One afternoon last month, Jo Ann King-Sinnett was looking at an anti-choice mailing that had come across her desk. As San Antonio Planned Parenthood’s director of community affairs, King-Sinnett monitors such material, particularly when it is distributed locally. On this day, the item came from the “Heidi Group,” an Austin-based organization dedicated to shutting down Texas abortion clinics and making the procedure illegal.
The Heidi Group literature included a shiny October 1998 calendar that abortion foes in San Antonio were urged to consult as they said their daily prayers. Many of the little squares marking the calendar dates contained names of women’s health care and abortion clinics. “Pray that Reproductive Services would close,” read one supplication. Others were more forbidding: they named individual staff members at Planned Parenthood and local pro-choice physicians. One entry was downright ominous. It told the faithful to “Ask that Jesús Santoscoy” — a San Antonio doctor who performs abortions — “will come to see Jesus face to face.” King-Sinnett wondered if suggesting that someone see Jesus face to face constituted a veiled death threat. Her fears were hardly idle: nationally, October saw a wave of assaults against abortion providers, including phony anthrax threats mailed to several clinics, and the fatal shooting of a physician in New York. King-Sinnett filed the calendar away. She had no idea who was funding the Heidi Group.
A few weeks after the calendar incident, El Pasoan René Nuñez was reeling after looking at mail that had come across his desk. For a decade, Nuñez has served on the fifteen-member Texas State Board of Education. During that time the Board has swelled with far-right Christian Republicans who want to ban sex education, institute classroom prayer, and otherwise impose their views on the public schools.
Nuñez, a Democrat, is certainly no Christian right-winger. His most recent opponent was Christian conservative Donna Ballard, who served previously on the Board of Education and developed a reputation for attack-dog behavior at board meetings and in her campaigns. The mailing Nuñez received had been sent to voters in his district, and its slur tactics were vintage Ballard: it accused him of promoting bisexuality and marijuana legalization to Texas schoolchildren. Nuñez was shocked but not surprised — four years earlier, Ballard had done the same thing to an East Texas incumbent, who subsequently lost the election. The mailings cost a tremendous amount of money then, and they did now. That did not surprise Nuñez either. He already knew who was giving Ballard much of her funding.
Ballard’s benefactor was the same person who has quietly made major contributions to the Heidi Group, the organization that creates the “prayer calendar.” He is one of the richest people in San Antonio: Dr. James Leininger.
Very few people know much about Leininger. Few know that his anti-abortion and Christian-school-board campaign giving is only the tip of an iceberg of one-man benevolence — much of it sunk into right-wing projects that have helped to shape the Texas political landscape. Some people who do understand what Leininger is up to call him the “Daddy Warbucks” of social conservatism in Texas. But Little Orphan Annie’s moneybags patron was cartoonish, with vacant pop-eyes, and for years he appeared daily in the newspapers. Leininger is not cartoonish. He is a tall man, balding, vaguely well muscled for his fifty-four years, but otherwise totally unassuming. And unlike Daddy Warbucks, Leininger almost never appears in the press. He is so reticent about being interviewed that few reporters know how to say his name — the last syllable is pronounced not as “j” but with a hard “g.” (Leininger did not respond to numerous requests for an interview.)
This mix of modesty and secrecy partially explains why one of the biggest conservative political players in the state is a public mystery. Granted, the press often mentions Leininger as the heart and wallet behind the Edgewood Independent School District voucher movement: his name regularly pops up in reports about the local Children’s Educational Opportunity (CEO) Foundation, which he founded and funds, and which earlier this year offered Edgewood parents $50 million to send their children to private schools. Last year, the San Antonio Express-News published a long piece on Leininger that celebrated his business acumen and noted his participation in conservative projects such as the Texas Public Policy Foundation. The article also mentioned his partial ownership of the Spurs. Former San Antonio Mayor Nelson Wolff’s book, Mayor, talks about how Leininger accompanied then-Mayor Wolff on a 1992 trade junket to Mexico, to lobby for San Antonio’s piece of the action in the North American Free Trade Agreement.
