The lone star: How Kinky Friedman shook up Texas

When a Jewish country music singer and political virgin entered the race to become Governor of Texas with the slogan 'How Hard Can It Be?', people thought he was joking. Eighteen months (and a slew of high-profile political scandals) later, Kinky Friedman has become a genuine contender in an election battle that has excited and delighted voters across America. Has he got what it takes? Andrew Gumbel joins the Kinkster on the campaign trail to find out
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The Independent US

Strange things start happening when a 61-year-old Jewish cowboy with a wicked sense of humour decides to run for governor of Texas. Ever since Kinky Friedman, hitherto best known as a tongue-in-cheek country singer and semi-autobiographical mystery novelist, threw his hat in the ring 18 months ago and declared his ruggedly independent candidacy, politics in the Lone Star State have undergone a remarkable transformation.

Mostly, they've got a lot more fun. Friedman has stayed true to the opening battle cry of his campaign - "Why the hell not?" - giving the whole system a jolt of reckless possibility. The joke is on everyone: career politicians, corporate lobbyists, Christian fundamentalists, liberals, moralists and the numerous friends and foes of George Bush. Friedman, with his dry, gravelly voice and impeccable timing born of years on the stand-up comedy circuit, unfailingly skewers them all. His one-liner about the President is that he is "a good man trapped in a Republican's body"; politics in general, he says, is the only profession where the more experience you have, the worse you get.

By now, the entire state is sharing the joke - whether people intend to vote for Friedman in the 7 November mid-terms or not. Surely, no other candidate for office would have received a letter like the one sent to Friedman recently by a doctor from the Dallas suburbs. Had it come to his attention, the good doctor asked, that sales of the Trojan Vibrating Ring - a semi-obscure sex aid - were prohibited within the borders of Texas? Bemoaning an "egregious injustice" born of religious bigotry and woefully misplaced priorities at the highest levels of state government, Friedman's correspondent went on: "Currently it is legal to buy a .357 Magnum at Wal-Mart, but I can't buy a techno french tickler at my local Walgreens. Where's the logic?"

Before Friedman came along, the 2006 election for Texas governor was shaping up to be a snorer, of no interest to sex-aid aficionados or anybody else. Sitting in the Republican corner was Rick Perry, the distinctly lightweight incumbent governor who succeeded George Bush six years ago, and has done little since then to enthuse anybody - except perhaps his lobbyist buddies in the energy, insurance and construction industries. In the Texas press, Perry is more frequently noted for his slick, full head of hair than for anything he might possess beneath it.

In the Democratic corner, meanwhile, is a former congressman and policy wonk of little evident charisma called Chris Bell. As of a few weeks ago, Bell's presence on the campaign trail was so spectral that the stock reaction to any mention of his name was: "Chris who?" In a two-way stand-off, the chances are that Perry would have capitalised on the advantages of incumbency, spent a lot of money on negative advertising and squeaked home on a dismally low turnout. That's what happened in 2002, when Perry and his Democratic rival spent $100m (£53m) between them and attracted just 29 per cent of the electorate.

That was before Friedman showed up in his trademark black hat, black waistcoat, jeans and cowboy boots, puffing away on a Cuban cigar and cracking wise about the need to reform a broken system so that Texas can be first in something other than "executions, high-school drop-outs, toll roads and property taxes". One of his favourite stories has him talking to an out-of-town visitor who says: "That's a beautiful statue of Rick Perry you've got there." And Friedman replies: "But that is Rick Perry."

Friedman has an abundance of such one-liners, and he trots them out with glee at every possible opportunity. "Here's my definition of politics," he says. "'Poly' means more than one, and 'ticks' are blood-sucking parasites." Or: "A fool and his money are soon elected." Or: "Friedman's just another word for nothing left to lose."

