Kinky and Grandma battle for third

He wanted to be Texas' answer to Jesse Ventura. But as a colorful gubernatorial race wraps up, Kinky Friedman pins his hopes on the kinds of voters who don't answer polls.


Rob Patterson
November 4, 2006 5:10PM (UTC)

Conventional wisdom says that the brief and mostly charmed political career of Kinky Friedman, independent candidate for governor of Texas, will soon be over. His poll numbers peaked at 23 percent in mid-September and have fallen as low as 13 percent in more recent surveys, putting him a distant fourth in the state's strange five-person gubernatorial contest. But don't try telling that to the wisecracking man in the black cowboy hat. At least for public consumption, one of this election year's more unlikely candidates remains confident of his chances.

"I feel pretty good about it, actually," Friedman insisted last Tuesday, a week before Election Day. He had just arrived back in Texas from New York. While his opponents had been spending millions on ad blitzes and crisscrossing the state in the race's final days, he had scored yet another major free media coup by taping an appearance on "Late Night with David Letterman" that would air Friday, Nov. 3, just four days before polls open.

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"My chances depend totally on the turnout being as big as the early voting is, which has been record breaking," Friedman said Tuesday. "If the turnout is that big, I'm the governor. It's very simple. If it's not, [incumbent Rick] Perry's the governor. That's it."

Yet one is hard-pressed to find any seasoned political observers in the Lone Star State who feel that the 61-year-old writer and musician, first known for his 1970s country band the Texas Jewboys, can overtake the rest of the field. They still see Friedman as the errant court jester of Texas politics who focused national media attention on the race but only briefly seemed to be a viable candidate. A top staffer for Democratic candidate Chris Bell, who in the last few weeks has broken in the polls from the other two major challengers to lock up second place, says that internal Democratic polls show Bell as the homestretch comer. They claim he has closed within 5 points of Perry, the Republican incumbent who has never topped 40 percent in any poll.

But all along, Friedman has insisted that the race is, as he calls it, "Kinky versus apathy." It's not the poll numbers that matter, he says: "It's the turnout, stupid."

Texas Monthly rightly declared the contest "The Weirdest Governor's Race Ever" on the cover of its July issue, which also featured a photo of Friedman, a columnist for the magazine until he declared his candidacy, in full Uncle Sam regalia. Friedman seemed to have a shot, especially since he faced a big field of weak candidates: an unpopular incumbent, an unknown Democrat, a marginal Libertarian, and a Democrat turned Republican turned independent. All he needed to win was a plurality of the vote, and stranger things had happened before. Like pro wrestler turned governor Jesse Ventura in 1998, he had become the poster boy for the burgeoning throw-the-bums-out sentiment of a particularly restive political year.

Friedman based his campaign on the Bulworthian appeal of saying what he feels and believes, polls and triangulation be damned. "A guy who will tell you what he really thinks trumps any single issue," he insists. "That's what Texans want, and by God, that's what I'm going to give them."

In spite of much initial Texas political wisdom to the contrary, the sometimes foul-mouthed, trash-talking mutant meld of Will Rogers, Lenny Bruce and Shel Silverstein managed to gather three times the needed 45,540 voter signatures to get on the ballot as an independent. And at the very least his delivery, if not his message, was resonating across the Lone Star State and even hitting home in some varied and even surprising places.

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But all that was five months ago, when Kinky was a quirky outsider, before he fumbled through a televised debate, and before a closer look at the man who would be governor exposed to the public at large the politically incorrect edge to his persona that was already familiar to his long-time fans. Friedman's own version of George Allen's macaca outbreak seems inevitable in retrospect, and there were hints of what was to come in the earliest days of his campaign.

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"It would be nice for Texas to be No. 1 in something other than toll roads, executions, property taxes and dropouts," Friedman tells the 60 or so folks gathered at the Read All About It Bookstore in Boerne, a small town south of Austin. It's early summer, and the line has already become all but boilerplate in his stump.

The assembled applaud heartily. Friedman is ostensibly in the store to sign copies of his latest book, "Cowboy Logic: The Wit and Wisdom of Kinky Friedman," but the event can't help but become a campaign whistle stop. The crowd's response to Friedman's sardonic yet pointed one-liner about the state of affairs in the Lone Star State indicates that they, like Friedman, also feel that something is rotten in the proud Republic of Texas. And that he could even be the man to fix the mess.

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Friedman turns his wit on the incumbent. "I'm not against Rick Perry," he says. "Personally, we're friends. We've taken a few cooking classes together. We've seen a few Broadway musicals together. We've gone on one cruise together. We've gone antiquing a few times together ... tandem bike rides..."