So it’s not as though no one knows about him, or at least about his money. In 1992, Forbes magazine hailed Leininger as one of the 400 wealthiest entrepreneurs in the country, and reckoned his worth at $285 million (the Express-News recently upped that figure by $55 million). Texas Monthly has listed him among the 100 richest people in the state.
But apart from wealth, vouchers, GOP leanings, NAFTA and basketball, few know the farther-out, seamier side of James Leininger’s largesse. Hardly anyone is aware of the role he has played in making the Texas Supreme Court one of the most anti-consumer, pro-business judicial bodies in the nation; or about his instrumental and sometimes smear-tactic efforts to pack the State Board of Education with Christian conservatives; or how he has been associated with a group implicated in federal campaign finance scandals; or of his support for attempts to gut the Endangered Species Act; or the way he funds threats against abortion providers.
Further, almost no one knows the names of Leininger’s many businesses, nor of the products those businesses lease and sell to the public. Consumers who abhor far-right conservatism, campaign finance shadiness, school vouchers, reactionary school board policy, pro-business courts, and anti-choice fanaticism may be renting Leininger office space and buying all kinds of Leininger goods and services: everything from milk to time on a basketball court (see sidebar, “It’s 10 p.m. in Leininger Land,” page 10).
To understand James Leininger, it helps to know a little about the strict German-Lutheran tradition in which he was raised. His family is from Indiana, where James’ paternal grandfather Adolph Leininger, of Fort Wayne, ruled over the clan like a Biblical patriarch. Adolph was “a humble man, maybe with a third-grade education, a carpenter by trade,” says Melinda Marshall, a cousin of James Leininger who grew up in Fort Wayne and now lives in Portland, Oregon. He was also “a turd,” she adds: a man obsessed with his family’s genealogy, and with applying an iron hand to his children and grandchildren. Another cousin, Walter Moravec, still of Fort Wayne, recalls sitting as a child by Adolph at Sunday family dinners and being terrified to utter a word, “because if I did my granddad would thump me.” Adolph had five daughters and one son, Hilbert Adolph Peter Leininger, or Hib. The pecking order was never in doubt. “Adolph expected all Hib’s sisters,” Marshall says, “to work to send Hib through medical school.”
Adolph also expected all his daughters to marry Lutherans. It was Lutheranism of the most rock-ribbed, fundamentalist sort that knit the Leiningers together. The family came from Germany; in the 1830s the first ancestor to immigrate to America settled in a part of Ohio that was then densely populated with German Lutherans. Their church was divided into deliberative bodies called synods, and the Leiningers would become members of the Missouri Synod (whose membership spreads beyond the state for which it is named). Arguably the most conservative of the synods, the Missouri Synod holds that every word in the Bible is inerrantly true, while claims to the contrary are “horrible and blasphemous,” according to a doctrinal statement published not long before James was born. The theory of evolution is sacrilegious, and anyone who disbelieves these tenets is an “instrument of Satan.”
These stony beliefs informed the childhood of James Leininger’s father, Hib. In practice, they meant regular Sunday church attendance with all the kin, daily home prayer, mandatory sessions before the radio listening to “The Lutheran Hour,” gigantic family reunions that always opened with a religious service, and Adolph’s strict warnings to the children that dancing was a sin. Hib and his sisters, and later their children, were discouraged from expressingany skepticism. Marshall says she and her siblings and cousins felt so overdosed with religion that as young adults, most rebelled and wanted nothing more to do with it.
The same thing happened to James Leininger, even though he spent his childhood far from his grandfather’s house. In the early 1950s, Hib Leininger, who by then was a general-practice doctor, moved his family from Indiana to Florida to take a residence in urology. James was just starting grade school. Though he and his four brothers all grew up away from the Midwest and the most stifling aspects of the clan religion, Marshall recalls that Hib was only a milder version of his patriarch father, Adolph: still a strict disciplinarian, and still a devout Missouri Synod Lutheran. For James and his brothers, that meant — according to their mother, Berneta, who now lives in San Antonio but still speaks in a tight-lipped Indiana twang — “sticking exactly to the Bible and no funny business.”
