Wallet and Spirit

Sickbed Fortune

It's no secret that he has a lot of 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 and the top five in San Antonio. Leininger's wealth originally came from beds: ultra-high-tech hospital beds for very sick people. Critically ill patients and others unable to move often develop bed sores, lung infections, and other life-threatening conditions. Leininger's beds have air chambers, silicon beads, and motors in them. They 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. Leininger got the idea for making and marketing the beds while he was running Baptist Health System's emergency department in the 1970s. Earlier, he had been a doctor at Brooke Army Medical Center, and previous to that, had studied medicine at Indiana University. A generation earlier, his father, Hilbert Adolph Peter Leininger, had gotten his M.D. at Indiana. Hilbert -- known to his kin as Hib -- wanted all his five sons to follow in their father's footsteps. Doctoring, Hib thought, would be part of the family tradition.

Family Values

old photo of the Leininger family

The Leininger family

For the Leiningers, tradition itself is a tradition. It has been ever since Hib's father -- James' grandfather -- ruled the clan like a Biblical patriarch. His name was Adolph, and recently, his descendants reminisced about growing up under the old man's thumb. One is Melinda Marshall. Today a resident of Portland, Oregon, Marshall was raised in Fort Wayne, Indiana, which during her childhood was home to Adolph, his children, and their children. Melinda is a cousin of James Leininger. Adolph was their grandfather. Marshall remembers Adolph as "a humble man, with maybe a third-grade education, a carpenter." And, she adds, he was "a turd": a man obsessed with 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 dinners and being terrified to utter a word, "because if I did, my granddad would thump me." Adolph had five daughters and one son, Hib. The sisters married late in life; Marshall thinks that is because "Adolph expected them all to work to send Hib through medical school." Another reason for the spinsterhood: When the girls brought home their fiancees, Adolph withheld his blessing if the young men were any religion other than Lutheran. Indeed, for generations, it was rock-ribbed, fundamentalist Lutheranism that united the Leiningers. The family immigrated from Germany to rural Ohio in the 1830s. The region then was dense with Lutherans, who divided their church into deliberative bodies called synods. The Missouri Synod (whose membership spreads beyond the state for which it is named) is the most conservative of these groups. According to a Synod doctrinal statement published not long before James was born, the Bible is inerrantly true, and claims to the contrary are "horrible and blasphemous." 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. They translated to Sunday church attendance with all the kin, daily home prayer, mandatory listening to Lutheran radio programs, family reunions that always opened with a religious service, and Adolph's warnings that dancing was a sin. Amid these ossified routines of faith, Hib and his sisters, then later their children, were discouraged from expressing any skepticism. Marshall says they felt so overdosed with religion that as young adults, most rejected it entirely. That's what happened to James Leininger, though he spent his childhood far from his grandfather. In the early 1950s, Hib, who by then was a general-practice doctor, moved his family -- wife, Berneta, and sons James and Peter -- to South Florida to do a residence in urology. Three more boys would eventually be born. Florida is a long way from Indiana, but Marshall recalls that Hib was only a milder version of old Adolph: a strict disciplinarian, and still a devout Missouri Synod Lutheran. For James and his brothers, that meant -- according to Berneta, who now lives in San Antonio and who spoke to the San Antonio Current in a tight-lipped Indiana twang -- "sticking exactly to the Bible and no funny business." Berneta recalled Hib's later shock when all five sons renounced Lutheranism. James, according to the interview he recently gave the Express-News, became an agnostic.

But his youthful rationalism would not last long. By the late 1970s, Leininger had gotten interested in hospital beds. He bought a failing company that had already developed the product; he and wife Cecelia started nursing the business back to prosperity out of their apartment. But the enterprise foundered, and in 1979 creditors prepared to seize his assets. One evening, at the 11th 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.

But it was a business, and some 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 19th-century beliefs of his Midwest forefathers.

Lone Star PAC-Man

photo of LeiningerJames Leininger's bed business and wealth grew, and so did his family. Cecelia, a tall, regal woman with fine-chiseled features, gave birth to a boy, Brian, and two girls, Kelly and Tracey (a fourth child, Joshua, was later adopted). The apartment was exchanged for a nouveau-riche mini-estate, complete with deer wandering the neighborhood, in the San Antonio suburb of Hollywood Park. As KCI prospered, James' brothers Peter, John, and Daniel -- who had all studied medicine or optometry -- migrated to San Antonio to work in James' expanding enterprises (a fourth brother, Michael, is a Baptist minister who remained in Florida). Their parents, Hib and Berneta, came to San Antonio, too, after Hib retired from urology.

