Wrath of the Soccer Moms
Last September, Carolyn Boyle approached one of Texas’ leading Republican campaign consultants about working with her on an innovative political project. A former public relations executive and longtime advocate for public schools, Boyle was part of a small group of disgruntled Parent Teacher Association members who thought it was time to change the way politics worked in this state. They were deeply concerned about public schools, but felt that whenever they went to the Legislature, the political leadership ignored what the PTA and other education groups had to say about school finance policy. Fed up with the dismissive treatment, Boyle and her platoon of self-described soccer moms decided to take up arms against House Speaker Tom Craddick (R-Midland) and challenge several powerful members of his leadership team in the Republican primary. They had formed their own political action committee, the Texas Parent PAC. Now they were looking for someone with the logistical expertise to help them run a political campaign. But the GOP operatives whom Boyle contacted refused to work with them for fear of angering Craddick. The leading consultant responded with a pithy e-mail: Any attack on incumbent Republican House members was a fool’s errand. Stick to simply lobbying at the Capitol. Essentially, know your place.
While blunt, the sentiment had a certain logic to it. In recent years, Texas Republican politics—aside from an occasional spasm from the right-wing grassroots—has been a top-down enterprise run by a small circle of powerful politicians financed by a few extremely rich ideologues. By comparison, the Parent PAC concept seemed almost naïve. Boyle was a longtime Austin PTA member and a veteran Girl Scout leader (13 years) who had spent the past eight years lobbying on behalf of public education groups. The other seven members of Parent PAC were either PTA activists or members of their local school boards. Many were stay-at-home moms and campaign novices; treasurer Staley Gray is the carpool driver for her son’s soccer team. Pitted against Craddick and the handful of millionaires who bankroll the Legislature’s right-wing leadership, a collection of volunteer soccer moms didn’t seem to have much of a chance.
Yet, on March 7—the night of perhaps the most influential Republican primary ever in Texas—there they were, crowded into an Arlington dive bar named J. Gilligan’s to celebrate a resounding triumph in the state’s headliner race. Diane Patrick, a University of Texas-Arlington professor, had handily defeated state Rep. Kent Grusendorf (R-Arlington), a 19-year House incumbent and powerful chairman of the House Education Committee. As the face of the right-wing’s master plan for education, Grusendorf was Parent PAC’s top target. He was the man who treated school superintendents and PTA members as if they were trifling little annoyances, going so far as to introduce a group of PTA members about to testify at a committee hearing as “a look behind the Iron Curtain.” And now they had taken him out.
The key to Patrick’s win, as with all grassroots campaigns, was turnout. The race attracted a record number of early votes (more than 4,000), which exceeded the total number of votes Grusendorf had received in each of his two previous primary elections. The mood at his election night party at the Arlington Hilton was grim. A few dozen supporters in business attire milled around the fully stocked open bar and large buffet spread. (It clearly wasn’t Grusendorf’s night: the sign out front misspelled his name, welcoming visitors to “Kent Grusendors” party.) Meanwhile, across town, Patrick’s bash was packed with several hundred rowdy teachers, education activists, and PTA members clad in green-and-white Patrick campaign t-shirts, drinking $2 beers, munching chips and salsa, and dancing to the tunes of a local band comprised of school district employees. A little after 9 p.m., the band members hauled out the victory song they had composed to tune of “Your Cheatin’ Heart”—”Go walk the floor the way I do/Kent Grusendorf: we’re tired of you.”
But Boyle wasn’t ready to celebrate. Camped out at the back of the bar, she pressed her cell phone to her ear. Numbers were still coming in from 14 other House races across the state in which the Parent PAC had endorsed a candidate. A few minutes before midnight, Boyle received dispiriting news. Rep. Carter Casteel (R-New Braunfels)—the candidate to whom Parent PAC had provided perhaps the most support in the final weeks before the election—had narrowly lost her race. Casteel, a straight-talking, anti-school-voucher Republican moderate, had lost to a first-time candidate straight out of the party’s right wing. Her opponent had received about $1 million in campaign funds from a single donor—James Leininger, a San Antonio multi-millionaire and patron saint of school voucher proponents. It was all part of Leininger’s quest to unseat a handful of House GOP moderates who had dared to oppose school vouchers.