Berneta recalled Hib’s later shock and disappointment when all five sons renounced Lutheranism. James, according to the interview that he recently granted the Express-News, became an agnostic.
That youthful rationalism would not last long.
James’ assets originally came from beds: ultra-high-tech hospital beds used for the very sick patients who are likely to develop bed sores, lung infections, and other life-threatening conditions. Leininger’s beds contain air chambers, motors, and silicon beads, and can vibrate or rock or turn a person, mimicking natural movements that keep the body’s blood and oxygen flowing. The beds save lives and speed healing. They are also extraordinarily complicated contraptions that cost in the neighborhood of $40,000 apiece.
Hib Leininger had wanted all five of his sons to follow in his footsteps and become doctors, and like his father before him, James studied medicine at Indiana University. The idea for making and marketing the beds came to him while he was running the Baptist Health System’s emergency department in the 1970s. He bought a failing company that had already developed the product; he and his wife, Cecelia, started nursing the business back to prosperity out of their apartment in Alamo Heights. But, as he recently told the Express-News, the enterprise foundered, and in 1979 creditors prepared to seize his assets. One evening, at the eleventh hour of financial crisis, he joined hands with Cecelia. They knelt down, began praying, and tearfully offered their company to the Lord as though it were a terminally-ill child. Months later, Leininger had a new supply of capital and a healthy trade in beds. The miraculous recovery of what is now Kinetic Concepts International (KCI) convinced James of the existence of God. Thus the prodigal son returned — but to a faith that has more to do with Sun Belt entrepreneurship than the nineteenth-century beliefs of his Midwest forefathers.
The bed business grew, and so did James Leininger’s family. Cecelia, a tall, regal woman with finely chiseled features, gave birth to a boy, Brian, and two girls, Kelly and Tracey (a fourth child, Joshua, was later adopted). They exchanged their Alamo Heights apartment for a nouveau riche mini-estate, complete with deer wandering the grounds, in suburban Hollywood Park. As KCI prospered, James’ brothers Peter, John, and Daniel — all of whom had studied medicine or optometry — migrated to San Antonio to work in James’ expanding businesses. Their parents, Hib and Berneta, came too, after Hib retired from urology in South Florida.
All seemed well until the late eighties, when medical beds led him to his second, political conversion. James was preparing to take KCI public, but suddenly the company lost its liability insurance. This was no small matter, since the U.S. Food and Drug Administration was receiving reports that claimed KCI beds had been malfunctioning, and that patients using the beds had been trapped, mangled, and otherwise injured. Some of these incidents would later lead to lawsuits — such as one which recently made the news, filed by a man who says he got sick after a KCI bed sprayed him with silicon beads. As Leininger told the Houston Chronicle last year, a light bulb went off in his head one day in 1987, when he saw the 60 Minutes report, “Justice For Sale,” describing how plaintiffs’ lawyers in Texas were swinging cases in their favor by contributing to the campaigns of state Supreme Court judges. Inspired by the show, Leininger joined the growing number of Texas business interests who were pushing for “tort reform.”
The tort reform movement was Leininger’s introduction to big-player political giving. In 1988, he started a political action committee, Texans for Justice. A PAC normally collects money from many people with a perceived common interest, but the cash in Texans for Justice came mostly from just one person. Eighty-six percent of its funds, or $196,000, was donated by Leininger. Texans for Justice gave this money to conservative candidates in the 1988 judgeship elections. Other PACs also contributed, and the ploy worked: conservatives won four of the six seats up for re-election. Meanwhile, the court is still considered so corrupt — although now in favor of corporate defendants — that last fall, 60 Minutes ran an updated version of the 1987 program that recruited Leininger to the political world.
Texans for Justice was only the first step. In the wake of its success, Leininger decided the state needed a think tank. He imagined a Lone Star version of the conservative Heritage Foundation, and so in 1989, Leininger started and funded the Texas Public Policy Foundation. According to the Houston Chronicle, T.P.P.F. has since received some $1 million — a fifth of its funding — from Leininger and his family. The foundation projects the respectable veneer of classical GOP philosophy: T.P.P.F. published reports and op-eds promote privatization of municipal services and other laissez-faire ideas that would warm the heart of a Milton Friedman. The group’s director, an affable man named Jeff Judson, has a degree in philosophy and once worked for U.S. Senator John Tower.
