By Jim Schutze
By Rachel Watts
By Lauren Drewes Daniels
By Anna Merlan
By Lee Escobedo
The use of sales tax money to bankroll sports stadiums and other private projects has always been contentious. In Arlington, voters approved a half-cent sales levy eight years ago for a new stadium so the Texas Rangers wouldn't pack up and leave. Critics argue it ended up shifting wealth from residents to owners, including Gov. George W. Bush, whose $600,000 investment turned into $15 million when the club was sold last year.
Then in Hidalgo, on the banks of the Rio Grande, town fathers used sales tax money a few years ago to build a 12-foot-tall fiberglass statue dubbed "The World's Largest Killer Bee." Lawmakers in Austin thought the big bug so frivolous that they ordered the state to start keeping track of how these local subsidies are spent.
Since 1979, Texas has allowed towns and cities to levy special sales taxes to fuel their visions of economic progress, and local officials have backed everything from successful "seed" businesses to quick-buck operators. But nobody in the memory of the state bureaucrats who monitor the subsidies has ever done what the East Texas town of Canton did with its new one-half-cent sales tax levy last January.
They gave it to the Christian right.
The company that town fathers decided to subsidize with more than $200,000 of sales tax money--plus complete abatement of property taxes for three years--is called Winning Strategies Inc. Although its officers claim it's a marketing company, it has demonstrated over the past year that its primary mission is to run political campaigns for Christian-right candidates across Texas--which is no wonder, given the company's ownership.
The man behind Winning Strategies needs a taxpayer handout about as much as Dallas sports team investor and media mogul Tom Hicks.
Although Winning Strategies' public face is Republican activist and former Dallas businessman Bob Reese, insurance documents and other records in Canton city files show that the company's financial underwriter is Dr. James Leininger. The publicity-shy San Antonio hospital bed magnate has contributed millions to conservative politicians and right-wing organizations opposed to legalized abortion, public schools, and consumer lawsuits. Some call him the most politically influential man in Texas today.
The Canton Economic Development Corporation inked a deal last year with Winning Strategies that city officials believed would move Canton beyond its century-old calling as host to a huge flea market--the First Monday Trade Days--and into a bold, high-tech future.
What they actually received is a marketing company that does a certain amount of printing and phone-sales work for commercial clients, but that spends a lot of its time--at least 40 percent--working for religious-right candidates and issues such as using public tax money for religious and other private schools, the so-called voucher program.
"Political organization? As far as I know, it's a marketing company," says Canton City Manager Johnny Mallory, who is also president of the city's Economic Development Corporation. "Maybe they do a little election work in the fall."
Do they ever.
One need not go further than the company's Web site--www.winning-strategies.com--to see that Winning Strategies' soul is purely political.
Below its eagle-and-stars logo, which looks sort of like the post office's, the site announces: "Winning Strategies is a full service company designed to provide critical services for candidates and public policy groups...Our team of professionals can develop a winning message, design and print top notch materials complete with personalization, develop practical computer software and hardware solutions, and complete a professional phone program for our clients all under one roof."
There is not a single mention of the company being involved in commercial phone sales.
By design, the candidates using Winning Strategies' state-of-the-art campaign techniques are exclusively conservative Republicans. Reese, the company president, calls them "our market segment."
The organization was potent enough to elect a Republican majority to the Van Zandt County Commissioners Court for the first time this century. It was busy too this past fall with dozens of local contests in nearby counties and legislative races across the state.
"People don't understand why the city government has gotten behind one party," says Richard Ray, a Democrat and former county judge. "It's a Republican think tank, a campaign machine...Before the election, there were 50 people up there, and they were working practically round the clock."
So when you motor up Interstate 20, exit 65 miles east of Dallas at the Canton flea market, and plunk down $20 for a pre-owned waffle iron, you're donating a dime to Canton's economic development effort.
It, in turn, is passing it on to Reese, Leininger, and the furthest fringe of the GOP.
Call it welfare for the right.
Considering the avowed political philosophies of the people on the receiving end of your 10 cents, it's at the very least a case study in hypocrisy and extreme cynicism.
Robert Allen Reese Jr., a born-again Christian deep into the politics of the right, is the main reason Winning Strategies exists in Canton.
"I'm the predominant force behind the Winning Strategies business concept," the 46-year-old Reese explained in an interview with the Dallas Observer. (Beyond an initial telephone interview, he declined further requests for comment.) "I wanted the business located in this area...It would be a benefit to the community as well as Canton...In our wonderful society of free-market opportunity, it's still legal to set up profit-making ventures in any business area as long as you stay within the guidelines of the law."