All seemed well until the late Eighties, when James Leininger had his second, political, conversion. He was preparing to take KCI public then, but suddenly the company lost its liability insurance. This was no small matter, since the U.S. Food and Drug Administration was receiving reports claiming that KCI beds were malfunctioning, and that patients had been trapped, mangled, and otherwise injured while in them. Some of those 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 lightbulb went off in his head one day in 1987, when he saw a CBS News 60 Minutes report, "Justice for Sale." The program described how plaintiffs' lawyers in Texas were swaying cases in their favor by contributing to the campaigns of state Supreme Court judges. After watching the show, Leininger joined the "tort reform" movement that was growing among Texas business interests. Their stated goal was to defeat biased judges in elections, and replace them with candidates untainted by lawyer financing. In reality, however, the business magnates merely exchanged plaintiff money for defense money. They helped elect judges -- and later legislators -- who would make it hard for an injured consumer or worker to successfully sue a manufacturer or business. The tort reform movement was Leininger's introduction to big-player political giving. In 1988, he started a political action committee (PAC), Texans for Justice. A PAC normally collects money from many people -- from the members of a profession or line of business, for instance -- and funnels the cash to candidates in hopes that the winners will make laws favoring the profession or business who gave the money. But according to the Houston Chronicle, 86% of the cash in Texans for Justice, or $196,000, came from only one person: Leininger. The money went to conservative candidates in the 1988 state Supreme Court judgeship contests. Other PACs also contributed, and the ploy worked. Conservatives won four of the six seats up for re-election.

Until then, the Texas Supreme Court had been a relatively populist body. Ever since, its rulings have been so consistently anti-consumer and anti-worker that the court is now considered among the most pro-business in the country. The problem is so notorious that earlier this month, 60 Minutes ran an updated version of the 1987 program that recruited Leininger to the political world.

After his successes with the state court, Leininger got deeply involved in efforts to sway legislators and local judicial officials. Between 1992 and 1996, another PAC he founded, Texans for Governmental Integrity (TGI), helped fund the campaigns of dozens of state senators, representatives, and local lawmakers. In the San Antonio area, according to state Ethics Commission records, Republican legislative candidates such as Frank Corte Jr. and Ernesto Ancira took TGI money. But so did many Democrats, among them Judith Zaffirini, Frank Madla, and Ciro Rodriguez. Other candidates who accepted TGI support were then-District Judge Charlie Gonzalez, who recently was elected to Congress, and County Judge Cyndi Krier. By now, as it should be obvious, Leininger was getting the hang of naming his PACs. They could have been assembled from a Chinese menu of civic buzzwords -- Texas or Texans from Column A; Justice or Integrity or Reform from Column B. Using this method, so many organizations have been generated -- by conservatives and liberals alike -- that anyone writing about them risks putting readers to sleep.

Leininger, however, was wide awake. In 1995 and 1996, he was one of 18 top contributors to Texans for Lawsuit Reform (TLR). TLR is not to be confused with Texans for Public Justice. The latter is an Austin-based watchdog organization that unfortunately chose for itself a somnambulently Leiningeresque name. Texans for Public Justice monitors the way campaign financing influences judges and lawmakers, and it calls TLR "the 800-pound gorilla of the tort-reform PACs." During the 1996 state elections cycle, TLR gave hundreds of thousands of dollars to candidates, mostly Republicans. Since then, the Texas legislature has passed laws that have gutted worker's compensation and exempted industries from responsibility for worker and consumer safety.

Double Talk

Flush with his tort reform efforts, Leininger decided the state needed a think tank. He imagined a Lone Star version of the Heritage Foundation, the most influential conservative policy group in the country. According to University of California Berkeley sociologist Sarah Diamond, who has extensively studied the contemporary right, the Heritage Foundation makes far-right policy projects sound attractive by translating them into the language of "conservatism" and "traditional family values." In 1989, to replicate these national efforts on a statewide level, Leininger created and funded the Texas Public Policy Foundation (TPPF). According to the Houston Chronicle, TPPF has since received some $1 million -- a fifth of its funding -- from Leininger and his family. Its director, an affable man named Jeff Judson, has a degree in philosophy and once worked for U.S. Senator John Tower. The organization specializes in promoting the secular, laissez-faire side of conservative thought. TPPF's reports and op-eds advocate privatization of public services, downsized government, and other free-market projects that would warm the heart of Milton Friedman.