A T.P.P.F. spinoff, the Texas Justice Foundation, is another Leininger creation with a woolier persona. T.J.F. bills itself as Texas’ conservative answer to the American Civil Liberties Union. The group recently helped in a lawsuit that tried to overturn the Endangered Species Act protection for flora and fauna native only to Comal and San Marcos counties. (T.J.F.’s reasoning? Since beleaguered life forms such as Texas blind salamanders are not involved in “interstate commerce,” the creatures are therefore undeserving of federal protection.) But what really gets T.J.F. excited is protecting the faith — as when it threatened to sue a school district where a teacher reportedly forbade a student to look at a Bible during free-reading class. Such interest on T.J.F.’s part is predictable, given that its director, attorney Allan Parker, is former head of the Bexar County Christian Coalition.
T.P.P.F. and T.J.F. have been the brains and legal acumen behind Children’s Economic Opportunity Foundation, the school voucher group that Leininger started in San Antonio in 1992. CEO is the name most people associate with Leininger, particularly since the Edgewood controversy surfaced and the daily press began paying token attention to the people behind the issue.
As Leininger likes to tell it in the rare interviews he has given the media, he got the idea for starting a voucher program in the early nineties. That’s when he read a Wall Street Journal article about Patrick Rooney, a conservative magnate in the insurance business, who had started his own voucher project in Indianapolis. Leininger says he was deeply concerned that people seeking employment at KCI could not read their job applications. Too, he felt bad that poor parents can’t afford to send their children to good schools.
In other words, they have no “choice.” That last word is the voucher movement mantra. “Choice” is the term most frequently uttered in the debate about vouchers, and it is the word that has rocked San Antonio since last spring, when Leininger instituted his “Horizon” scholarship project in Edgewood. “Choice” is what the press quotes T.P.P.F. and T.J.F. spokesmen trumpeting at community forums, where they pit themselves against angry public school employees and long time civil rights advocates. “Choice” — with its connotations of women’s liberation and equality — is a word that conservative voucher people have brilliantly lifted from the liberal lexicon. It sounds progressive. Or at least free-market. After all, who doesn’t want thirty-one flavors at the ice cream shop, 150 channels on cable, and a selection of schools for educating one’s children?
But there is something that rings hollow about this borrowed vocabulary — particularly when one looks at the less publicized side of Leininger’s life and benevolence.
Start, for example, with the earlier political meaning of “choice.” The press has never reported that Leininger is a generous donor to the effort to outlaw abortion. Since 1993, when he first started filing tax returns for several charitable foundations he and his brothers direct, he has given hundreds of thousands of dollars to anti-abortion groups. In 1997, for example, a Leininger foundation gave $50,600 to the San Antonio Christian Pro-Life Foundation, which runs a center for pregnant women. Leininger’s money supplied about a fourth of the Pro-Life Foundation’s budget, according to its director, Martha Breeden. A few years ago, Leininger also donated office space for the center at his property at 8122 Datapoint — which also houses the Texas Public Policy Foundation, Texas Justice Foundation, and CEO. Today the pregnancy center is on Fredericksburg Road — in yet another Leininger property (see sidebar, “It’s 10 p.m.…”).
Young women who visit are urged to have their babies; they are plied with literature claiming that abortion is murder and an act that will cause them serious emotional illness. Pro-life Foundation director Breedon also made special use of the group’s mailing list last year: she sent material to 1,200 people encouraging them to push City Council to defund the Esperanza Peace and Justice Center because of Esperanza’s support for gay and lesbian art. Leininger and his family have also given more than $125,000 to the Heidi Group, the organization that distributes the “prayer calendars.” In San Antonio, the local Heidi Group affiliate is known as The Jericho Project. Members of this organization regularly picket abortion clinics. The Leiningers have also given to Jericho.
