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Friday, November 23, 2007

Canseco praises backer James Leininger, despite his reputation

Quico Canseco (photo)
Republican Cong. Dist. 23 candidate

Lightning Rod

GOP Candidate Proud to Have Controversial Donor’s Support Even Though He Doesn't Need His Money

By Mike Hailey

As the only major Republican candidate in the race at this point, it's no surprise that James Leininger backs Quico Canseco in his bid for the Congressional District 23 seat. But other candidates who've been beaten up and battered by opponents in recent years for taking Leininger's money might find it a bit shocking to learn that Canseco is actively promoting the support that he has from the San Antonio physician and business investor.

Houston home builder Bob Perry may be the biggest contributor to Republican politics on the planet, but Leininger is clearly the most radioactive donor in Texas on either side of the partisan aisle. When Leininger spent millions of dollars in a bid to unseat a half-dozen state House Republicans in last year's primary election, his hometown newspaper declared in a screaming headline that he'd been trying to buy democracy itself. It would have been hard if not impossible to find a news article about any one of those races that failed to mention that almost all of the challenger's funding was coming from Leininger. The candidates were supporting players in the reports on the campaigns they were waging. Leininger wasn't just a central character. He was always the story.

One reason for that is Leininger's high-profile role in the school choice debate and his undaunted push for a vouchers bill despite more than a decade of setbacks. There aren't many political issues that hit nerves any more intensely than vouchers - and no one has been more committed to making them reality in Texas and beyond than Leininger has.

While vouchers seem to have been a hotter topic on the legislative battlefield here than they have in races for Congress, Canseco's association with Leininger gives Democrats an incentive to play them up as an issue if and when he squares off against U.S. Rep. Ciro Rodriguez of San Antonio next fall as expected. Rodriguez's camp touted his opposition to vouchers while pointing to Republican incumbent Henry Bonilla's support for them in their special election battle last year - and the Democrat might do so again if needed.

The repeated failure of school vouchers in the Legislature would lead one to assume that a majority of the members believe the polling over the years that show them to be an unpopular item with the public at large. But some recent polls have found significant support for vouchers among Hispanic voters - and almost 70 percent of the residents in CD 23 are Hispanic. So maybe Canseco knows what he's doing when he makes a big deal about the Leininger endorsement.

The media's all but singular focus on Leininger's passion and press for school vouchers often loses sight of the fact that he's interested in a wide range of other issues that the Legislature and Congress are confronting. Leininger emerged as a key political donor before his interest in vouchers became widely known when he helped fund the GOP takeover at the Texas Supreme Court. That appeared to be more about tort reform than school choice. He has an obvious stake in the Texas tax system as the founder of a corporation that manufactures hospital beds and an investor in other firms including one that produces and sells dairy products right here in town. Leininger's name identification in Texas political circles began to soar in the wake of reports about the ties that he had to Governor Rick Perry back when he was still the state agriculture commissioner. He's even had a role in the debate on the regulation of deer by the state. By the time the GOP seized control of the Texas House in 2003, Leininger's Texas Public Policy Foundation had evolved into the state leadership's unofficial think tank. Democrats have perceived the state Republican Party to be a Leininger subsidiary - even though he's given the Texas GOP a smaller share of its funding than Dallas lawyer Fred Baron has been pumping into the Texas Democratic Party's coffers during the past couple of years.

Leininger, who's relatively low-key and non-confrontational, became an easy target for Democrats who portrayed him essentially as evil when he failed for years to fight back. The Dems tried to make it seem like a contribution from Leininger was dirty money - even though it was perfectly legal. Many candidates at the state level would put up with whatever unfavorable publicity they might reap from Leininger funding simply because they thought they needed it to win. Some Republicans who didn't need the money would just as soon pass on donations if they were coming from Leininger. The GOP primary challengers who Leininger funded actually received the support from a third party source - a political action committee called the Texas Republican Legislative Campaign Committee. Leininger's critics called that a front - even though it had to be obvious from the start to the doctor and his associates that the PAC wouldn't hide anything that could be so easily traced back to him.

It's a different story in federal races that are subject to strict campaign contribution limits from individuals and PACs. Leininger's donations are more likely to be lost in the shuffle of congressional campaigns because they don't stick out. But Canseco obviously sees more gain than pain from having Leininger in his corner - even if he and his family members can't give more than $4,600 apiece to the campaign. Canseco doesn't need cash from Leininger - having put hundreds of thousands of dollars of his own money into the congressional race already.

While some candidates might wish they could keep the lid on support they receive from Leininger, Canseco heaped praise on his most controversial backer when announcing him as the newest member of a South Texas steering committee for the congressional bid. “Jim Leininger knows that no institution is more important to our country’s long-term survival than the American family and no one has worked harder or given more to ensure that families continue to stand at the center of American society,” Canseco said.

But when Canseco lauded Leininger's longtime "support for efforts to expand educational opportunities to the disadvantaged," he never actually used the word vouchers. One thing's for sure: Rodriguez and the Democrats won't be able to accuse Canseco of having Leininger on his team and trying to cover it up. It's no secret now.

Mike Hailey's column appears regularly in Capitol Inside

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