It will take some time to sort out the full impact of the primary results—how much they have eroded Craddick’s power and how far they shifted the education policy debate. But the election clearly made the Parent PAC a player. The group that some observers considered a political sideshow eight months ago became one of the more effective grassroots PACs in the state. So much so that by the campaign’s final days, many of those same Republican consultants who had earlier blackballed and dismissed the group were calling Boyle to seek her support for their candidates.
For nearly a decade, Carolyn Boyle had been content to work as a lobbyist and coordinator for the Coalition for Public Schools, an organization opposed to school vouchers. Events on the night of May 23, 2005, however, made her decide it was time to change her strategy. Tom Craddick, ever since he became speaker in 2003, had bullied his Republican majority to vote with him and his array of lobby interests and campaign contributors. On a few issues, he forced House members to vote against their own constituents’ interests. Everyone knew the punishment for disobedience: a well-funded primary opponent.
On that night last May, resentment against Craddick finally boiled over during a fierce debate on a proposed school voucher pilot program. Leininger—close to achieving his long sought goal of providing publicly funded vouchers for poor kids to attend private schools—had spent the past few days at the Capitol cajoling GOP lawmakers. But Republicans from rural areas remained unconvinced. They have long despised the idea of school vouchers, which they believe would rob money from public schools. During the debate, a group of moderates led by Carter Casteel and Charlie Geren (R-Fort Worth) revolted against Craddick and Leininger. Joined by most of the Democrats, the GOP moderates narrowly defeated the voucher proposal [see “Revenge of the Rural Republicans” June 10, 2005]. They all knew the risk. Casteel, a former public school teacher, spoke passionately against vouchers. “I’ve made a decision,” she said, addressing her colleagues from the chamber’s front podium. “It may send me home.” Her comment would prove prophetic.
Boyle, of course, was pleased to see the proposal defeated. But she was angered by what had happened during the debate. She explains that with Leininger camped out at the Capitol talking to legislators, “It was like God was talking to me with a megaphone, ‘Now do you get it, Carolyn?'” The day after the vote, she decided to quit her job and create the Texas Parent PAC. She began by gathering a group of allies from around the state. Among them was Dinah Miller, a Richardson PTA member and exactly the kind of troublemaker Boyle wanted in the new PAC. In 2004, when Gov. Rick Perry traveled to the Caribbean to discuss school finance policy with Leininger and right-wing activist Grover Norquist, Miller was outraged. A few weeks later, she invited the governor to her own “beach” party (really just a Margarita machine and Hawaiian shirts) in front of her suburban home to educate Perry about the other side in the education debate. The governor politely declined.
Not long after Parent PAC was created, the Legislature’s special session on school finance collapsed—the fifth attempt at school finance reform to fail in three years. Education groups and school superintendents blamed Grusendorf and the political leadership for trying to push through a bill that included too many right-wing policy measures and not enough money to fund the public school system. Craddick blamed the legislative impasse on the superintendents and public school “special interests” that wanted only more money. The dynamics for the March 2006 primary were set.
Meanwhile, Parent PAC set about finding and recruiting qualified candidates whose views on public school finance and school vouchers jibed with their own. On September 7, they first met with Diane Patrick to prod her to challenge Grusendorf. Patrick had a long history as a community leader in Arlington. She had served on the local school board and did a stint on the State Board of Education. But Patrick was noncommittal. Finally, in December she decided to enter the race.
Things were looking up. Parent PAC had found the perfect candidate. Eventually, they even found a consultant—Roy Fletcher, a Republican based in Louisiana who had once worked with James Carville. Fletcher was intrigued by the idea of a political action committee formed by parents—not teachers, administrators, or ideologues—but people whose children attended public schools. Moreover, working with Boyle would prove to be a good match. “We’re opposites,” he explains. “I’m a crusty bastard and she’s a nice lady, so it made for a nice synergy between the two of us.”
