Here Comes the Guv
Kinky Friedman lights up his campaign
It's just before 8pm on a Saturday night in January, and Richard "Kinky" Friedman is nervous. So he says, although you wouldn't guess it just by looking at him. Waiting in the green room of San Antonio's Municipal Auditorium for his five minutes of stage time, Friedman looks much the same as he does, say, hanging out on a sun-burnished afternoon at his family's Echo Hill Ranch, south of Kerrville, in the stunning, rolling Hill Country.
In fact, he looks much the same as he has throughout his various careers as the frontman for the Seventies band Kinky Friedman and the Texas Jewboys; as the writer of a couple dozen books, most of them mystery novels in which a character named Kinky plays at playing gumshoe; as the founder of the Utopia Rescue Ranch, a no-kill haven for abused and abandoned dogs, many of them saved from doggie death row; as the humorist with a standing gig (now on hiatus) writing for Texas Monthly; and currently, as an independent candidate for Texas governor. He's wearing his standard jeans and boots, and a long-sleeved buttoned-down black shirt under his "preaching coat" a thigh-length black coat handcrafted in Nashville and his black cowboy hat. And, of course, there's a partially smoked cigar, the 61-year-old Friedman's ubiquitous accessory, clamped in one hand. Tonight, in the other is a cold Tecate that he's drinking casually while alternately perching on a chair and pacing, inside the ready room and in a short hallway that terminates at the edge of the auditorium's curtained stage.
Tonight, Friedman has to face a San Antonio crowd that has come to see the year's first Texas performance of the Pink Floyd Laser Spectacular. Friedman isn't sure how his appearance is going to be received, and wonders out loud just what sort of audience attends a laser light show choreographed to Pink Floyd recordings. He isn't even sure that the crowd, now filtering into the 2,000-seat auditorium, will have any idea who he is. Yet, as campaign stops go, there is something refreshing about the uncertainty there's no pre-approved, guaranteed-friendly audience; instead, the sometimes-just-winging-it approach that is a hallmark of Kinky Friedman's run to unseat incumbent Republican Gov. Rick Perry in the November general election and to become the state's first politically independent chief administrator since Gov. Sam Houston was running things before the Civil War.
While he ponders these questions, the house lights dim, and Friedman's longtime friend and the campaign's deputy director, Mister Little Jewford, né Jeff Shelby, has taken the stage and in his well-honed emcee's tenor introduced the "next governor of the great state of Texas: Kinky Friedman." To the tune of "Hail to the Chief," a purposeful Friedman, cigar still in hand, strides onto the stage and waves to the crowd.
The crowd which turns out to be a peculiar mix of middle-aged couples, pimply adolescent boys, twentysomethings, and leather-clad bikers cheers loudly and often as Friedman rolls out a string of practiced, stump-speech one-liners including his reflection that "musicians can better run this state than politicians." Although "we're not going to get a lot done early in the mornings," Friedman concedes, his administration would "work late, and we'll be honest." He promises to hang around the lobby through intermission in the event that anyone wants to talk or, perhaps, ask for an autograph. "I'll sign anything but bad legislation," Friedman declares as he leans forward, points his cigar, and tips his hat toward the cheering and applause.
Outside Looking In
Several days later, over the phone while he waits for his lunch companions to arrive (Friedman is chronically early), the candidate says he was pleasantly surprised by the Pink Floyd reception. While he was in the lobby, he says excitedly, several young Hispanic women approached him to tell him that they'll each turn 18 this year, and intend to cast their votes for Kinky. It's the sort of reaction that encourages Friedman to keep plowing forward on his quest to reach the governor's mansion.
It is a daunting journey, especially for a political outsider: In addition to convincing potential supporters that he has a real shot at winning, Friedman has to define and articulate his core policy positions, then sell them as better for Texas than those of his seasoned political opponents; he has to raise enough money to get his message out across an enormous state; he has to combat and, hopefully, put to rest the tiresome but inevitable questions about whether he's actually serious about wanting to be governor; and then, in November, he has to turn out enough voters to secure the victory.