The gathered chuckle knowingly at Friedman's sly allusion to the long-circulating rumors that the governor might not be altogether heterosexual. Friedman is using the jab as humorous segue into a discussion of the gay-marriage ban, a ban he opposes and Perry supports. "The fact is that the gay-marriage ban has not affected our lives in any way," he says. Friedman's support for gay rights is from the left side of his á la carte menu of political positions, which also includes legalized casino gambling to pay for education ("Slots for Tots") and support for school prayer.

The bookstore throng is open to Kinky as unvarnished teller of truths, an appeal that stretches across demographic categories. "It's across the board," observes Dean Barkley, Friedman's campaign manager. "I tried to pick one up about who's showing up at his events, and I couldn't. It's everyone: little old ladies, rednecks, conservative Republicans who can't stand their party because they feel it's abandoned them."

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An informal survey of about half of those at the event found teens, retirees, self-described Republicans, Democrats, independents, liberals, conservatives and middle-of-the-roaders. And almost every one of them shares a dismay with politicians and politics as usual.

"I love his independence, and I'm sick and tired of politicians running the state, and I like what he has to say," says attendee John Barnett. The 63-year-old money manager "was a very Barry Goldwater Republican when there were no Republicans in the state of Texas." He voted for Bush in 2000 and has now shifted to the left.

Richard "Kinky" Friedman was born in Chicago, grew up in Houston and Austin, and attended the University of Texas. Following a two-year postgraduate stint in the Peace Corps in Borneo, he started his band the Texas Jewboys. His debut album was "Sold American" in 1973. He became famous for songs like "Get Your Biscuits in the Oven and Your Buns in Bed," "They Ain't Makin' Jews Like Jesus Anymore," and "Ride 'Em Jewboy."

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But by the end of the decade, Friedman's recording career had petered out, and he was reduced to primarily being a resident weekend attraction at the Lone Star Cafe nightclub in New York's Greenwich Village.

A few hours after the Boerne bookstore visit, as a weary yet still restless Friedman rides back to Austin on a dark Texas highway, the reporter in the back seat asks the candidate a question that finally stumps the garrulous wiseacre: What did you learn from your years living in New York City?

Friedman pauses, ponders and rolls his ever-present cigar around a bit in his mouth. "You know what? I really don't know. That's a good question."

He chews on the query like his cigar for a bit. After all, Friedman spent his Big Apple days from 1979 to 1985, to borrow one of his lines, "flying on 11 different herbs and spices," or more accurately, liquids and powder.

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"I will tell you this," he finally says, pointing with his cigar for punctuation as our drive skirts near Johnson City, the birthplace of Lyndon B. Johnson. "The Texas hill country saved my life." And now, in return, Kinky Friedman wants to save Texas.

On returning to Texas in '85, he moved into a trailer at Echo Hill Ranch, the children's summer camp his family has run in the Hill Country since 1953. Drawing on the milieu of his New York years and the characters he knew there, he tapped out his first soft-boiled mystery novel, "Greenwich Killing Time," published in 1986, which starred a wisecracking and sometimes politically incorrect amateur private eye named Kinky Friedman.

The book enjoyed good reviews and solid sales and launched a series of fictional works that now includes nearly a score of volumes. He eventually landed a back-page column in the Texas Monthly and has in recent years branched out in his books as a humorist and social commentator.

The Texas gubernatorial campaign of 2006 has in some ways been an obvious opportunity to expand the tongue-in-cheek Kinky product line. His Web site streams KinkyToons touting his candidacy, and his campaign store sells bumper stickers that say "My Governor Is a Jewish Cowboy," "He Ain't Kinky, He's My Governor" and "How Hard Can It Be?" There are also posters, T-shirts, mugs, pint glasses, a campaign cookbook and even a talking Kinky Friedman action figure.

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"We're like a Willie Nelson concert. We're selling everything we possibly can as merchandise," says Barkley. It has even helped finance a campaign that can't compete with the millions raised by some of the other candidates.

But he also seemed to have a chance to win. Even months later, with Election Day approaching, the other candidates still seem like the supporting cast of a comedy starring Kinky.

First, there is incumbent Gov. Rick Perry, aka "Governor Goodhair," as dubbed by Austin-based columnist Molly Ivins. He inherited the governorship in 2000 when President-elect Bush resigned the office. He was finally elected to the post in 2002 by a little less than 21 percent of all registered Texas voters in an election with a mere 36 percent turnout. His current poll numbers are unsurprising.