There was never much doubt that Patrick was up against not just Grusendorf but also the heavies in the Republican Party. Her only chance was to run an insurgent, grassroots campaign. Parent PAC officially endorsed Patrick on February 17 at a “Donuts with Diane” fundraiser in Arlington. There was a $10 suggested donation; for $25, you could get a picture with Jesse, Patrick’s young golden retriever and designated campaign mascot. That same afternoon, Grusendorf hosted his own fundraiser across town—a big-money lunch featuring Craddick and Gov. Rick Perry at the Knights of Columbus Hall. Basic admission cost $250, but for $2,500 you could get a picture with the governor. Perry and Craddick delivered rousing speeches to the gathering of local businessmen and Austin lobbyists. State Republican Party Chair Tina Benkiser gave the benediction, thanking God that Grusendorf represented District 94. (Traditionally party chairs are supposed to remain neutral in primary elections.) Finally, the candidate himself addressed the crowd. It wasn’t just about the race in his own district, Grusendorf declared. What was at stake in GOP primaries across the state was nothing less than the validation of his approach to public education. “We have a unique opportunity—probably a once in a lifetime opportunity,” he said. “We can really put the Texas education system on the forefront of the nation, and the rest of the nation will be copying us.”
Pat Hardy, a State Board of Education member and ardent Patrick supporter, later put it to me more succinctly. “What this election is really about is the future of education. There’s two roads it could take. I like to call it the high road and the low road,” she said. “We’ve been on the low road.”
For many, the low road—the road to the systematic slow death of public education in this state—leads straight to Dr. James Leininger. A retired emergency room physician, Leininger made his millions manufacturing hospital beds and then diversified his interests: lavish donations to Republican politicians, a direct-mail shop for campaigns, support for the right-wing think tank Texas Public Policy Foundation, and his own private voucher program. In 1998, Leininger pledged a total of $50 million over 10 years to fund private-school vouchers for parents in San Antonio’s Edgewood school district—the very district that had spawned decades of public school finance litigation in Texas. While Leininger supports many GOP causes, he’s obsessed with vouchers. “School choice … gives children who are bleeding academically an immediate chance for survival like no other reform,” he recently wrote in an Austin American-Statesman op-ed. The original $50 million pledge is scheduled to expire after the November 2006 elections. Leininger, of course, could continue to pay for vouchers out of his own pocket. But it would save him a lot of money if state lawmakers stepped in with a publicly funded voucher program. Not coincidentally, the Edgewood district was included in the pilot voucher program that the House voted down last May.
After that vote, Leininger decided it was time to teach the upstarts a lesson and launched an effort to defeat five Republican moderates who had rejected the voucher proposal: Casteel and Geren, Tommy Merritt (R-Longview), Roy Blake (R-Nacogdoches), and Delwin Jones (R-Lubbock). In all, it’s estimated that he spent at least $3 million on this effort, though final numbers won’t be available until the next round of campaign reports are released in April. While Parent PAC and GOP moderates were trying to open the Texas House to independent-minded Republicans, Leininger was attempting just the opposite: to make examples of the Republicans who had rebuffed the leadership.
He operated mainly through two PACs that he used as surrogates. He utilized the Texas Republican Legislative Campaign Committee to fund his pro-voucher challengers to the five GOP moderates. The committee funneled at least $2.5 million of his money into the so-called Leininger Five campaigns, according to the latest filings with the Texas Ethics Commission. That represented 90 percent to 95 percent of the campaign money raised by the five pro-voucher challengers. There have been some high-rolling donors in Texas politics over the years, but there is no precedent for a single donor accounting for 90 percent of a candidate’s funding. “It’s beyond anything I’ve ever witnessed,” said Roy Fletcher, the Parent PAC consultant. “It’s particularly odd this year in the context of [Tom] DeLay and [Jack] Abramoff and all that.”