First and foremost, however, Friedman must overcome a restrictive state election law that requires him to secure, within a maximum of 60 days, commencing March 8, the day after the primary elections (or perhaps just 30 days, in the event of a run-off in the primary race between Democratic hopefuls Chris Bell and Bob Gammage), the valid, notarized signatures of 45,539 registered Texas voters (1% of the votes for governor in the 2002 general election), none of whom may have voted in either political party's March primary (and none of whom should have signed a petition in support of competing independent Carole Keeton Strayhorn), in order to secure a spot as an independent candidate on the general election ballot.
The stringent and largely arbitrary rules, codified in 1967 and amended in the Seventies and Eighties under Democratic administrations, have created a system that marginalizes independent candidates and has effectively prevented an independent from ever running for governor. "And no one has [really] challenged [the system]," says Dean Barkley, the main man behind former wrestler Jesse Ventura's successful Minnesota gubernatorial campaign, and now Friedman's campaign director. "So, [instead] it's 'Wow! We have one more choice than [they] used to [have] in Russia!" Indeed, says UT political science professor Bruce Buchanan, the Texas system has created a political climate in which voters have generally "chosen a party and stuck with it. ... And the tendency there is that it sort of freezes out the independents." (In 2004, Ralph Nader attempted a statewide petition drive for the presidential ballot in Texas, but failed to secure enough signatures to be certified.) In short, it is a system that discourages outside voices, like Friedman's. "I'm an accidental candidate, like George Washington, Davy Crockett, Teddy Roosevelt; people who didn't plot or plan their political careers," Friedman says. "What's the harm of having a [Ralph] Nader or a [Pat] Buchanan on the ballot?"
With a few notable, high-profile exceptions, it would seem that most of Friedman's visible supporters are also political outsiders first-time voters and the otherwise politically apathetic, disenfranchised, or disenchanted who are now engaged in the process and who are deadly serious about their choice to back Friedman. They are confident not only that Friedman will overcome all statutory hurdles, but also that he will, indeed, win the race. There's something invigorating about Friedman and his campaign, they say, that has lured them into the fold. "Kinky may be an underdog, but talking to the people organizing the [election] effort [you see that he has] a lot of support," says Seth Waits, a registered Republican (and former Perry backer) who is serving as vice-chair of the UT group Longhorns for Kinky. "This is really a grassroots effort; I think that something really magical is about to happen."
Not surprisingly, most political insiders have so far (at least publicly) either ignored Friedman's campaign or made snide comments about his run and none seem to think that the self-described Jewish Cowboy has any chance of actually winning the race. "I think he'll be a sleeper," says Austin Republican consultant Bill Miller, "but not in the way that you're thinking."
Nevertheless, with the encouragement and spirit of supporters like Waits, Friedman is determined to get his name on the ballot and to win the race for governor. He and his supporters are fed up with the "business as usual," he says, which has done nothing but tarnish the Lone Star State, destroy Texas' sense of pride, and increase voter apathy and distrust of government. As evidence, he ticks off a list of shameful rankings: first among the states in dropouts and in executions, last in education and in the percentage of people with health insurance and that's only the beginning of the list. In short, Friedman says, "the soul of Texas is riding on this [election]." Kinky Friedman, or, as he'd have it, The Guv, is determined to save it from the abyss.
One Governor at a Time
It's Thursday night in Houston, and a contingent of TV trucks, their satellite dishes rising to the tree tops, are parked among the luxury vehicles that form a snaking line up and down the block and around the corner from the River Oaks home of socialite/philanthropist Carolyn Farb, the host of tonight's gala $500-per-head Kinky fundraiser. The guests eventually, nearly 150 of them include some celebrities, although not quite A-list: funny woman Ruth Buzzi and husband Kent Perkins, renowned heart surgeon Dr. Bud Frazier, pop singer Beyoncé Knowles' parents Tina and Matthew, Houston Councilman Pete Brown, former Colleyville Mayor Donna Arp, New Orleans Saints lineman Kendyl Jacox, and the guest who appears to pique the crowd's interest most, and to prompt a stream of sly smiles famed attorney Dick DeGuerin, who is currently defending U.S. Rep. Tom DeLay against a charge of criminal conspiracy to violate state election law.