Then there's the much-married Carole Keeton McClellan Rylander Strayhorn, aka "One Tough Grandma." She's the mother of former White House press secretary Scott McClellan (now working on her campaign) and recently resigned Medicare director Mark McClellan.

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A former schoolteacher, "Grandma" Strayhorn was the first woman to be elected mayor of Austin. Now an independent, she has switched parties as often as husbands. After being appointed to the State Board of Insurance by Gov. Mark White, a Democrat, she became a Republican before the end of her term to challenge popular Austin-area Democratic Rep. Jake Pickle. She lost. Since 1998 she has held the elective post of Texas comptroller of public accounts -- in essence, state treasurer. One of her ex-husbands is a minor Kennedy assassination conspiracy theorist.

Lonely Libertarian James Werner is the forgotten man of the race. He was excluded from the sole gubernatorial debate on Oct. 6, which made him even lonelier. So, presumably, do his poll numbers, which hover around 2 percent.

Democrat Chris Bell is the straight man of the bunch. A former journalist and lawyer, he began his political career in 1997 on the Houston City Council. In November 2002, Bell was elected to Congress, but served only a single term as a result of the Tom DeLay-engineered 2003 Texas congressional redistricting, which caused him to lose his bid for reelection.

Until recently, Friedman's fellow candidates seemed reluctant to even acknowledge him, as if to talk about the bozo on the campaign bus might also cast such suspicion on all of its riders.

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Yet despite the other bozos on the bus, and despite the humor in his pitch, Friedman's campaign is not Pat Paulsen or Joe Walsh for President. Underneath the jokes simmers a serious concern for the state by a resident whose doorbell at his Austin home chimes the melody "The Eyes of Texas."

"I'm angry about what's happened to Texas," Friedman asserts. "It shouldn't have happened. We're just too powerful a state, we're too strong, and we're too rich to let this happen. And it's a God-awful shame."

He looks at running for governor not as a new way to do shtick, but as a logical extension of what he calls "the truth-telling" of all his endeavors. "The people are drooling for honesty, they are begging for a little bit of truth." It was not humor but a deadly serious encounter with mortality that inspired his run. During a seaside vacation in Mexico, he was swept away from the beach by a freak wave while swimming. "I ended up spending the night trapped on a cliff with the waves rising higher and higher," he recalls. "I thought I was going to be drowned. It was dark and I had nothing but a bathing suit and a soggy cigar ... And I just thought, I want to do something more with my life if I can. And I didn't know what.

"And then I was in Ireland doing a show, and I was having a lot of fun with the audience between the songs. And a guy comes up to me afterwards and he says, man, you're not a musician. You're a politician."

His campaign manager Barkley heartily agrees. "I've had to do less work in managing a candidate than I have with anyone," he notes. "I've never seen a guy that can read an audience as well and just talk to them."

Part of Friedman's playbook, however, comes from "The Minnesota Mafia," as he calls them, of Barkley and media guru Bill Hillsman, the team behind the successful gubernatorial run of Jesse Ventura, who recently barnstormed Texas college campuses with Friedman. Yet Barkley insists that Friedman sets much of the campaign's tone.

And he does so by adopting ideas wherever he finds them, with a special fondness for the sort of biblical allusions he's used ever since he first emerged into the public eye more than three decades ago. In his Texas Independence Day speech last March, Friedman railed about throwing the moneychangers out of the temple -- a line he had immediately jotted down in a little notebook a few weeks earlier after this reporter used it in response to his comment about purging the state house of lobbyists.

But Friedman's charmed campaign hit road bumps early. In the Boerne bookstore, no one objected when he couched his criticism of Perry in mildly homophobic humor. Under the spotlights of the media, Friedman's persona and his penchant for racially insensitive humor began to dim his luster.

In the early days of his campaign, Friedman answered a TV interviewer's question about how to deal with sexual predators by saying, "Throw 'em in prison and throw away the key, and make 'em listen to a Negro talking to himself." He also made waves in September by attributing Houston's rising crimes rate to "crack heads and thugs" among the Katrina evacuees that had relocated to the city. (A statement by his campaign in response citing his 1960s picketing for integration barely seemed to register.) A Democratic blogger unearthed concert tapes from the 1970s featuring racist stage patter.

Anyone familiar with Friedman's songs and novels already knows that he's "an equal opportunity offender," as he puts it, who has trafficked in politically incorrect language from the moment it helped him enter the public eye more than three decades ago. Yet that didn't stop his opponents from upbraiding Friedman for such comments during the Oct. 6 debate.