'FRIEDMAN'S JUST ANOTHER WORD FOR NOTHING LEFT TO LOSE'

When Friedman first hit the campaign trail in early 2005, audiences fell in love with his comic routine but didn't necessarily know whether they should take him seriously. He had no political experience other than a brief, unsuccessful run for office 20 years ago as justice of the peace near his ranch in Texas Hill Country. His stump speech, in those early days, was noticeably light on policy prescriptions other than a few engagingly folksy epigrams. "I am not anti-death penalty," he said, "but I'm damn sure anti-the wrong guy getting executed." Or, when asked to pronounce on the ever-contentious question of abortion: "I'm not pro-life. I'm not pro-choice. I'm pro-football."

His campaign benefited, though, from a few crucial early breaks. First, he was profiled at great length in The New Yorker magazine - the ultimate mark of seriousness for any American in public life. Then the Texas media realised he was a whole lot more fun to cover than anyone else in the race, and gave him the kind of non-stop coverage no political advertising budget in the world could hope to match.

Finally, it at last dawned on an electorate disgusted by a slew of high-profile scandals and the ineptitude of both the state and federal government that the very act of railing against the two-party system was a stand worthy of recognition and support. This was around the time of Hurricanes Katrina and Rita, which had a big impact on Texas, and also the fall from grace of Tom DeLay, the super-powerful House majority leader who single-handedly redrew Texas's constituency boundaries to benefit his fellow Republicans, only to stumble into a spider's web of ethical lapses regarding his campaign fundraising practices.

In the end, Texas voters signed petitions to put not one but two independent candidates for governor on the ballot - the first time that has happened in more than a century. Friedman was one, and the other was Carole Keeton Strayhorn, the state comptroller of public accounts and a renegade Republican who figured it was smarter to strike out on her own than to try to challenge Governor Perry and his amply filled war chest in a Republican primary. Strayhorn's campaign never really took off, despite her engaging campaign slogan - "One Tough Grandma". (Everyone, including Strayhorn herself, now refers to her as "Grandma".)

Friedman, on the other hand, spent the spring and summer slowly gathering strength in the opinion polls. Most surveys put him in second place, ahead of Bell, and one even suggested that he held a narrow lead over Governor Perry. What he and and his campaign have counted on all along is a big turnout. If only 29 per cent of Texas show up again, then Perry can consider himself re-elected. If Friedman's grassroots efforts to attract young people and first-time voters pay off, though, and the turnout jumps even to a relatively modest 40 per cent, then the Lone Star State might well have a surprise on its hands - just as Minnesota did in 1998 when the wrestling champion Jesse Ventura stunned the establishment with his own successful run for governor. Texas might yet find itself led by a man who once sang: "They ain't makin' Jews like Jesus any more."

'I'M NOT ANTI-DEATH PENALTY, BUT I'M SURE ANTI-THE WRONG GUY GETTING EXECUTED'

Friedman likes to tell a political joke that perhaps sums up better than anything else why American politics is so mired in corruption and so loathed by the voters - in Texas and just about everywhere else. Perry, he tells his audiences, has died and arrives at St Peter's Pearly Gates. He tries to march straight on through when St Peter stops him and tells him to wait a moment. A man of his eminence and influence, St Peter says, deserves to take a proper look at heaven and hell before deciding where he wants to spend eternity.

So the two of them visit the underworld where, to his surprise, Perry finds a large private golf course populated by all his old politician and lobbyist friends. Together they play a few rounds, drink champagne and yak about all the great backroom deals they cut to enrich themselves at the expense of ordinary Texans.

Next, Perry takes a tour of heaven where, much as he might have expected, he sits on a cloud and plucks at a harp with the angels. Not bad either, but nowhere near as much fun.

When St Peter asks him for his decision, Perry says: "I never thought I would say this, but I think I'd rather go to hell." St Peter asks him if he's sure - this is an irrevocable decision for all eternity - and a resolute Perry says yes.

So they take the big elevator back down to the underworld. This time, though, when the doors open, the golf course has gone. In its place is a huge rubbish-strewn wasteland. Perry's friends are now miserable and dressed in rags, and spend their time stuffing the rubbish into large bags.