Leininger’s anti-choice politics are no surprise if one looks at many of his other allegiances. As early as 1988, according to Federal Election Commission records, his wife Cecelia was contributing money to the presidential bid of Pat Robertson. The same year, Cecelia and James both gave money to the senatorial campaign of Wes Gilbreath, a Houston businessman and Christian Coalition activist. Indeed, by the nineties, Leininger was in thrall to Christian-Coalition-style enthusiasm. In some ways his passion echoed the Leininger family’s age-old fundamentalism. For example, at one of James’ businesses, Promised Land Dairies, manager Randy Boone — himself devoutly religious — remembers that he and his boss used to hold prayer meetings when Leininger visited to check on his herd of Jersey cows.
On the other hand, Christian fundamentalism these days is about far more than prayer. In response to the civil rights and gender upheavals of the 1960s, Christian televangelists such as Pat Robertson began teaming up with politicians and corporate magnates such as Joseph Coors to meld a social conservative movement known as the New Right. By the time Leininger had his born-again experience, many in the New Right were espousing “Reconstructionism” — a theory holding that Jesus Christ cannot make His Second Coming until society’s secular conventions are replaced by the precepts of the Bible. According to the theory, taking over secular institutions is slow, methodical work. It takes a lot of organization and a lot of money. Reconstructionism sounds like the perfect job for a businessman.
Not long after he founded Texans for Justice, Leininger created two new PACs: Texans For Governmental Integrity, and A+Plus PAC for Parental School Choice, to channel more money to judicial races and the school voucher movement. Elections were coming up for the Texas State Board of Education, which meets several times a year to adopt textbooks, oversee funds, and otherwise determine educational policy for the state’s 3.8 million public school students. One of Leininger’s friends, San Antonio dentist and school voucher advocate Bob Offutt, was first elected to the body in 1992. During his first term, Offutt attacked health textbooks that were up for adoption. He lined up testimony from moral crusader groups such as the Christian Coalition and Phyllis Schlafly’s Eagle Forum. He proceeded to attack homosexuality, birth control, and material in the books that advocated government standards for safe drinking water.
For the 1994 school board elections, at the behest of the state Republican Party, Offutt went out to recruit fellow travelers. He found three. One was Donna Ballard, a Pentecostal minister’s wife from the Houston suburbs. Through personal funds and PAC contributions (Texans for Governmental Integrity), Leininger donated some $45,000 — an enormous amount of money as school board campaigns go — to Ballard and the two other Christian-right candidates. And Focus Direct, a Leininger company in San Antonio that does slick, direct mail work for companies and politicians, produced and mass-mailed a leaflet featuring a photo of a black man and a white man kissing and accusing Ballard’s opponent Mary Knott Perkins of wanting to teach Texas children about oral and anal sex. Perkins, a grandmother many times over who is by no means a political radical, lost the election to Ballard. The other two Christian conservatives also won. The victories gave the elected state school board its first-ever Republican majority.
During the next few years, the board turned into a circus as the band of right-wingers ripped up textbooks, inveighed against moral turpitude, and, as member René Nuñez said, “made it very frustrating to try to get anything done.” At meetings, Ballard frequently consulted with on-site “advisers” from the groups Leininger founded, the Texas Public Policy Foundation and Texas Justice Foundation. Also helping Ballard was Anne Newman, head of a Christian “family values” group, the Texas Family Research Center. The Center is against sex education and rabidly opposes Goals 2000, a federal standardized school curriculum that even Governor George Bush likes. Not coincidentally, Newman’s office was at 8122 Datapoint Drive, the address of Leininger’s foundations.
Since 1994, Leininger has become a virtual udder for the voucher movement and other conservative causes. During the past decade he has given more than $1.5 million to sway how Texans vote, and at least $3.2 million to influence public opinion in a conservative direction. In addition, between 1991 and 1997, Leininger’s J.C.L. and Covenant Foundations donated $5.6 million, mostly to politically-oriented, far-right non-profits.