By 7:30pm Little Jewford is playing piano, providing a melodic backdrop for the crowd of guests milling about, sipping cocktails, and rapidly swarming Farb's oversized home. Suddenly, as if from the ether, Friedman appears, the back of his preaching coat swinging out like tux tails as he swirls into the mix. For all the accumulated wealth and power in the room, the mood turns decidedly giddy; everyone wants a piece of Kinky. "He's like the Pied Piper, to tell you the truth," says Farb. Indeed, as Friedman moves toward the courtyard where tables are clustered tightly around the tile-bottomed pool the crowd follows; as they press forward, it's amazing no one falls in.
When Farb approaches a podium tucked between two head tables, conversation ceases. "Without your help," she tells the crowd, "we could not make this happen. Everyone is committed to electing Kinky," she continues. "He has a great sense of humor and is the most serious candidate in the race; he has political guts ... and he understands Texas and what Texans want," she says, her delicate voice (one formerly employed on behalf of Republicans, notably Ronald Reagan) interrupted by spurts of applause. "He embraces political reform." Friedman's field director, Reid Nelson, who ran Dan Quayle's first congressional campaign (a very mixed omen) and who is responsible for coordinating Kinky's petition drive, tells the crowd that his team has already mobilized thousands of volunteers in 60 counties; the campaign will get Kinky on the ballot, he says.
The crowd sufficiently primed, the Kinkster takes the podium to the recorded opening of Survivor's "Eye of the Tiger." "We're changing the world, one governor at a time," he says, his voice rising over a crowd that is audibly enthusiastic, rising from chairs to applaud and punctuating Kinky's talking points with spontaneous cheers. It's a very different crowd from the Pink Floyd enthusiasts in San Antonio, but the response to Kinky is much the same.
Friedman tells them that his heroes are Mark Twain and Will Rogers, "humorists who told the truth," not career politicians in fact, he says, pulling out another of his favorite campaign quips, "politics is the one field where, the more experience you have, the worse you get." He rails against the election laws that are enforcing his high-speed petition drive "it's something no one should have to go through to get ideas into the marketplace," he says and assures the crowd that Strayhorn's decision to avoid the Republican primary by entering the race as an independent will not hurt his campaign's efforts. "If someone decides to vote for the first time in 10 years, I guarantee they're not going to vote for Rick Perry, or Carole Strayhorn, or Chris Bell," he says. In fact, there are plenty of likely voters who won't be casting their ballots for his opponents, such as DeGuerin, he says, raising an arm to welcome the attorney to his side. That's right, DeGuerin tells the crowd; in fact, he told Kinky "early on" that if he decided to run, he could count on DeGuerin's support. "I think Kinky can shake the trees," he says. "And the trees need to be shaken."
This evening, Farb's trees will yield nearly $150,000 for Kinky's war chest. Later after a silent auction and performances by Billy Joe Shaver and Jerry Jeff Walker, and after Friedman has posed for countless pictures and autographed an army of his plastic, talking Kinky action figures (the "only thing in my candidacy that you can buy for $29.95," he says in his best imitation of Earl Scheib) Friedman is, again, elated, but tired. So are Farb and Walker, who are standing by the piano discussing Friedman's campaign. Everyone is so "enthusiastic" about Kinky, she says, her voice intense. "The time is now it's karma; we've got to get him on the ballot."
The Minnesota Method
Friedman's supporters have spent nearly a year planning for the upcoming petition drive, building a grassroots network of petition volunteers, and, most recently, promoting the "Save Yourself for Kinky" campaign, urging supporters and would-be petition signers to abstain from the primary. Frankly, says Barkley, the numbers are on Kinky's side: barely 5% of the state's registered voters cast ballots in the 2002 primary, and just over 36% actually voted in the November 2002 general election. According to Barkley, that leaves Kinky plenty of room to stride to victory. Kinky's "not running against Perry, [he's] running against apathy and if [he] can beat apathetic voters, he can win," he says, sitting at a wide desk inside a the Armstrong-McCall beauty supply outlet in Southeast Austin that serves as the Kinky Campaign World Headquarters, surrounded by campaign merchandise and the lingering smell of hair care products. (Hair products tycoon John McCall is a longtime Friedman aficionado and his major campaign underwriter.)