A TPPF spinoff, the Texas Justice Foundation (TJF), is another Leininger creation but with a woolier persona. TJF 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. (TJF's reasoning: Since beleaguered life forms such as the Texas blind salamander are not involved in "interstate commerce," they do not deserve federal protection.) But what really gets TJF excited is protecting the faith -- as when the group threatened to sue a school district where a teacher forbade a student from looking at a Bible during free-reading class. Such interest by TJF is predictable, given that its director, attorney Allan Parker, is former head of the Bexar County Christian Coalition.

TPPF and TJF have been the brains and legal brawn behind Children's Economic Opportunity (CEO) Foundation, the school voucher group that Leininger started in San Antonio in 1992. And CEO is now the acronym most people associate with Leininger, particularly since the Edgewood controversy surfaced.

As Leininger likes to tell it in his rare media interviews, he got the idea for starting a voucher program in the early 1990s. That is when he read a Wall Street Journal story about Patrick Rooney, a conservative insurance business magnate who started his own voucher project in Indianapolis. Leininger says he was disturbed that people seeking employment at KCI could not read their job applications. He also 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 operant mantra in debates about vouchers. And it is a term that has rocked San Antonio since last spring, when Leininger instituted his Horizon scholarship project in Edgewood. "Choice" is what the press quotes TPPF and TJF spokesmen trumpeting at community forums, where they pit themselves against indignant public school employees and longtime civil rights advocates. "Choice" -- with its connotations of women's liberation and equality -- is a word conservative voucher people have brilliantly lifted from the liberal lexicon. It sounds progressive. Or at least free-market. After all, who doesn't want 31 flavors at the ice cream shop, 100 channels on cable, and an unlimited selection of schools for educating one's children?

But there is something that rings hollow about this vocabulary, particularly when one looks at Leininger's less publicized philanthropy. Start with the earlier 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 family have directly given hundreds of thousands of dollars to anti-abortion groups. Last year, 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.

Young women who visit the center are urged to have their babies; they are plied with literature claiming that abortion is murder, and an act that causes women serious emotional illness. Pro Life Foundation director Breeden also made special use of the group's mailing list last year: She sent material to 1,200 people urging them to push the San Antonio City Council to withdraw funds from the Esperanza Peace and Justice Center -- ostensibly because of Esperanza's support for gay and lesbian art. And Leininger and his family have also given more than $125,000 to the Heidi Group, the organization that distributes the "prayer calendars."

Christian Soldiers

Leininger's anti-choice and anti-gay 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, contributed $700 to the presidential bid of televangelist Pat Robertson, who would later found the Christian Coalition. The Christian Coalition is arguably the most powerful social conservative group in the country. It exercises tremendous clout within the Republican Party and is notorious for its efforts to make abortion and homosexuality illegal. The Coalition also wants to defund public schools, dismantle sexuality education, abolish the National Endowment for the Arts, and in general, impose fundamentalist Judaeo-Christian principles into public institutions such as schools.

By the 1990s, Leininger was in a thrall of Christian Coalition-style enthusiasm. In some ways his passion echoed his family's age-old fundamentalism. For example, at one of James' businesses, Promised Land Dairy, manager Randy Boone -- himself devoutly religious -- remembers that he and his boss used to hold prayer meetings when the Leiningers visited to check on their herd of Jersey cows.

On the other hand, Christian fundamentalism these days is about far more than prayer. The 1960s and '70s saw a democratic upheaval in the United States that threatened individuals as well as institutions. The civil rights, feminist, labor, and environmental movements challenged white people's control over minorities, men's power over women, parents' ability to abuse their children with impunity, and corporations' mistreatment of workers and the environment. In reaction, conservatives such as Pat Robertson started teaming up with politicians and corporate magnates, such as Joseph Coors, of Coors beer fame. The Coalition used direct mail and Christian television broadcasting to meld a movement known as the New Right. By the time Leininger had his bed-company born-again experience, many in the New Right were espousing "Reconstructionism" -- a theory holding that Jesus Christ will not make His Second Coming until society's secular institutions are replaced by the rule of the Old Testament. According to the theory, taking over secular institutions is slow, methodical work. It takes a lot of organization -- and a lot of money. Reconstructing the world was the perfect job for a savvy businessman.