There is also evidence that he contributed to a shady organization whose activities have been investigated by Democrats in the Senate Governmental Affairs Committee. The group is Triad Management, and it was recently featured in a PBS Frontline exposé of federal campaign finance scandals during the 1996 elections. According to the Senate investigators, Triad set up two tax-exempt organizations purporting to be social welfare groups. In fact, they had no members. Their purpose was to advise Republican political candidates, and to produce television ads attacking Democratic opponents. The dummy groups took contributions from a few dozen rich Republicans, who had maxed out their contributions under federal elections law but who wanted to give more money to conservative candidates. According to Senate records provided by Frontline, Leininger contributed at least $50,000 to one of Triad’s dummy PACs. Federal Election Commission records also show Leininger donations via Triad.
Some of his other contributions include:
$175,000 since the 1998 primaries to the Texas Republican Party, making him the state party’s biggest contributor (a good chunk of the money went to Rick Perry’s campaign for Lieutenant Governor). $2.4 million to CEO San Antonio to fund private school scholarships, with the goal of using CEO to push for laws that will require taxpayers to fund vouchers. Leininger has also pledged to come up with $50 million over the next ten years for the Edgewood Horizon program. $326,000 to A+PAC for Parental School Choice. Until it was dissolved earlier this year, A+ was one of the four biggest single-issue PACs in Texas. It gave money to various vehicles of the Republican Party, and a half-million dollars for lobbying and candidates in support of taxpayer-financed private school vouchers. The Texas Legislature last session came within one vote of winning House passage of a state-funded pilot voucher program. $60,000 in 1996 for Christian conservative State Board of Education candidates, and more than $51,000 for races in 1998, including the contest in which El Pasoan René Nuñez was smeared with ads accusing him of promoting homosexuality to students. (Nuñez nevertheless defeated Ballard in elections last November.)
$45,000 to Californians for Paycheck Protection, a committee started by Governor Pete Wilson to support Proposition 226, which would keep labor unions from collecting PAC money from members unless each member voted individually to contribute.
$89,800 in cash, and a $170,000 gymnasium, to FEAST, a San Antonio agency that provides support and teaching materials curricula to people who educate their kids at home. FEAST is unabashedly Christian, and sells textbooks with titles such as Texas History in Light of the Cross. (James Leininger and his wife home-schooled all four of their children. Brian, the oldest, finished high school at San Antonio Christian School — where students are not admitted unless their parents have had born-again experiences, and where the twelfth-grade world history textbook follows a lesson on the Gulf War with one about the Apocalypse.) $89,000 to Youth With a Mission (Y.W.A.M.), a U.S.-based missionary organization that, according to sociologist Sarah Diamond, is closely associated with the Christian Right, and whose goal internationally is to combat progressive “liberation theology” movements in developing countries. $2.1 million to these anti-choice, anti-gay rights and conservative “family values” non-profits and PACS: American Family Association, Christian Pro-Life Foundation, Family Research Council, Focus on the Family, Heidi Group, Institute in Basic Life Principles, Republican National Coalition for Life PAC. All this, from a man who grow up in a church that warns its faithful: “We condemn those who … aiming to govern the State by the Word of God, seek to turn the State into a Church.”
So what happened to James Leininger? For one thing, he is no longer a Lutheran. Today he belongs to a Presbyterian church. But that in itself doesn’t explain things, especially when you compare the church he attends with those of his brothers. Peter Leininger, who works as a KCI executive, attends Cornerstone. This is the mega-church of Reverend John Hagee, who has a television ministry and who recently wrote a best-seller about the end of the world. Very soon, Hagee believes, Christians will be zapped into heaven during the “rapture.” Hagee usually inveighs in a robust roar against Satan during his services, which take place in a gargantuan north-suburban complex that looks like a combination of Versailles, Monticello, and a light industrial park.
Younger brothers Daniel, who manages the Leininger real estate holdings at Mission City Properties, and John, a former optometrist, both attend Wayside Chapel with their families. Wayside is smaller than Cornerstone and closer to town. But the sanctuary is still vast enough to afford a visitor anonymity. The sermons are equally primitive, and, as at Cornerstone, Christian Coalition voters’ guides are readily available.
