Big givers blow millions on electionBy RICK CASEY
Copyright 2006 Houston Chronicle
San Antonio mega-millionaire James Leininger, the state's leading champion of school vouchers, spent $5 million to try to shape Texas government this year.
How did he do?
Really, really, really badly.
Not quite as badly as Houston homebuilder Bob Perry did in trying to help the Republicans maintain control of Congress, but badly.
Leininger gave nearly $300,000 total to Gov. Rick Perry, Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst and a political action committee controlled by House Speaker Tom Craddick.
But school vouchers are probably in worse shape with the new Legislature than they were with its predecessor, on which he spent $1.3 million.
Batting only .200
He invested more than $2.7 million in 10 of this year's races for the Legislature, giving more than $400,000 each to four candidates, in some cases providing more than 90 percent of their financial support.
Just be glad he isn't playing with your money.
Eight of those 10 candidates lost, several to candidates who received active support from teachers and other anti-voucher groups.
Most notably, the $54,000 he gave to incumbent Kent Grusendorf, who had chaired the important House Public Education Committee, didn't prevent Grusendorf's shocking loss to an anti-voucher candidate in the Republican primary.
In the Houston area, Leininger didn't fare much better.
Wants more than 'access'
He gave $83,000 to Talmadge Heflin, the former House Appropriations Committee chairman, who was unable to reclaim his seat from Democrat Hubert Vo.
He gave $25,000 to state Rep. Martha Wong, who lost to Democratic challenger Ellen Cohen.
And he gave $23,000 to Rep. Gene Seaman, who lost to Democrat Juan Garcia.
Leininger did back conservative talk-show host Dan Patrick with $25,000 and Rep. Joe Crabb with $3,000, both of whom won as expected.
But perhaps to his credit, Leininger doesn't give big bucks (at least by Texas standards) to shoo-in candidates. He gave more money to eight legislative candidates in tight races than he gave to Perry. (Note: The contribution figures above include not only those from Leininger personally but from three political action committees to which he has provided all or almost all the money.)
Leininger isn't interested in showing the flag or simply buying "access." He wants to buy a legislature that will pass vouchers.
His investment this year is unlikely to pay off.
Not only will the Legislature have more anti-voucher Democrats than its predecessor, but Republicans took note of what happened to Grusendorf and others who enjoyed Leininger's backing.
"I think you could say Leininger was the biggest loser in these elections," said Andrew Wheat of Texans for Public Justice, an Austin nonprofit that tracks political contributions and provided these numbers at my request.
Now for an update on the efforts of homebuilder Bob Perry, whose $4 million in contributions to "Swift Boat Veterans for Truth" helped re-elect President Bush two years ago.
As noted in a column six weeks ago, Perry gave $5 million, virtually the sole contribution, to an outfit called the Economic Freedom Fund. The outfit has used broadcast ads, robo-calls and mailers to attack Democratic congressional candidates in about a dozen states.
It turns out he gave another $4 million or so to fund two other similar committees.
One paid for the humorous, if not exactly classy, television ads showing a Soprano-type mobster talking into a cell phone: "We got a problem. Our boy down in Washington, Bob Menendez, he's caught in a federal investigation. The feds start looking at these fixed contracts and bada-bing, we're in it deep!"
Menendez won despite the ad.
Although IRS records on these groups aren't easy to decipher, it appears that few if any of the candidates Perry's committees intended to help won.
Texas trial lawyers who blew millions on Carole Keeton Strayhorn and Chris Bell can take solace.
My speculation that Perry could come to be seen as the Warren Buffett of political investing turned out to be unfounded.
You can write to Rick Casey at P.O. Box 4260, Houston, TX 77210, or e-mail him at email@example.com.