“Friedman’s Just Another Word for Nothing Left to Lose”
On the gubernatorial campaign trail with Kinky.
THE BUSINESS CARD OF THE ONLY ANNOUNCED independent candidate for governor reads “Kinky Friedman is allowed to walk on the grounds unattended. If found elsewhere, contact:” and then gives his home address and phone number in Medina. Fittingly enough, he handed me one of those cards at six-thirty in the morning on the first Thursday in June, after I’d encountered him pacing on the front lawn of a house he keeps in North Austin. He looked like a back-pew mourner at Johnny Cash’s funeral: black felt cowboy hat, black lizard-skin boots, unfaded Wranglers, black snap-front shirt, and a black leather vest he said was a gift from Waylon Jennings. In his right hand was a black jacket made for him by famed Nashville Western wear tailor Manuel that he calls his “preachin’ coat,” and in his left was his ever-smoldering Cuban cigar.
Our mission that morning was a three-whistle-stop visit in Galveston, and while we awaited the arrival of Little Jewford, Kinky’s inveterate keyboard player, business manager, valet, and, today, his chauffeur, the candidate started to fret: “Your next governor’s wardrobe contains just two outfits, the preachin’ coat and the vest, and I can’t decide which to take.” Perhaps sensing he was revealing too much, he shifted to his campaign. “I just saw on Imus in the Morning that Don’s got a ‘Kinky for Governor: Why the Hell Not?’ sticker on the wall behind him in the booth. That’s the kind of national media that the Rick Perrys of the world can’t buy.” Ten minutes later, Jewford appeared, a short man in a Hawaiian shirt with the basso profundo voice of a game show host. After he’d reminded the candidate to turn off his coffeepot and television and performed the bigger chore of assuring him that he could bring both outfits, we set out to politic.
It was an early stage of phase one in Kinky’s campaign, as devised by strategists Bill Hillsman and Dean Barkley, the chief architects of Jesse Ventura’s shocking victory in the 1998 Minnesota governor’s race. Unlikely as it sounds, they’re calling this his “listening tour,” but its real goals are three: Keep Kinky in the public eye, establish him as a serious candidate, and persuade registered voters to sign the petition that will put him on the ’06 ballot. As adept as he is at getting attention, and as seriously as he takes himself, Kinky is confident these goals will be met.
Right as we hit the highway, he saw the tape recorder rolling. “The Capitol in Austin was built for giants, but it’s inhabited by midgets!” he said. “The statue of Janis Joplin on top of the dome should be hiding her eyes, because right there down below her it’s just politics as usual. You can lead a legislator to water, but you can’t make him think!
“These are career politicians, professionals, and they’re against democracy, against voter turnout. In the next governor’s race, if more than twenty-nine percent of the electorate votes—that’s how many voted in the last election—the first thing out of their mouths will be, ‘Who the hell are all these people?’ Well, ‘these people’ will be people like myself, lapsed voters, non-voters, the seventy-one percent who didn’t want the choice between plastic and paper, who didn’t want to vote for empty suits and empty dresses. These are people who know that I’m a pilgrim to politics, and they have the potential to sweep us into the Governor’s Mansion!”
He admitted that the mechanics won’t be easy. To get on the ballot, he’ll need 45,540 verified signatures, which he cannot begin collecting until after the March primaries. What’s more, he can get signatures only from people who don’t vote in the primaries, and he’ll have just 62 days to get them. Tougher still, should either primary require a runoff, he’ll have to wait thirty more days to begin collecting signatures. But his deadline won’t change; his time will simply be cut in half.
“Yeah, almost nobody knows about the petition drive, so we’re asking them to sign a ‘Save Yourself for Kinky’ pledge. We say, ‘Don’t vote in the ’06 primaries, because it will make you ineligible to sign the petition.’ They’re shocked to hear it. But this is a circus with a purpose. The career politicians aren’t sending the elevator back down to the rest of us.”
Kinky cracked his window and relit his cigar. Once it was burning, he put the window back up. “Party politicians stick to their ideological base, but an independent can come with ideas from everywhere. Like this one: What if we dropped all sports funding out of education and turned that responsibility over to the corporate sector? Nike and Wilson want at these kids, so let them sponsor athletics. They’ll pay the coaches, provide the equipment and uniforms. We’d solve the education funding problem right there.