In contrast to the outsized clamor at his brothers’ churches, James Leininger’s congregation seems downright cozy and cerebral. Only about thirty families attend Faith Presbyterian Church’s Sunday services, and the group meets in what looks like the rumpus room of a fading apartment complex. The pastor, Tim Hoke, is as modest as his church. He doesn’t yell, and his sermonizing touches more on complex questions of grace than the frightening simplicities of Satan.
Still, Faith Presbyterian is a member of the Presbyterian Church in America, which split off from the mainline denomination after the church instituted various reforms, such as ordaining women as pastors. The conservatives left and formed the P.C.A. at the same time that people everywhere in the country, buffeted by the winds of profound social change, began having born-again experiences and streaming into fundamentalist churches.
Pastor Hoke says his congregation believes the word of Scripture is inerrant and “the final authority.” According to Trinity University religion professor Doug Brackenridge, there is little doctrinal difference between the Leininger family’s old-style Lutheran fundamentalism and the new version at Faith Presbyterian. “But Lutheranism is traditionally bound to a particular ethnic group and region and period in history,” Brackenridge adds. “Leininger may prefer P.C.A. Presbyterianism because it seems more comfortable in this part of the country and this time.”
Besides, these days in Texas, you don’t have to leave your family to leave your roots. Even Leininger’s father, Hib — who to the end of his life was a Lutheran — nevertheless started giving money to Christian conservative politicians and anti-abortion groups after he moved to San Antonio in the 1980s.
Perhaps finally, the generational tables were turned.When Hib died in 1995, the Leininger sons transported the body back to Fort Wayne for burial. The funeral took place in the family’s old Lutheran church. Afterwards, everyone went out to rural Ohio to commune with the ancestral farmstead. An ancient barn survived there: more than a century old, three stories high, all held together with wooden pegs. According to his mother, James began thinking then about the new Leininger stead: his recently purchased “ranch,” The Headwaters, on Texas FM 1888 just west of Blanco. There are no herds of cattle at the Headwaters, and no crops — only a conservative tycoon’s getaway. The land’s history belongs to another time and people.
But James Leininger is rich. He seems obsessed with tradition. And he wants to make new history. So he had the barn dismantled, peg by peg, and trucked it down to Texas. His mother says he intends to build a museum on the ranch — a Leininger family museum. He is the new patriarch. Grandfather Adolph would be proud.
Longtime Observer contributor Debbie Nathan is a staff writer for the San Antonio Current, where a version of this article first appeared.
It’s 10 P.M. in Leininger-Land. Do You Know Where Your Dollars Are?
James Leininger owns all or part of a dizzying array of companies. Here’s a partial list:
Promised Land Dairy. Leininger is sole owner of this Floresville company that makes ice cream, and milk in glass bottles emblazoned with Biblical verses. Products are distributed throughout Texas at grocery stores such as Sun Harvest, Albertson’s, H.E.B., and Whole Foods. Promised Land ice cream is sold by the scoop at Sweet Sensations (in San Antonio’s Crossroads Mall) and at both the city’s Alamo Cafés.
Whole Foods Milk. Promised Land Dairy provides all the milk that Whole Foods markets under its own label in Texas, Colorado, and Louisiana. Repeated phone calls were made to Whole Foods headquarters in Austin, asking for comment about the company’s relationship with Leininger, particularly in view of Whole Food’s advocacy of environmental issues, and Leininger’s funding of efforts to weaken the Endangered Species Act. The calls went unanswered.
Home Court America. Leininger is part owner of the San Antonio basketball and gymnasium facility located in the northwest suburbs.
Focus Direct. A San Antonio direct mail facility, owned wholly by Leininger. Clients include Delta Airlines, Ralston-Purina, the Texas Republican Party, Oregon Public Radio, and the Southern Poverty Law Center/Klan Watch, an Alabama-based non-profit that monitors far-right, potentially violent groups. (Mark Potok, S.P.L.C. spokesman and editor of its magazine Intelligence, said his organization was “completely unaware” that Leininger owns Focus Direct until informed by this reporter. “We will be looking into the matter,” Potok said.)