Indeed, it's the 64% of registered nonvoters and the first-time youth vote that the Friedman campaign would most like to attract and if they can do that, says Barkley, his man Kinky will be governor. Already, Barkley points out, pollsters are anticipating as much as a 50% turnout and, he says, "if that happens, I guarantee you, there is no way in God's green earth that Kinky Friedman is not your next governor."
But more skeptical Texas political observers contend that it's simply unrealistic for Friedman to think that he can change ingrained voter (and nonvoter) habits in a single election cycle. Candidates always say they'll be the one to recapture the apathetic and to lure the youth, says one Republican insider, but it never materializes at the polls. "Everybody says [they're going to do that], but the youth don't vote. It's sad, but true."
That's bull, says Bill Hillsman, Friedman's chief media consultant, who also worked on Ventura's successful gubernatorial campaign. (Together, Barkley and Hillsman are Kinky's "Minnesota Mafia," he says.) No one thought Ventura could capture voter attention either. "The arrogance is that an independent candidate can't win, and that sets an independent's teeth on edge," says Hillsman. Many of Friedman's supporters Republicans and Democrats say they're proof that his candidacy is luring people back to the process. For Clara Maddox, a lifelong conservative who is coordinating Friedman's Harris Co. operations and overseeing the management of nearly 3,000 active volunteers, Kinky's sincerity has earned her support. "The man is genuine; when you sit down with him he is looking at you and listening to you; there is a dialogue," she explains. "And he can come back to you two weeks later and start up the conversation exactly where you left off, and you can tell he's really been thinking about it; he's got questions. It blows you away." Philip Darrah, chair of the Bexar Co. campaign steering committee, says his entire committee is made up of formerly disengaged voters. "The sum total of political experience on our committee is zero," he says. "These are people who haven't gotten up out of a chair, politically, since their parents died."
And there are the "quiet supporters," the growing number of the otherwise politically engaged who are straying from the party lines, say Darrah and Maddox. "What winds up happening is that people want information and they want to help, and then when they come to a meeting and they spot someone else they know, they say, 'Cool, I don't have to be secretive about this,'" Maddox says. "These people think, 'I can't afford to be laughed at,' and they are finding out that they are not alone." Indeed, Darrah says he recently fielded a call from a local Republican precinct captain who told him, "Shhh! I'm really with you, but I've got to keep it quiet for the moment."
"That's happening here too," says Maddox, who says she was eating lunch in a Houston deli recently when a local GOP precinct chair approached to confess his support for Friedman. "There's a huge groundswell," she insists, "but people are playing it close to the chest." Kinky supporters point to two polls, conducted late last year, as proof that The Guv's appeal is wider than any of the establishment would like to admit. On Nov. 8, the Zogby organization reported that in two separate polls, between 17-26% of voters (depending upon the lineup of candidates) said they'd cast their ballots for Friedman; in November, a Scripps-Howard poll was less encouraging 13% favored Kinky but fully 46% of those surveyed said they favor having him on the ballot.
The polls were conducted before Strayhorn announced that she will forgo the Republican primary, which she was unlikely to win, and would instead try to secure a spot on the ballot as an independent. Barkley says the early poll numbers are amazing, especially for a candidate not yet on the ballot. According to Barkley, just six weeks before he won the 1998 election, Jesse Ventura was only polling at about 10%. Kinky, he says, is far more popular then Ventura ever was and that's just among "likely voters," he says. "Polling always underrates the independent politicians ... [because] independents get the unlikely voters," he says. "If you can beat apathetic voters you can win."
Who's Laughing Now?
