Wednesday, March 1, 2006

Republican state Rep. Tommy Merritt is facing a more conservative challenger in next week's primary. But his real opponent is school voucher advocate James Leininger, who has spent more than half a million dollars to defeat the Longview lawmaker. Read the article at the Dallas Morning News

Legislators chafe over voucher backer's donations

5 recipients say they aren't swayed by PAC; critics call for reforms

Wednesday, March 1, 2006
By ROBERT T. GARRETT / The Dallas Morning News

AUSTIN – Republican state Rep. Tommy Merritt is facing a more conservative challenger in next week's primary. But his real opponent is school voucher advocate James Leininger, who has spent more than half a million dollars to defeat the Longview lawmaker.

Mr. Merritt, a well-to-do businessman who has spent a decade in the House, is staggering from daily attacks on TV and radio and in the mail paid for by Dr. Leininger, a San Antonio businessman.

"It's all about intimidation," Mr. Merritt said.

Through a political-action committee he dominates, Dr. Leininger is providing more than 90 percent of the money spent against three of five moderate Republicans who opposed vouchers in last year's regular legislative session. Almost alone, he has provided warchests to his favored candidates exceeding, in four instances, $375,000 apiece. His giving may propel them to break spending records for House races.

"We've never seen numbers like this, as far as percentage of support from one entity," said Craig McDonald, director of Texans for Public Justice, a nonpartisan group that tracks campaign money.

"The Leininger PAC has showed that the Texas campaign finance system is totally out of whack," Mr. McDonald said. "One person should not be able to bankroll a slate of candidates.

"These candidates will become private representatives, not public servants."

Dr. Leininger could not be reached for comment. But in a newspaper column last week, he wrote that he would "vigorously oppose" lawmakers who don't support his pet cause, private school vouchers for poor children.

Rep. Roy Blake Jr., R-Nacogdoches, another of the five targeted House moderates, says Dr. Leininger is laying down an unprecedented method of supporting a campaign. The Texas Republican Legislative Campaign Committee, created last fall, pays for polls, ads, mail, phones and research on the incumbent. It then donates them as "in kind" contributions to the challengers.

"He's always got control of these people," Mr. Blake said. "He's controlling the campaigns, he's controlling the message."

Former Rep. Wayne Christian, a Republican in Center, Texas, who lost a bid for Congress and is trying to get back in the Legislature by beating Mr. Blake, has denied he's beholden to Dr. Leininger, as have all of the Leininger-backed challengers.

Voucher opponents denounce Dr. Leininger's effort, and Mr. McDonald says it illustrates a need for limits on how much rich people may give in state elections. One political scientist, though, called it a refreshing example of unselfish patronage.

"You know, a lot of people who spend a lot of money on campaigns, they have something personal that might help their business interests," said Allan Saxe, associate professor at the University of Texas-Arlington.

"I don't see how the voucher system is going to help directly his business interests or anything like that," Dr. Saxe said. "He definitely feels this is so critical ... to the future of education that he's willing to put up a lot of money to change it. That's worthwhile."

The latest filings with the Texas Ethics Commission show that in the last month, Dr. Leininger has given $1.25 million to the Texas Republican Legislative Campaign Committee to try to defeat the five moderates. In addition, he has given nearly $500,000 through another committee that seeks to help pro-voucher incumbents stay in office. His total spending on House races in this campaign has hit about $2.3 million.

Experts say that if all five House moderates targeted by Dr. Leininger lose, it would improve chances for passage of a voucher bill next year – at least in the House.

Former Lt. Gov. Bill Ratliff, a longtime Republican state senator from East Texas and opponent of vouchers, said the Senate is still unlikely to approve vouchers, though.

"So I don't know that it's going to pass," Mr. Ratliff said. "But if [pro-voucher forces] win this time, the intimidation factor will accelerate significantly."

Also, such large contributions in the final weeks before the March 7 primary is important, he said, because money is especially precious in a campaign's final days – and awfully hard to counter if it's flowing to the other side.

"It sort of puts you in a panic mode because you're just being flooded with this stuff," he said.

The intra-party challenges hint at a deeper rift among Republicans over public education. And while House Speaker Tom Craddick has tried to support some of the lawmakers targeted by Dr. Leininger, at least one has suggested that the effort to purge House GOP moderates had the tacit approval of Republican leaders.

"Key people within the party and within elective offices should not hide behind folks like Jim Leininger, letting them do their dirty work, and call that staying out of it," said Rep. Delwin Jones of Lubbock.

Mr. Craddick has declined to say whether he tried to dissuade Dr. Leininger from trying to oust House GOP incumbents, though a spokeswoman has said Mr. Craddick opposes efforts to beat incumbents. He has campaigned for three of the lawmakers – Mr. Blake; Rep. Charlie Geren of Fort Worth; and Rep. Carter Casteel of New Braunfels. He has not done so for Mr. Merritt or Mr. Jones.

Also causing some within the party to grumble is work done by pollster Mike Baselice of Austin, who is Gov. Rick Perry's pollster, for four of the five challengers financed by Dr. Leininger. Also, expenditures outlined in the campaign finance reports of Mr. Merritt's opponent, Mark Williams, show that the daughter of the state GOP's executive director is working for Mr. Williams.

"This is simply an indication again of 'All right, if you do not toe the line, you're going to pay a price,' " said Jerry Polinard, a political scientist at UT-Pan American in Edinburg.

Houston homebuilder Bob Perry, the state's biggest political contributor, has pumped, all together, $115,000 into the candidacies of the Leininger-backed candidates in Fort Worth, Lubbock and Longview. A spokesman for Mr. Perry has said he looks to business-related issues, not vouchers, when judging candidates – and isn't acting in concert with Dr. Leininger.

Staff writer Karen Brooks contributed to this report.