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The Kerrville Times from Kerrville, Texas • Page 5

Kerrville, Texas
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State Sunday, March 21,1999 Kerrville Daily Times Page 5A San Antonio millionaire making mark in Texas politics By Kelley Shannon Associated Press Writer SAN ANTONIO (AP) Dr. James Leininger seems solemn as he reflects on his early business troubles with Kinetic Concepts Inc. and how he overcame them by turning to God. Leininger is positively jovial as he discusses his youngest son, 9-year-old Joshua, and his home-school basketball team. When the conversation turns to the problems of public education and the private school voucher system he advocates, Leininger turns stern, his opinion unwavering.

If all parents could afford to choose where to send their children to school, he contends, public schools threatened with competition would shape up to keep students from leaving. "That is the single problem, the No. 1 problem in our educational system. If you correct that problem, believe me all the other things will work themselves out very quickly," Leininger said, sitting in the top-floor boardroom at Kinetic Concepts, now a highly successful hospital bed company. To make sure his message is heard, the 54-year-old doctor- turned-businessman is promoting his conservative viewpoint with millions of dollars in contributions to state political candidates, political action committees, public policy think tanks and a bold new private school voucher plan.

"It doesn't take money to get involved in the process. Money alone is only a small part of the equation," the millionaire said in a recent interview with The Associated Press. But money has built Leininger's clout in Texas politics throughout the 1990s. Last year, he solidified his role as a high-profile player by bankrolling a $50 million voucher program in San Antonio and co-signing last-minute campaign loans of around $1 million each for soon-to-be Gov. Rick Perry arid Comptroller Carole Keeton Rylander.

Those loans hefped the two Republicans buy their final week of television ads, arguably sealing their narrow November election victories. "Yeah, I co-signed those loans," Leininger said. "I'm glad I did it. I think they're going to be great public servants." Since he became politically active a decade ago, Leininger estimates he has given in excess of $5 million in loans or donations to politicians, conservative organizations and private school scholarships. Critics say even though Texas has its share of colorful characters who write big checks to politicians, Leininger has amassed unusually wide-ranging influence.

"It has become clear just how powerful this man is and just how far his reach is," said Samantha Smoot, executive BIOGRAPHY By The Associated Press NAME: Dr. James Leininger AGE: 54 RESIDENCE: San Antonio FAMILY: wife, Cecelia; children, Brian, Kelly, Tracy, Joshua EDUCATION: Indiana University School of Medicine BUSINESSES: Kinetic Concepts Focus Direct Promised Land Dairy; The Texas Network; San Antonio Spurs CURRENT POLITICAL ENDEAVOR: Private school vouchers QUOTE: "It doesn't take money to get involved in the process. Money alone is only a small part of the equation." director of the Texas Freedom Network, a group formed to counter the religious right. With his multifaceted approach to politics, Smoot said, Leininger has "created a virtual political party." Max Sherman, a professor at the Lyndon B. Johnson School of Public Affairs at the University of Texas, acknowledged Leininger has had a big impact on the voucher issue and state politics overall, but said financial contributions alone don't decide elections or pass legislation.

"Obviously, it is significant. He has reached a lot of people," said Sherman, a former Democratic state senator. Sherman suggested that those who disagree with Leininger or oppose curr mt campaign finance laws should work within the political system to make changes. Leininger contends that's what he's doing and he's getting "slammed" by critics. He complains that the news media have portrayed him as a recluse or "some kind of totally imbalanced, radical, Christian-right weirdo." "I think if more people got involved in the process, our government would be much better," he said.

Jeff Judson, president of the Texas Public Policy Foundation, a conservative think tank Leininger created in 1989 and infuses with about $100,000 per year, said most criticism of Leininger comes from liberals who are upset about eroding political power. "They're looking for villains they can discredit to stop that trend," Judson said. "They've chosen Jim Leininger and the organizations he's helped form." Leininger said while much was made of his late loan of $1.1 million to Perry, little was said about Democratic lieutenant governor candidate John Sharp receiving $550,000 in the final week of the campaign from some of the law firms that got $3.3 billion for representing the state in its anti-tobacco lawsuit. Leininger also contributed $96,000 to Attorney General John Cornyn, the Republican who defeated Democrat Jim Mattox in November. Leininger plunged into politics in the late 1980s as part of an effort to combat the political influence of trial lawyers and elect conservative Texas Supreme Court justices.

He also has been instrumental in the campaigns of conservative candidates for the State Board of Education. A son of a doctor, Leininger was raised a Lutheran in Warsaw, and Miami. After a stint as an Army doctor at Fort Sam Houston and a short time in private medical practice, Leininger worked in the Baptist Hospital System emergency room in San Antonio in the late 1970s. Soon he also became a salesman for a company that manufactured therapeutic hospital beds for trauma patients. Leininger's newfound religious convictions took root after he and his wife, Cecelia, bought the hospital bed company in 1976 and renamed it Kinetic Concepts.