Friedman is sitting in the living room of the unimposing, shack-like bungalow where he lives, at the top of a small hill amid the 400 acres in Medina that make up the Friedman family's Echo Hill Ranch. He has two days off from campaigning and is trying to relax. But with a reporter sitting in front of him, asking, yet again, if he's really serious about being governor, and if he has real policy positions to back him up, he isn't exactly succeeding. Leaning forward in his chair, Friedman resolutely insists that he is serious very serious about wanting to serve as the state's next governor, and he's rather tired of the question. No one, he says, asks that of Perry or Bell or Bob Gammage or of Democrat-turned-Republican and now "independent" candidate Strayhorn. It's true that they're all seasoned politicians that have been elected to a variety of posts, he adds, leaning back again in his chair. But, just because you're an old hat, that doesn't necessarily mean that you're "serious," well-intentioned, or even good at your job. (See "Kinky's Mexican Riptide.")
Indeed, he suggests, in many cases just the opposite may be true. "I want to get the politicians out of politics," he says, rising now from his chair and spreading his arms wide before pointing an unclipped and unlit Cuban cigar toward his chest. "That's the difference between me and Perry and Strayhorn and the Democrats." No matter where on the political spectrum his opponents place themselves, he says, turning on his heels to address an invisible audience, they've failed to offer the electorate anything more exciting than a choice between "paper and plastic"; or worse, the choice between the "Crips and Bloods." And, Friedman continues, sitting down now to clip and light the Cuban, he's tired of the monotony: They're simply "out of touch with the teachers and with the young people and with the working people and with the spirit of Texas."
The two issues at the core of Friedman's campaign are public education and the border, he says, bending over to pet one of his five canine housemates. He has plenty of ideas for reform instituting a 1% tax on "big oil and big gas" to pay for teacher salaries and school resources, separating funding for athletic and academic programs, and working out a cooperative effort among the border states Arizona, New Mexico, and Texas to tackle issues of immigration and security. "I've already talked longer about education and about the border than the governor has," he insists.
Nonetheless, Friedman says, hammering out every policy detail is not the governor's job. "The only job the governor has is to inspire the people of Texas to turn things around" it's the job of a cheerleader. Indeed, under the state constitution, the governor's duties are rather narrowly defined. Chiefly, the governor may make policy recommendations, which legislators may propose as legislation; must sign or veto bills passed by legislators; appoint qualified leaders to various state agencies (like the secretary of state) and members of various boards (like the Board of Pardons and Paroles); recommend a biennial budget that the Legislature is free to ignore; deliver a state-of-the-state speech to lawmakers at the beginning of each regular legislative session; and convene special legislative sessions to address specific issues (such as public school finance). In that context, Friedman says he has a simple, two-part administrative strategy in mind: "appoint the best people" to work on his team and to run state agencies and boards, "and then get out of their way; that's not been tried."
Jason Stanford, spokesman for Democrat Chris Bell's campaign, is not impressed and he doesn't think voters are either. "I haven't heard anyone saying he'd be a great governor," he says. "I think that he's a funny candidate and a hell of an author, but no one comes up [to me] and says, 'If we could only get Kinky Friedman into the governor's office.'" GOP strategist Miller says that Friedman will certainly attract welcome extra attention to the race but agrees that he's facing an uphill battle. "Initially, my view was that Kinky Friedman [would be] treated with humor, and treated lightly, unless and until he gets traction," he says. And Friedman's unlikely to get any traction the way he's campaigning now, says Stanford. "He hasn't gone any farther than to say, 'Hey, look at this!'" he says. In short, he says, Friedman is long on one-liners and short on any meaningful policy positions. "The easy part is convincing people [that Perry has] done a bad job," he says. "Step two is that you've got to convince voters that you know how to do better. And no one is really expecting that from Kinky Friedman."
To be fair, Friedman's use of catch-phrases or one-liners is hardly unique. "This is the way politics works," says UT's Buchanan. "Out of one side of their mouths they say [we need more than just one-liners], while out of the other side of their mouths they do no more than that which is to say that it is a game of appearances that is separate from reality." Still, Friedman needs to "get out there with white papers" to add meat to his anecdotes, says Buchanan, "because he has to fight this idea that he's just a joke."