A bewildered Perry turns to St Peter and says: "What happened? This isn't what I saw when I was here the other day." St Peter responds: "Ah, but you don't understand. That was just the campaign. Today, you voted."

Friedman told this joke on a tour of college campuses that he kicked off with Ventura last month. He has told it to well-scrubbed Rotarians in affluent suburban communities, and to inner-city poor Latinos. All of them love it, because it speaks directly to their mistrust of politics as usual, with its false promises and its pandering to well-heeled interest groups. In other words, it's a joke not only against Perry, but against the entire two-party system.

"The two-party system is destroying the soul of this country," says Friedman's campaign manager, a veteran of the Ventura campaign in Minnesota called Dean Barkley. (Barkley is a fervent rugby player and, like Friedman, a cigar smoker, although he has to make do with Friedman's "rejects" - Dominicans, not the Cuban Montecristos that Friedman reserves for himself.) "Someone has to break through sooner or later to break it. There's just no way that's not going to happen, the way they are going."

'TEXAS IS MY COUNTRY, TRUTH IS MY RELIGION - AND FUCK 'EM IF THEY CAN'T TAKE A JOKE'

If Friedman represents that threat in Texas, then it might explain why, in the past few weeks, the Republicans and the Democrats have been closing ranks and turning on him. Friedman, admittedly, has not helped himself with a handful of infelicitous turns of phrase, such as the time he referred to Hurricane Katrina evacuees living in Houston as "crackheads and thugs". What he said, in fact, was that the artists and musicians had gone back to New Orleans, while the crackheads and thugs had stayed - something borne out by Houston's soaring crime rate - but his opponents seized gratefully on the phrase to suggest that he was being racially demeaning to the black-majority evacuee population.

Shortly afterwards, a tape surfaced of a 26-year-old stand-up routine in which Friedman, playing the role of an unreconstructed racist, uses the word "negro". Again, charges of racism started flying, culminating in a pointed refusal by the Texas chapter of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, the country's leading African-American lobbying group, to invite Friedman to its annual meeting in Austin earlier this month.

The accusation of racism was flatly contradicted by Friedman's record of student activism against segregation in the 1960s, but that didn't make it any less appealing as a line of attack. Bell, who has much closer ties to the Texas NAACP, even urged Friedman to drop out of the race and throw his support behind the Democratic Party campaign. (Friedman's response: "We don't negotiate with terrorists.")

Friedman's brush with dirty-politics-as-usual may not have come as a surprise, but it still hurt. He and his staff considered ignoring the racism charge. They thought about rebutting it. They thought about treating it as a backhanded compliment - after all, why attack a candidate unless he is a real threat? They thought about turning it into yet another joke. (Why pick on the remarks in my old routine that were offensive to blacks, he asked one audience, when my bigot character had so many offensive things to say about women and homosexuals, too?)

Beneath his happy-go-lucky exterior, though, Friedman was clearly angry. On the day I was invited to his house in Austin - the old family home where he grew up on the north-western side of the city - he had just been given an ultimatum of sorts by the NAACP: apologise for what you've said, and we will invite you to speak at our convention.

He turned the offer down flat. "Tell them I don't apologise to people who try to intimidate," he barked down the phone at his press secretary. "I don't apologise to people with an agenda. I never apologise for the truth. And the truth here is that racists come in many different colours. Texas is my country, truth is my religion - and fuck 'em, fuck 'em if they can't take a joke."

It remains to be seen if the racism charge ends up hurting Friedman, or backfiring on Friedman's rivals. African-Americans have been calling into radio stations saying they were appalled at the NAACP's decision to freeze him out. One former Texas NAACP officer, Larry Williams, even dropped in on the Friedman campaign office to invite the candidate for breakfast at the NAACP convention hotel. The danger is not so much that Friedman's former supporters will turn to other candidates, but rather that voters will be deterred from turning out at all - which may well be the ultimate goal of the two big parties. "All I want for Christmas, all I want for Hanukkah," Friedman told me, "is a big turnout."