“And an independent isn’t obligated to appoint a political crony or donor. So in education, I won’t appoint anyone who hasn’t seen the inside of a classroom. I say, ‘Leave no teacher behind!’ And I’ll put an end to teaching to the test! That’s what the teachers I know tell me they want, and I don’t take advice from anyone on education who’s not a teacher. I think that’s what Will Rogers would do: Get the politicians out of politics.”
As Jewford drove through the morning, Kinky plowed through the issues: the death penalty, school prayer, high school graduation rates, his proposed Texas Peace Corps, the viability of biodiesel fuel. Each point was punctuated with another bumper sticker slogan. We flew through Smithville. “I’m for the little fellers, not the Rockefellers!” Into La Grange. “Friedman’s just another word for nothing left to lose!” Out of Columbus. “I can’t screw it up any worse than it already is!”
Just before Sealy, while Kinky again tended to his cigar, a two-step shuffle sounded on a cell phone. It was two drive-time DJs in the Valley, participating in his weekly Radio Free Kinky campaign, a series of calls he takes each Thursday from stations around the state.
He went into a panic. “Dammit, Jewford! Where’s my f—ing phone?”
“It’s in your crotch,” boomed Jewford without turning his head.
Kinky rooted around in his lap. “So it is.” He put it to his ear. “Start talking…Big Al, Charlie, how you doing?…We’re on our way to Galveston to speak to the Pachyderm Club…yeah, Republicans…It’s apparently the biggest Pachyderm Club in the country…then a fundraiser and then a book signing for the new book, Texas Hold ’Em: How I Was Born in a Manger, Died in the Saddle, and Came Back as a Horny Toad…It’s kind of my Charge to Keep. You know, George Bush’s book that tells you what he thinks…It’s a two-part plan for the border…First we reinstate the Bracero program, where Mexican workers can get green cards and work here legitimately…then comes my Five Mexican Generals plan, which was suggested to me by my adviser on border issues, former Texas Ranger Joaquin Jackson. We divide the border into five jurisdictions, assign each one to a Mexican general, and put two million dollars into bank accounts that we control, one for each general. Then, each time we catch an illegal crossing through a general’s jurisdiction, we withdraw five thousand dollars from that account. That’ll solve the problem…The Hispanic activists I’ve talked to say it’s crazy enough that it just might work…Thank you gentlemen, and remember, WWWRD—What Would Will Rogers Do!”
A couple cigar puffs after hanging up, Kinky turned back to the tape recorder. “I don’t worry about the other candidates coming after me. I expect it. That Texas Monthly cover with me dressed up as the queen? Is that an attack ad in the making? Can’t you see that on television with a voice saying, ‘Do you want this in the Governor’s Mansion?’ My answer to that is, ‘That’s just what you do when you’re desperate for a date with Rick Perry!’”
We soon hit Houston traffic, and every time Jewford saw a car bearing a U.S. flag sticker, he mumbled lowly, “Pachyderms, pachyderms, pachyderms…”
As we passed a pickup with U.S. flags waving above each corner of the bed, Kinky said, “You know what the guy with five American flags on his truck said to the guy with four? ‘Go back to Afghanistan, you communist motherf—er!’”
A moderately brief hour later, we arrived at the luncheon.
IT CAN BE HARD TO KNOW WHAT TO MAKE OF THE KINKSTER. Over the years he has defined himself as a veteran of the Peace Corps, a country music singer and composer of not-quite-hit songs like “Get Your Biscuits in the Oven (and Your Buns in the Bed),” the author of seventeen detective novels starring a private eye named Kinky Friedman, a chum to Bob Dylan and Don Imus, a founder of the Utopia Animal Rescue Ranch, and, until he announced for governor in February, a humor columnist for this magazine. If you know anything about him, you almost certainly know all that; his old material has a habit of showing up in his new material. What he wants you to know now is that he’s dead serious about this campaign and well fed up with anyone who would dare think otherwise.
“I’ve been stewing a lot lately about this question of substance beneath the one-liners,” he told me after the trip. “There were three kings of the one-liner: Oscar Wilde, Henny Youngman, and Kinky Friedman. Think about it. When Jesus Christ was up there on the cross, he delivered one line: ‘Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do.’ And Travis at the Alamo drew one line in the sand that the men who wanted to stay and fight could cross. That one line stood for freedom. And a cowboy, when he ropes a steer, he’s got one line that he ties to his saddle horn, and that runs to the steer. If that one line is true and strong, it can save a soul.”
