Our guest blogger is Sarah Bufkin, a former ThinkProgress intern and student at UNC-Chapel Hill.
Faced with flagging poll numbers and a campaign chest close to empty, Texas Agriculture Commissioner Rick Perry was running into trouble three weeks before voters headed to the polls in 1998 to choose a new state lieutenant governor. But all that changed when Dr. James Leininger, a Texas millionaire and right-wing ideologue, guaranteed a $1.1 million loan to Perry’s campaign on Oct. 25, enabling a $1 million advertising blitz to hit the airwaves.
Leininger’s loan arguably saved Perry from political obscurity, putting him in the Lieutenant Governor’s office just two years before then-Gov. George W. Bush left Texas for the White House. But Leininger has not drawn much media attention outside of his home state. With Perry planning to meet with Leininger at a “call-to-action” retreat on Aug. 27 as a newly-declared presidential candidate, however, additional scrutiny will fall on the pro-voucher, anti-gay, hard-line conservative.
Earlier this week, the Los Angeles Times’ Matea Gold and Melanie Mason reported that Perry “has received a total of $37 million over the last decade from just 150 individuals and couples, who are likely to form the backbone of his new effort to win the Republican presidential nomination.” Indeed, Leininger — who wasn’t mentioned in the article — is one key part of such the backbone.
Over the past two decades, Leininger has funded the rightward shift in Texas politics through his “vast web of interlocking and overlapping pressure groups.” But unlike other GOP corporate donors, he is ideologically motivated and has “almost exclusively [donated] to help Republican candidates who agree with his hardright public policy agenda”:
School Vouchers: His biggest pet project, Leininger has donated millions over the years to fill both the state legislature and the State Board of Education with pro-voucher candidates. He also worked on attracting public support both by founding a pro-voucher think tank and by starting up his own voucher program in San Antonio in 1992.
Tort Reform: Leininger founded and provided 86 percent of the funding for a PAC he called Texans for Justice in order to put conservatives on the state Supreme Court in 1988. Buoyed by donations from Texans for Justice and other conservative groups, four GOP candidates won seats on the court that year, effectively transforming it from a “fairly populist” body to one considered “among the most pro-business in the country.”
Anti-gay: Over the years, Leininger has contributed over $1 million to anti-gay PACs and organizations including Texans FOR Marriage, the Family Research Council and the American Family Association, which the Southern Poverty Law Center has designated a hate group. Texans for Governmental Integrity—a PAC he founded and controlled—distributed a mailer in 1994 that showed a white man and a black man kissing to warn voters away from a State Board of Education candidate because she supported homosexuality and abortion.
Pro-Life: In addition to sending out an anti-abortion mailer through Texans for Governmental Integrity, Leininger supports several pro-life PACs independent of his control, including Texas Right to Life, the Republican National Coalition for Life and Texas Alliance for Life.
The friendship between Perry and Leininger, however, stretches back decades and is padded with over $1.3 million in campaign contributions.
The “biggest beneficiary” of Leininger cash over the years, Perry has supported policy initiatives in line with the businessman’s agenda. While serving as lieutenant governor in 1998, he pushed “intensely” to bring a school vouchers bill to a vote on the Texas Senate floor. Although the legislation ultimately failed, Perry has continued to push education reform proposals from Leininger’s think tank, the Texas Public Policy Foundation. And this past legislative session, Perry designated anti-abortion, tort-reform and eminent -domain bills as “emergency items” in order to bring them to a vote.
In turn, Perry has benefited from his relationship with Leininger in more than just campaign cash. Back in early 1996, Perry even made over $38,000 after purchasing close to 3,000 shares of stock in one of Leininger’s companies. In what he termed “a coincidence,” Perry picked up his shares on the same day that he and Leininger talked together at a luncheon and that a new investment group sent the stock’s value skyrocketing. Around that time, the lieutenant governor candidate convinced Leininger to go in with him on a private plane with a sticker price of $475,000. Perry, who only paid 10 percent of the plane’s cost at the outset, made headlines months later when Leininger and his brother decided to sell him their portions for below the market price.
With Perry poised to run for the presidency, Leininger is likely hoping for an even bigger return on his political investment.