Leininger wasn’t just paying for the campaigns, he was effectively directing them as well. As the online newsletter Quorum Report first reported, Leininger’s money went straight to consultants his PACs had hired or to advertising firms and direct-mail houses. This approach resulted in campaign ads that looked remarkably similar in all five races—cookie-cutter ads that attacked Geren, Casteel, Blake, Jones, and Merritt for siding too often with liberal Democrats.
Leininger went so far as to actually supply campaign workers for at least two of his candidates. Casteel reports that a group of young men, whom Leininger brought in from Oklahoma and put up in the district for a month, block walked for her opponent, an advertising executive named Nathan Macias. On election day in Fort Worth, Charlie Geren spotted a young man at a polling location passing out campaign fliers for his opponent, Chris Hatley. When Geren introduced himself, the young man told him was part of a group of students from Patrick Henry College in rural Virginia—a conservative Christian school that its students described in a New Yorker feature last year as “Harvard for homeschoolers”—and that Leininger had flown them in and pa
d their way to staff Hatley’s ground operation.
In addition to sponsoring the five pro-voucher challengers, Leininger funded a second entity, the Future of Texas Alliance PAC, to aid Republican incumbents such as Grusendorf and Rep. Elvira Reyna (R-Mesquite), whom the Parent PAC had targeted. According to the most recent filings, the Future of Texas Alliance raised $495,230, of which $495,000 came from Leininger. The Future of Texas Alliance spent at least $20,000 on contributions, mail pieces, and other means of support for Grusendorf.
While all this was going on, Craddick ostensibly took the high road—endorsing all his party’s incumbents. Throughout the primary campaign, however, little signals popped up indicating that Leininger’s efforts had the speaker’s blessing. Craddick’s political star had for years benefited from the good doctor’s generous spending on GOP candidates. One of Leininger’s political action committees hired a campaign consultant from Midland, a move in which some saw Craddick’s influence. (In another sign of Leininger’s closeness to the party leadership, his Future of Texas PAC also paid for the state Republican Party to hire two political consultants in February and March, according to campaign filings.)
Though he received the most media attention, Leininger wasn’t the only big-money donor with ties to Craddick. During the final week of the campaign, five separate direct-mail pieces flooded Arlington on Grusendorf’s behalf, all sponsored by something called the Texas Opportunity PAC. The PAC had been around since 2000, but hadn’t reported receiving or spending any money until February 17 of this year. On that day, it received $25,000 contributions from both real estate magnate Michael Stevens and homebuilder Bob Perry, the biggest campaign donor in the state for the past three years. (Bob Perry also gave more than $152,000 directly to Charlie Geren’s opponent.) Lobbyist Mike Toomey directed, and also contributed to, the PAC. (Toomey, a former chief of staff for Gov. Perry, was a leader of the 2002 corporate-funded campaign by Texans for a Republican Majority and the Texas Association of Business that boosted Craddick into the speaker’s chair.) In all, the Texas Opportunity PAC supplied a lot of aid to a select slate of GOP incumbents, including $170,000 worth of mailers on Grusendorf’s behalf in the campaign’s final two weeks. (Of course, only certain Republicans were deemed worthy enough to receive money from this pack of Craddick allies: The Texas Opportunity PAC didn’t give a dime of support to the five moderates under attack from Leininger.)
On the Wednesday afternoon before the primary, Carolyn Boyle was ensconced in her small, temporary Austin office across the street from the Capitol. The final push was on, and Boyle was fielding constant phone calls, trying to finalize the text for the last round of mailers, and to determine how many mailers she could afford to print and which potential voters should receive them. “Everybody is counting their pennies—it’s not like these Leininger-funded candidates,” she said. Instead, the Parent PAC-backed candidates were scrounging for funds. “They’re calling me for help. I don’t know if I have any money.” Parent PAC wasn’t exactly a big money operation. It had raised a total of roughly $200,000, to be spread among 15 House races (and one Senate race) throughout the state during the entire primary campaign. In the last two weeks before the election, Parent PAC would produce 22 separate mail pieces.
