment was later stripped out, but the message was clear.

“There are a lot of wealthy Texans who play politics like a game of bingo. But Leininger is unusual, really distinctive, in that he gives a lot of money to a lot of people” based on ideology instead of economic self-interest, said Calvin Jillson, a political science professor at Southern Methodist University in Dallas. “He has a diffuse influence on Texas politics, and it has taken a rightward turn.”

Leininger’s detractors, mainly teachers’ groups and foes of the religious right, portray him as the embodiment of everything wrong with a political system where the wealthy can push their pet ideas on the public.

“His ultimate legacy will be making some parents say, ‘I am mad as hell and I am not going to take it anymore,’ ” said Carolyn Boyle of Parent PAC, a group that helped defeat some pro-voucher lawmakers last year.

Inside the Texas Capitol, some see Leininger as a naive idealist taken advantage of by politicians and campaign operatives who understood that vouchers would never pass, but took his money anyway to advance their own agendas.

“Leininger is a smart man. But he was hustled,” said one Republican legislator, who asked to stay anonymous for fear of angering such a major donor. “Will he ever admit it? I don’t know, but I bet he knows it.”

The closest a voucher program has come to passage was two years ago. Still, Leininger keeps trying. He uses his influence to ensure there is a voucher debate in Austin every year.

LEININGER is a tall, muscular man with thinning red hair. Though he is passionate about his political ideas, he is a quiet man who has typically let his money do the talking. That made him easy to demonize.

Columnist Molly Ivins likened him to Daddy Warbucks, the tycoon in the “Little Orphan Annie” comic strip. A San Antonio weekly called him “God’s Sugar Daddy.” But those who know Leininger realize he is no caricature.

“He is completely genuine,” said Harvey Kronberg, editor of the Quorum Report, a nonpartisan newsletter and website on Texas politics. “There is a religious conviction in Leininger that’s pretty deep. I think he views all of this as comparable to tithing to his church.”

Leininger is a descendant of German immigrants who settled in the Midwest during the 19th century. His father, Hilbert Adolph Peter Leininger, wanted his five boys to follow him and become doctors. Four studied medicine or optometry.

Leininger was raised as a Missouri Synod Lutheran, a branch that believes the Bible is without error. He and his wife, Cecelia, had three children and adopted a fourth. They educated them at home, then at private schools.

Leininger has financed the national pro-voucher movement though a group called CEO America along with members of the Walton family, the heirs to the Wal-Mart fortune. He was also one of the founders of Patrick Henry College, which has trained numerous Christian students -- many of them formerly home-schooled -- to enter politics. In 2004, seven White House interns came from Patrick Henry’s 240-member student body.

Leininger’s efforts to pass a voucher plan in Texas have won him the admiration of many working-class parents, who feel their children are trapped in failing public schools.

“He is a great man,” said Mary Sanchez, a Spanish teacher at the Edgewood schools who took advantage of Leininger’s scholarships to send her son, Robert, to a military high school. Robert Sanchez is now a junior at Yale. “God blessed Dr. Leininger and he is giving back.”

But some parents point out that despite Leininger’s claims that his program turned the Edgewood district around, the schools were already improving because of a new state law that took money from wealthier districts and gave it to poorer ones.

“The thing that bothers me tremendously is that he takes full credit,” said Diana Herrera, a former student who later taught in the district for 30 years. Her 17-year-old son, Richard, attends Edgewood High School. “Why does he continue to pump money into Austin when no one agrees with him?”

In his zeal to change the political world, critics contend, Leininger has funded dirty advertisements that clash with Christian values.

Bill Ratliff, a former Texas state senator and acting lieutenant governor, is still angry about an incendiary mailer in 2002. It showed two men kissing, and accused Ratliff of supporting a “radical homosexual agenda.” The ad backfired and Ratliff was reelected to the Legislature. Leininger admits to funding the group responsible but says he ended his support before the fliers were sent.

“That is one of the sinister parts of all this: Many, if not most, people in Texas have no idea who Jim Leininger is,” said Ratliff, a Republican. “He has a lot of influence because he is willing to put a lot of money behind his beliefs, and yet he takes an arm’s-length position from the campaigns he funds. If you criticize something, he says, ‘That’s what the consultants do.’ ”

When the voucher bill reached the floor of the state House in 2005, Rep. Carter Casteel gave the kind of speech every politician dreams of giving but few have the courage to deliver.

“I have really thought a long time about what my role was here on the floor of the Texas House,” Casteel told her colleagues. “Whether or not it was to represent myself, [or] represent someone who visited me who has a lot of power.”

She had met Leininger for the first time minutes earlier, and he had a “good heart,” she said. But as a former 12th-grade teacher, she believed in public schools.

“I’ve made a decision,” she said. “It may send me home.”

In spring 2006, Casteel found herself in a heated primary race against an opponent who received 85% of his money from Leininger. Patrick Henry students went door to door for him. Casteel lost by 45 votes.

She estimated Leininger spent at least $1 million, a figure Leininger said he was unable to pin down the amount because of his many contributions.

Vouchers were never mentioned in the attack ads, which highlighted her support for toll roads.

“The Bible I use,” Casteel said, “has the 9th Commandment,” which prohibits lying. “I guess his does not.”

Leininger removed only two of his five targets.

“I was pretty frustrated,” he said. “I almost could not believe what I had spent.”

TEN minutes west of the Alamo, in a rundown neighborhood marred by graffiti, the Christian Academy of San Antonio stands out like a beacon amid the blight. Little girls in tan skirts and maroon polo shirts hold their fathers’ hands and skip into the small school with fresh stucco walls and new red-tiled roof.

Four-fifths of the school’s 600 students attend with Leininger’s scholarships, obtaining old-fashioned educations emphasizing basic skills such as reading and writing. He helped build the academy because existing private schools could not take in all the students he was pulling out of the Edgewood schools.

As he walked the halls with the principal, he pointed out the sophisticated science lab, the modern classrooms with the low student-teacher ratios, and the auditorium with stadium seating where second-graders were practicing the song “America.” He could not contain his pride.

“It’s all about the kids,” Leininger said, smiling. “Do you think I would take all this abuse from the educational establishment if it wasn’t?”

Minutes later, he stepped into a ninth-grade class just as a teacher asked how long Earth had existed. A boy raised his hand and answered 6,000 years. When the teacher asked him how he knew that, he said he read it in his Bible. The teacher nodded and then questioned scientific measurements, which conclude that the Earth is billions of years old.

Critics have often accused Leininger of trying to impose his religious views on children. But he said his voucher drive was not about religious instruction.

“That’s just one of the scare tactics,” he said.

He was eager to change the subject, and go over charts on the improved academic performance of the Edgewood schools.

As he spoke, Leininger’s mobile phone repeatedly rang with a number from the Austin area code that he did not recognize. He figured it was yet another operative hitting him up for cash.

Leininger said he was frustrated that support for his ideas seemed to be diminishing in Austin. If he could do it over, he’d spend more time getting to know the politicians instead of judging them on a single issue.

“It’s best for Texas that we elect the most qualified people, and I was not doing that,” he said. “I was choosing people based on one narrow interest.”

Leininger vows to stop funding his scholarships next year. The students will have to go back to public schools -- unless lawmakers approve a voucher program.

Few politicians take his threat seriously. They believe Leininger has invested too much to walk away from his crusade. But Leininger says that even for a benefactor of his magnitude, there is a time to stop writing checks.