Reconstructing the School Board

Not long after he founded his tort reform PACs in the late 1980s and early 1990s, Leininger got interested in school-reform efforts. In 1994, elections were coming up for the Texas State Board of Education. The Board 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 children's dentist and school voucher advocate Bob Offutt, was first elected to the body in 1992, with financial help from Leininger's Texans for Governmental Integrity PAC. 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 travellers. He found three. One was Donna Ballard, a Pentecostal minister's wife from the Houston suburbs. Ballard entered the contest, and Leininger swung into action. Through personal funds and Texans for Governmental Integrity, he donated some $45,000 -- an enormous amount of money as school-board campaigns go -- to Ballard and the two other Christian-right candidates. The candidates then took their business to Focus Direct, a Leininger company in San Antonio that does direct-mail work for companies and politicians.

Ballard was running against incumbent Mary Knott Perkins, a grandmother many times over, a regular churchgoer, and a Democrat. She was aghast when Focus Direct produced and mass-mailed a leaflet with a picture of a black man and a white man kissing, and accused Perkins of wanting to teach Texas children about oral and anal sex. Perkins lost the election to Ballard. The other two Christian conservatives also won, using similarly sleazy tactics, and their 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 far-right wingers ripped up textbooks, inveighed against moral turpitude, and -- as member Rene Nuñez told the San Antonio Current, "made it very frustrating to try to get anything done." At meetings, Ballard frequently consulted with on-site "advisers" from Leininger's 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 nationally determined teaching methods, including Goals 2000 -- a federal standardized, Clinton-backed school curriculum that even Gov. George W. Bush likes.

The Promised Land

Since 1994, Leininger has become a veritable 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, his JCL and Covenant Foundations donated $5.6 million, mostly to politically oriented, far-right nonprofits -- from anti-abortion organizations to PACs that want taxpayers to fund Christian home schoolers and private education (see box, p.24). There is also evidence that Leininger contributed to a shady organization whose activities have been investigated by Democrats in the Senate Governmental Affairs Committee. The group, Triad Management Services, was recently featured in a PBS Frontlineexpose 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 sole purpose was to advise GOP political candidates, and 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. Triad kept the names of its donors secret, but Frontline gave the Current Senate-obtained records that show that Leininger contributed at least $50,000. Federal Election Commission records (available to the public on a non-governmental website, http://www.tray.com/fecinfo) also show Leininger donations via Triad. All this money and wheeling and dealing, from a man who grew 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, Leininger belongs to a Presbyterian church. In contrast to the outsized clamor at the churches his brothers attend, James Leininger's congregation seems downright cozy and cerebral. Only about 30 families attend Faith Presbyterian Church Sunday services, and the group meets in what looks to be 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 as much on complex questions of grace as on the simpler horrors of Satan.

Still, Faith Presbyterian is a member of the Presbyterian Church in America (PCA), a split-off from the mainline denomination. According to Trinity University religion professor Doug Brackenridge, the separation occurred in the early 1970s, after Presbyterians were touched by the civil rights movement and feminism. The Church instituted various reforms, such as ordaining women as pastors. Unhappy conservatives left and formed the PCA.

Pastor Hoke says his congregation believes that scripture is inerrant and "the final authority." Brackenridge says that doctrinally, there is little difference between the Leininger family's old-style 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 PCA Presbyterianism because it seems more comfortable at this time, and in this part of the country."

Besides, these days in Texas, you don't have to leave your family to cut your roots. Even Hib -- who to the end of his life was a Lutheran -- 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 the summer of 1995, his sons transported the body back to Indiana. The funeral was held in the family's old Lutheran church. Afterwards, everyone went 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 James Leininger's mother, her son began thinking then about his own stead: his recently purchased "ranch," The Headwaters, just west of Blanco. There are no cattle herds at The Headwaters today, and no crops -- only a conservative tycoon's Hill Country getaway. The land's legends belong to earlier times 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. Then he trucked it down to Texas. His mother says he is thinking about building a museum on the ranch -- a Leininger family museum.

He is the new patriarch. Grandfather Adolph would be proud.

Debbie Nathan is a staff writer for The San Antonio Current.

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