Friedman's supporters argue that his quips are actually well-crafted thumbnails for his policy positions positions that will be fleshed out as the campaign heats up. "I am, of course, heartily in favor" of Friedman's candidacy, says political columnist Molly Ivins, who coined Friedman's "Why the Hell Not?" slogan his campaign's first and most enduring one-liner. "He is actually capable of holding his own on public policy. He actually speaks about public schools isn't that the most amazing thing?" she asks. "The question is, how hard can [the job] be? Perry's been governor of the state for four years now. I mean, how absurd."
Love, The Guv
It's 9:30am on Monday morning, and Kinky has just finished getting a haircut. He's slightly annoyed now not about his hair, the now-thinning mass of black curls that earned him his nickname, but about the fact that his "personal stylist" and good friend Kay won't let him smoke a cigar inside her salon. He grabs a cup of black coffee and heads out to the front stoop, which faces a busy stretch of West Sixth Street. Aside from Kay's smoking ban, however, Friedman's in a very good mood. On Sunday night 60 Minutes ran a 12-minute piece on his campaign, and already the response is strong. (That morning his campaign picked up another $7,000 in contributions.) He's animated: gesturing with his cigar and mug, dancing from foot to foot, and pacing back and forth in the small yard. He's been up and down the state several times, he says, and he's sure that he's the candidate that can attract the most votes.
In essence, Friedman says that most people are centrists and that he is the one true centrist candidate. He supports prayer in school and gay marriage, he says, and he thinks that most voters appreciate his thinking in part, at least, because he's not afraid to say exactly what's on his mind; people are craving honesty, he's sure of it. Established party candidates can't support such seemingly disparate measures (though he suspects that they wish they could), because "they've got to toe the party line and that's not democracy." His voice rises as he talks and moves this happens often when he's stumping and his passions take hold; he attracts attention. A man in a white pickup, on his way to work, slows as he drives past, staring at Friedman. Within minutes he's circled back and pulled over. He saw Kinky on 60 Minutes, he says, and he agrees with him, especially on the importance of border issues; Kinky's got his vote. Kay slips into the salon and returns with a handful of bumper stickers and a campaign poster. "How would you like this signed?" asks Friedman. "'Luv, The Guv;' 'Yours in Christ;' 'See You in Hell'?"
"See You in Hell," the man replies.
When he's finished with his coffee, Kinky walks around the side of the salon to his own truck, its white sides dirty and a splash of dried mud curving up from the wheel well. He sits in the front seat and deposits his half-smoked cigar into the ashtray next to several others just like it; he picks one up and contemplates it, checking both ends before putting it in his mouth and firing it up, then quietly looking out the windshield toward a landscaping crew unloading a trailer. "I don't know," he says to nobody in particular. For just a second he seems unsure of himself; something vulnerable creeps across his brow politics, it seems, can be a heartbreaking affair.
The spell is soon broken, however, when a stranger walks up to the truck carrying a large flat bag. "Kinky?" she asks tentatively. "Hello!" Friedman replies, getting out of the truck, greeting the woman as if he'd expected her. She doesn't mean to bother him, she says, but she saw him while driving by; she's from Dallas, she explains, where she recently saw him on a campaign stop and where, it turns out, her photographer husband had taken a few pictures of him. She's just visiting Austin, she says, but believe it or not had in her car a painting of Kinky that her husband made out of one of his photos.
She just had to stop, she says, handing the bag to Friedman. Carefully, he slides the picture from the bag; it's Kinky, hat on, a cigar in hand, looking off, almost wistfully, as if toward the future. Friedman smiles and gives the woman a Utopia Rescue Ranch business card, on which he's scribbled his home phone number, and asks her to thank her husband. "You've got our vote," she says as she walks to her car.
His campaign has been filled with similar, seemingly random meetings, he says as he climbs back into the car, his voice confident again. "We're starting, and building, a revolution," he says.