Friedman's response? "If you ain't offending people, you ain't getting anything done." He insists that any attacks on him "will be the bull kicking the rodeo clown, and Texans will see it for what it is."

Yet the debate diminished his stature further. In his signature black cowboy suit, he seemed a bit unnerved under the bright TV lights. He came off like his talking action figure, repeating lines that by then were already more than familiar to many Texans. According to Bruce Buchanan, a political science professor at the University of Texas, Friedman's chances took a beating on live TV. "He lost some elevation on that occasion."

Bell, on the other hand, raised his stature. He also seemed to think he'd found an ally in Friedman, according to Cal Jillson, a political science professor at Southern Methodist University in Dallas. "There were two occasions in that debate," recalls Jillson, "where Friedman acknowledged Bell privately and even threw him a softball. That suggested to Bell that Kinky thought of him as the logical place for his votes if he didn't complete the race. And I think Kinky was in fact signaling to his supporters that Bell is the more reasonable choice among these three others."

Not long after the debate, Bell made a move that many observers had long expected, and called Friedman. He asked him to step down and throw his support in Bell's direction. It was met with yet another Kinky anti-politician quip: "We don't negotiate with terrorists."

Even without Friedman's help, according to the most recent SUSA poll, Bell has risen to 26 percent and Rick Perry is at 36 percent. Internal Democratic polls say the race is even closer and suggest Bell would be in striking distance if Friedman or Strayhorn or both dropped out of the race.

Strangely, however, it's not the maverick gay-marriage-endorsing cowboy who's cutting into Bell's Democratic base. The late October SUSA poll showed that fully 48 percent of Texas voters consider themselves Republicans, compared with 34 who are Democrats. Of the self-identified Democrats, 23 percent support Grandma Strayhorn, compared to 15 percent of the Republicans. Kinky, meanwhile, pulls 16 percent of the Republicans, and only 10 percent of the Democrats. Where Friedman is hurting Bell is among liberals and independents, of whom 30 percent and 27 percent, respectively, are supporting Kinky. Of course, in Texas, only 13 percent of the electorate admits to being liberal, and only 14 percent calls itself independent.

In reality, neither Friedman nor Strayhorn is a spoiler. Even if both dropped out, Perry would still win, despite his lack of popularity. Explains UT's Buchanan, "If this were a two-candidate race between Perry and Bell, Perry would win that by 15 to 18 points. It's not that in a straight-up Democrat versus Republican race in Texas, Bell would stand a better chance. He wouldn't."

As we close in on the day of decision, Friedman and his team continue to maintain that he has a pull that isn't registering in the likely-voter polls and if the turnout of disaffected and occasional voters is strong enough, he can still win. Online polls and radio talk shows all produce outpourings of support for Friedman that traditional pollsters don't measure, and there is also anecdotal evidence of a continued appeal to people of varied ideological allegiances.

In coastal Brazoria County south of Houston, the daily Brazosport Facts endorsed Friedman, citing his wins "by a huge margin" in the paper's online polls. Like the neighboring Galveston County Times, it feels that "Even if Friedman doesn't win ... a strong showing will send a message to Austin that we're sick of the double-talk and tired of special interests having the ear of power while Joe Taxpayer gets pushed to the back of the line."

The Daily Texan, the weekday paper at the University of Texas at Austin, the nation's largest college, also came out for the Kinkster, stating that, "while we hate to admit it, we believe Kinky's independence would serve the most self-described independent state in the union." In the true-blue city of Austin, Friedman bumper stickers have been a common sight ever since he declared, and one can barely spit without hitting left-leaning Austinites who proudly declare, "I'm voting for Kinky." And in the north Texas college town of Denton, a drinking straw poll at Beth Marie's Old-Fashioned Ice Cream and Soda Fountain has Friedman with a significant lead over Bell, then Strayhorn, with Perry coming in last.

In the already event-filled race, Yogi Berra's maxim still holds true: It ain't over till it's over. "Well, nobody knows," Friedman ponders at a week out against the tide of the pundits, polls and newspaper endorsements. "If it works out right, we've got an ass kicking four years ahead of us."

And if it doesn't, he plans to remain a counter-politician to the very end and not play the role of the gracious loser. "I'm here to see if I can fix Texas. And I guarantee that if Perry wins, I'm retiring in a petulant snit. If Bell wins, I'm moving to France with Barbra Streisand. If Grandma wins, I'll blow my fucking head off."


Rob Patterson

Rob Patterson is a freelance journalist in Austin, Texas, who writes a column on entertainment and politics for the Progressive Populist.

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