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Mega-donor Leininger back in the spotlight as Perry campaign gets tough national look

Over the weekend Gov. Rick Perry joined one of his most generous campaign benefactors, San Antonio millionaire James Leininger, in a Hill Country retreat attended by other Christian conservatives, the Dallas Morning News reported last week. The gathering has brought a new round of national scrutiny to Leininger, an influential conservative who has remained largely under the radar in the last few years.

Many credit the prolific donor with securing Perry’s political career, helping the former agriculture commissioner in his 1998 lieutenant governor bid with a $1.1 million loan, and donating more than $239,000 to Perry during the course of his governorship. But the generosity is not a one-way street, as a report by campaign finance watchdog Texans for Public Justice points out.

TPJ explores Perry’s mutually beneficial relationship with the social conservative activist, called one of Perry’s “most stalwart helpmates.” From stock deals that spurred an SEC insider trading investigation, to Perry’s appointment of employees in Leininger’s hospital bed company to Texas’ workforce and health commissions, the alliance is rife with political favors. Most recently, the New York Times reported Perry’s Emerging Technology Fund gave $1.75 million in taxpayer dollars to two firms associated with Leininger, adding context to Perry’s growing national image as a pay-to-play leader — a culture well documented by the Texas press.

Leininger is not only a major Perry donor but an influential activist in the Texas education scene, advocating heavily for private-school vouchers and the teaching of creationism in public schools. His campaign contributions and mission to include Christianity in public education gave rise to the conservative bloc of the Texas State Board of Education. “By pumping tens of thousands of dollars into the previously ignored State Board of Education races,” Leininger “turned an obscure committee of retired teachers into an ideological hornet’s nest,” a 2002 Texas Monthly article reported. A study examining the state’s religious right faction conducted by the Texas Freedom Network writes, “In the early 1990s, huge financial contributions from Dr. Leininger turned once-sleepy campaigns for the state board into savage political brawls.”

A founder of the conservative think tank the Texas Public Policy Foundation (which has strong financial and professional ties to Perry), Leininger has fought hard to oppose tort laws, marriage equality and abortion. As of late, the man dubbed “God’s Sugar Daddy” has been largely absent from both the political scene and culture wars — but the weekend’s rendevous may signal Leininger’s return as Perry makes his way down the presidential campaign trail.

The retreat mimics a secretive meeting held by Leininger and TPPF in the early 2000’s, where, according to TPJ, Perry and major funders talked school-finance:

Joining Perry and Leininger on the yacht were Washington anti-tax crank Grover Norquist, Perry campaign consultant Dave Carney, TPPF Director Brooke Rollins, beer distributor John Nau (who has given $283,919 to Perry) and gubernatorial aides Mike Toomey, Deirdre Delisi and Mike Morrisey. “I made a decision that in order to best facilitate my office’s development of politically viable education policy I would need to get together with a select group of political and technical advisors in a setting removed from daily distractions,” Perry said in Texas Ethics Commission affidavit about the trip. Later in 2004 Texas lawmakers roundly rejected Governor Perry’s plans to offset reductions in property taxes funding schools. Those proposals included raising levies on corporate franchises, auto sales, cigarettes and topless clubs. Perry also proposed legalizing slot machines at Indian reservations and race tracks.

Expected to attend this time around is Southern Baptist leader and retired judge Paul Pressler, WallBuilders CEO and Christian U.S. historian David Barton, East Texas evangelist Rick Scarborough and others who supported Perry’s prayer rally “The Response” earlier this month, the Morning News reports.

Scarborough, writes Right Wing Watch, believes he should “mix church and state God’s way” to prevent the nation’s, “slide further into Communism/Socialism [and] sexual anarchy led by sodomites.” Scarborough recently said AIDS is God’s judgment for engaging in an immoral act.

The Texas Tribune offered a roundup of Leininger in the news over the decades and Texas Freedom Network’s Insider blog also covers the Perry-Leininger connection.

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