'I'M A JEW; I'LL HIRE GOOD PEOPLE'

America has a long tradition of performers and entertainers breaking through into politics - everyone from Jimmie Davis, the songwriter who capitalised on the success of his hit "You Are My Sunshine" to propel himself to the governorship of Louisiana in 1944, to Ronald Reagan, Sonny Bono, Ventura and Arnold Schwarzenegger.

Ventura's campaign is the one that most immediately resembles Friedman's, although he was never taken seriously enough even to be acknowledged by the two major parties, let alone attacked by them.

Friedman is also tapping into the irreverent, independent streak that has always been a proud part of Texas culture. The state's first governor, Sam Houston, harboured ambitions of making Texas an independent country, which it was for a brief period. More recently, politicians as diverse as Lyndon Johnson and Ann Richards, who was governor before Bush, have relied on a kind of bluntness and populist humour that, in another state, might only bewilder voters or leave them cold.

Friedman himself sees his campaign as a way of reclaiming Texas's soul from the oilmen and corporate lobbyists who have given it such bad name - across the country and now, because of the Bush presidency, across the world. "It's the cowboy ethic that's been lost," he says. "The cowboy didn't create the Texas that people talk about now. The cowboy has never been a bully. Cowboys always stood up for the little fella.

"Texas really is the last great place. It's very resilient. This is a real time for choosing."

It's been easy, especially in the past few weeks, to underestimate the power of the Friedman campaign. Kinky, by his own admission, is not a policy detail kind of guy. ("I'm a Jew," he jokes, "I'll hire good people."). He has also made some clamorous gaffes along the way. In an interview last month with The Dallas Morning News, he drew a blank when asked what the state's education budget was - education being his number one campaigning issue. He has to ask his staff periodically to remind him of some of the key data because he has a hard time keeping it in his head. Partly for this reason, he didn't do especially well in the one and only candidates' debate a few weeks ago.

But Friedman is anything but stupid. While he plays the folksy cowboy on the campaign trail, he is equally capable of showing his considerable learning - to the right audience. One of his favourite lines is from Horace Walpole: "Life is a tragedy for those who feel, but a comedy to those who think." That keeps him going when his rivals - suffering what he likes to call a "humour bypass", as most American politicians do - try to belittle or denigrate him. "See," he says, "it's a comedy, whether they like it or not."

Friedman grew up in a high-powered household. His father was a psychology professor at the University of Texas and his mother was a speech therapist. He was a child chess prodigy at seven, excelled as a student at the University of Texas, and worked in Borneo for the Peace Corps before launching his musical career as the frontman for Kinky Friedman and the Texas Jewboys.

He has stuck by many of his old friends. Indeed, his closest campaign aide is a former band-member who goes by the name of Little Jewford. ("He's a Jew, and he drives a Ford," Friedman explains.) Also along for the ride, to one degree or another, are Bill Hillsman, one of the country's smartest political consultants who helped produce a hilarious Kinky talking doll to raise money for the campaign, and Willie Nelson, the veteran country singer and alternative fuels advocate who, Friedman says, would be his energy tsar.

If Friedman does end up being elected, it will be in large part because of his magnetic ability to win people over when he meets them face to face. In the two days I spent with him, I saw him charming conservative suburbanites 40 miles north of Austin and securing the support of Little Joe, a Chicano singer and performer with a huge following in the Texas Latino community, whom he courted in a tour bus parked outside a cavernous bingo hall on the outskirts of San Antonio.

It remains to be seen, though, whether Texas is merely charmed by Friedman, or actually has faith that he can lead the state out of the political wilderness. Unlike Britain, America has little tradition of humour being woven into the fabric of political discourse. That, in turn, explains, why a lot of Friedman's media coverage reads like the review of a comedy show rather than a serious political enterprise. Friedman himself hopes that, whatever happens, he can help to change that perception. "It's a privilege to run, and it's fun," he said. "If I can't inject the fun back into politics, there's no point running."

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