Kinetic Concepts International (KCI). The medical bed and supply company was sold for $875 million last year and is no longer public, but Leininger still owns about a third of it.
Mission City Properties. A San Antonio office-building rental agency whose thirteen holdings include 1010 San Pedro, 8122 Datapoint, several Frost Bank buildings, and 8750 Tesoro Drive.
Sunday House. Leininger co-owns this Fredericksburg company, which makes and markets smoked turkeys.
Mission City Television. This San Antonio company produces videotapes for commercials and other TV formats.
The Beginners’ Bible. Children’s bible and coloring books. Leininger holds the license to the trademark name of these products.
TXN (Texas Network). A television news service that will air statewide on sixteen stations, including KTVT in Dallas, KTRK in Houston, and KMOL in San Antonio, beginning in January. TXN officials insist that although Leininger owns the company, he will have no input into the production of the news.
The Spurs. Leininger holds an estimated 10 percent interest in the San Antonio basketball team.
Vouching for Leininger
an Antonio Express-News readers may have occasionally noticed a curious item that first appeared in the paper in April. That is when Children’s Educational Opportunity (CEO) Foundation, the pro-voucher group started by James Leininger in 1992, began offering Bexar County students money to attend private, mostly Christian schools. Controversy about vouchers exploded, and the Express-News has since often mentioned that the paper is a former sponsor of CEO San Antonio. Also mentioned is that publisher Lawrence Walker, Jr. used to be on the board of a national spin-off group, CEO America.
These may well be understatements: as CEO tells the story, the group recruited Walker and the Express-News in hopes of neutralizing critical media coverage about vouchers. Apparently the plan worked, in conjunction with CEO tactics designed to obscure the political nature of its efforts.
CEO America nowadays distributes a manual and audiotape to people who want to start voucher programs in other cities. Many donors have more in mind than charity: they hope their philanthropy will inspire state funding of private schools. In the manual, CEO San Antonio’s managing director, Robert Aguirre, advises readers to keep such goals “in-house” and concealed from the community. Aguirre suggests that regardless of their real intent, organizers should “advertise their mission as ‘first, last, and always about children.’” Such phrasing, he adds, will render critics “powerless to speak too publicly about your noble cause.”
Aguirre then tells how Leininger’s fledgling organization recruited the Express-News during the early nineties. “While still in the planning stage,” he writes, “San Antonio [CEO] approached the largest daily-circulation newspaper in the city to be a founding partner. So important was their ‘buying into the program’ that the CEO organizers did not ask them for cash, but rather for space in their newspaper.”
The Express-News complied. According to Aguirre, the newspaper co-sponsored a luncheon to launch CEO; all the local media were invited. The Express-News then announced the program in a baldly celebratory article. The article included no dissenting voices, even though it characterized the group that was helping administer the voucher program, Leininger’s Texas Public Policy Foundation, as “a conservative think tank.” Immediately below this information was a half-page ad announcing the newspaper as a CEO sponsor. An application form was printed in another section.
CEO says this newspaper space cost them nothing. In 1994, in a taped speech that accompanies Aguirre’s manual, James Leininger notes that the Express-News gave his group $70,000 worth of free advertising. In addition, according to CEO financial records published in the manual, the paper (through its owner, the Hearst Corporation) donated $50,000 between 1993 and 1995.
Aguirre writes that the newspaper’s cooperation quashed controversy about CEO in San Antonio. The Express-News, he adds, was instrumental in getting the organization “excellent coverage” and “message control.”
CEO San Antonio’s success inspired the creation of CEO America – and a seat on its board for Express-News publisher Walker. These days, articles often note that the paper stopped supporting CEO in 1997. Until then, the Express-News appears to have been aiding and fomenting a conservative political movement at the same time it was reporting on it.
(After Walker was asked to respond to CEO’s statements, he scheduled a personal interview. The morning it was to take place, he canceled and faxed a brief letter stating, “My office and the newsroom are run separately.” He dismissed CEO’s descriptions of its relationship with the paper as “statements” by The San Antonio Current, and said records are not available regarding Express-News donations to CEO.)