The couple fell into deep financial trouble and, after repeatedly tapping friends and relatives for investment money, they went to their bedroom one bleak Saturday in 1979 and got down on their knees and prayed. "I just got this incredible feeling of warmth and assurance that everything was going to be OK," said Leininger, who considered himself an agnostic during college 1 1 Two months later, the company had turned around. Leininger believed it had everything to do with God. "That changed my life and I became a serious believer," he said. Leininger also became a seriously wealthy man.

His company grew, and Leininger reportedly got more than $200 million in a leveraged buyout in 1997 by two San Francisco companies. Leininger retained a third of the company and remains chairman emeritus. His numerous other business ventures include part-ownership in the San Antonio Spurs and a new statewide television news operation called The Texas Network, into which Leininger has pumped some $10 million. Now a Presbyterian, Leininger attends the fairly small Faith Presbyterian Church in north San Antonio. His three oldest children, Brian, 23; Kelly, 21; and Tracy, 20; were taught at home and in private schools.

His youngest, Joshua, is in home school. Leininger helped finance a large gymnasium next to Kinetic Concepts for home-schooled children. Leininger maintains that educating his children at home is consistent with his belief that parents should have choices in their children's instruction. He admits home schooling isn't for everyone, and it takes at the least a commitment from one parent to stay home all day. "Home-schooled kids are self- motivated, and they're very disciplined students," Leininger said.

"I love teaching my 9-year- old, having him sit on my lap and learn to read. That's one of the joys in my life." Usually, Leininger said, he backs political candidates who agree with him on school choice. In the early 1990s, Leininger got involved in public school mentoring when he realized some job applicants at Kinetic Willis Trucking and Backhoe Service Limestone Base, Kill, Top Soil, Sand, (J ravel. Land Clearing, Clean lips, -gfS Haul Oils, Material ULl Spreading Pads, Driveways. I'rei' Estimates Richard Willis Home 830-367-2921 Mobil 830-459-4001 Anything for the contractor or Do-it-yourselfer Big Mews For Septic System Owners From IN-SINK-ERATOR Jhe first Food Woste Disposer Designed For Any Size Seplic System! S6PTIC PALIO SELECT PORTABLE SPA Complete Inventory Sale Priced! FINANCING AVAILABLE (W.A.C.) VISIT OUR 4,000 SO.

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Then, after reading a Wall Street Journal editorial about a private voucher program established by Pat Rooney for low- income students in Indianapolis, Leininger decided to start one, too. The Children's Educational Opportunity Foundation was formed in San Antonio in 1992. Since its inception, Leininger said, he has contributed on average from $350,000 to $450,000 per year to the organization. The CEO Foundation last spring unveiled a 10-year, $50 million scholarship program for low-income students in the poor Edgewood School District to attend a school of their choice. Leininger is the main contributor.

Leininger hopes the Edgewood program ultimately is replaced by a state-funded voucher system. "It doesn't matter to me a hoot how they do it. All they have to do is say, 'OK, little Johnny. Here's money for your schooling this year. You can take that money and go wherever you want he said.

Three state lawmakers have filed bills proposing voucher plans, but even Leininger doubts any will pass this legislative session. Leininger doesn't believe Gov. George W. Bush another recipient of his campaign contributions will want to expend the political capital necessary to pass a voucher measure before his expected presidential run. Anti-abortion groups also receive some of Leininger's largess.

"I'm a doctor and I've seen the horrors of killing babies literj ally. Babies that are born alive and they're supposed to be born dead, this kind of Leininger said. One of those anti-abortion organizations, the Austin-based Heidi Group, came under fire when it sent out a controversial prayer calendar last fall urging a certain abortion doctor t6 "come to see Jesus face to face." Subsequently, the Southern Poverty Law Center canceled its multimillion-dollar annual con-tract with Leininger's direct mail company, Focus The Montgomery, organization that acts as a watchdog against hate groups said it objected to the calendar and "homophobic" campaign literature distributed by Focus Direct on behalf of a State Board of Education candidate. "We don't want to be hi a posi' tion of paying substantial amounts of money to a company that turns around and uses our fees for this kind of said Joe Levin, the law center's president. Leininger is growing tomed to being at the center of controversy.

And he's getting used to shrugging off criticism. In the AP interview, he had little to say about losing the law center's contract, "I'm disappointed by that," he said. "But obviously it's their choice." Ricks Furniture is Your FREE Gift 6-Qt Insulated Travel Cooler With any single new purchase of $499 or more. Available in 2 Finishes 169 149 129 109 89 Two Piece Entertainment Wall Holds up to 32" TV. '499 reg.

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