As soon as Boyle finished one call, she immediately picked up the phone again. “You’re probably thinking, ‘she’s insane,'” she told me, as she dialed. “This is not how I envisioned this.” She was calling the campaign of Charlie Williams, the candidate Parent PAC was supporting against incumbent Rep. Larry Phillips (R-Sherman) in North Texas. The Williams campaign was trying to figure out how many final mailers it could afford to send. “Hi, Carolyn Boyle. I have the number of people who voted in the Republican primary in 2002 or 2004. It’s 7,415 … you want it smaller? … Better to do a smaller mailing, pay more postage, and make sure they reach people in time.”
The Williams people decided they wanted a smaller mailing list—just the hard-core Republicans who had voted in the last few primaries. So Boyle hung up and called her database manager. Using voter databases was a big part of Parent PAC’s strategy. To maximize turnout, the PAC needed to tailor specific messages that would spur certain groups of voters to go to the polls. Lists of Republican primary voters were readily accessible, but Boyle wanted to go beyond that. She wanted certain kinds of lists—lists of teachers, parents, or school district employees who had voted in GOP primaries.
She tapped a friend from her Austin church who had computer experience to write a program to merge several lists. Unfortunately, some of the lists were available only as printouts. So a friend of Boyle’s recruited seven stay-at-home moms to work on matching and merging the various printed lists. After several weeks of painstaking work, the moms had helped produce lists that could pinpoint very specific populations, such as teachers in a given House district who had voted Republican. The PAC then targeted these voters with mailers and automated calls designed for that particular group. “We’re not like some corporate PAC who just writes a check and hands it over,” says Boyle. “That would be so much easier.”
On election day, all that painstaking work proved beneficial. Several races saw historically high GOP primary vote totals, although statewide, overall voter turnout was low. Parent PAC had supported 10 first-time candidates. Two of them won, including Diane Patrick’s upset; three others reached runoff elections. Parent PAC efforts had also helped three of the five incumbent Republican moderates—Geren, Tommy Merritt, and Delwin Jones—survive Leininger’s attack.
But Leininger’s efforts also paid off. He was able to topple first-term Rep. Roy Blake in Nacogdoches. More significantly, he may have defeated his top target—Carter Casteel, whose opponent received the biggest chunk of Leininger’s largesse, about $1 million. Despite all that money, Casteel lost by a mere 45 votes and has requested a recount. Asked about the staggering amount of money that Leininger spent against her, Casteel answered with her trademark irreverence. “Are we all supposed to think alike? I quit drinking Kool Aide after that James Jones massacre,” she quipped. “You know, I’ve got a brain. I may not always use it the right way, but it’s there, and I’m going to use it.”
So, now that the election is over, what happens next? It’s too early to predict the full impact of the GOP primaries on Craddick, on state Republican politics, and on public education policy. The three Republican moderates who survived Leininger’s assault return to the House with little to lose by resisting Craddick, if not openly working to dethrone him. Already there is speculation about a possible replacement for speaker of the House next January at the start of the 2007 regular legislative session. For those more preoccupied with the upcoming special session, the results of last month’s primaries mean that the Chairman of the House Education Committee—Grusendorf—is a lame duck, and the speaker’s power is not what it was before March 7. (Two reasons Gov. Perry will likely keep the topic of the upcoming special session limited to property tax cuts, putting off the nitty-gritty of public school finance till next year.)
But at least one thing is certain: Parent PAC is now a significant player in Texas politics. Carolyn Boyle still has her work cut out for her. She’s busy with a few runoff elections. Then she will focus on the November elections and supporting a slate of Democrats and Republicans to ensure that whenever the Legislature reopens its debate on financing and improving schools, it will pay more attention to PTA moms.