Kinky’s handle on Scripture may be a bit off; the Bible actually reports Jesus making a few other comments on the cross, including the potentially more relevant “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” But in an era where politicos have had to use such counterintuitive phrases as “Governor Ventura” and “Governor Schwarzenegger,” you’d think his campaign would not be automatically dismissed. The establishment, however, is doing just that. “Could Kinky pull even twenty percent?” asks Bryan Eppstein, a GOP consultant from Fort Worth. “In a sober capacity, the answer is no. But Kinky wakes up inebriated on his own celebrity every day. He’ll get the none-of-the-above vote, plus his fan club’s vote, and if that is more than three percent, he might be a spoiler.”
George Shipley, a longtime Austin Democratic consultant, sees no better prospects. “Arnold Schwarzenegger had a ton of money, a successful career, and the Republican party. Jesse Ventura had an even split between the two parties [among voters], had been a Navy Seal, and had the Perot organization behind him. What’s Kinky’s organization? Barflies? If the Democrats don’t run anybody, he can count on the anti-Perry backlash vote. But you have to be taken somewhat seriously, and he’s got a ways to go.”
In Kinky’s mind, he’s as serious as he needs to be. His outgoing message on his home answering machine no longer greets callers with “You’ve reached Richard Kinky ‘Big Dick’ Friedman.” He’s somewhat more careful about where and when he breaks wind and burps, which hasn’t always been his way. On the truly straight-faced front, he’s got a well-built campaign Web site, and Barkley says that there have been more than 25,000 e-mail offers to work on the petition. His paid staff numbers fifteen, and the group of volunteers on hand—thirty at last count—grows by the week. They’ve sold merchandise, collected Web site donations, and organized well-attended fundraisers in Fort Worth, Houston, Utopia, and Fredericksburg, for a total to date of about $400,000. It’s not bad for a candidate who’s not yet on the ballot, but it’s still a good distance from the $5 million he’s targeted.
Eppstein says that Kinky’s fund-raising pace wouldn’t get him on many city councils, but that’s where the candidate is counting on his outsized, oddball persona to work in his favor, expecting to garner enough free media to offset the millions the big-party candidates will spend. He’ll continue his frequent appearances on O’Reilly and Imus, along with Radio Free Kinky. A film crew has been shooting footage for a reality show about his campaign; two pilot episodes should air on CMT this fall. And if his campaign gets far enough to run paid television ads, his hole card is Hillsman. The former ad exec has worked for successful outsider candidates Paul Wellstone and Ventura in Minnesota and Ralph Nader nationally, creating quirky TV spots that stuck in voters’ minds. “With Jesse, Hillsman made five different ads,” says Barkley. “For each one time we paid to run one, they must have shown fifty more times for free on some news show because they were so unique.”
“UNIQUE” WAS A WORD PACHYDERM president Rubye Brown might have used had she not been so flustered as she introduced Kinky. The turnout at Gaido’s Seafood Restaurant was good, about a hundred members, mostly retirees. Brown, a small woman in her sixties, was outfitted in her best Republican reds, a paisley print dress and a straw sun hat. After giving nods to local luminaries—a staffer from Congressman Ron Paul’s office, a justice of the peace, reporters from the Galveston and Baytown dailies—she welcomed Kinky and his staff, tripping briefly over the name of Kinky’s sidekick. “And also a Mr., uh, Joe Ford.”
“That’s Jewford,” said Jewford, his name rhyming with “Buford.”
“Uh, Mr. Jewford,” said Brown, adding, “a member of the original Texas . . .” She cautiously paused, then said, in a near whisper, “Jewboys.” The Pachyderms murmured until she clarified. “That was Mr. Friedman’s band of musicians.”
Kinky took the podium, starting his speech much as he’d answered my questions. “Just twenty-nine percent of voters turned out for the last election…They’re not sending the elevator down to the rest of us…empty suits and dresses…circus with a purpose…The men who died at the Alamo didn’t die so we could choose between paper and plastic!” On gay marriage he said, “They have the right to be just as miserable as the rest of us!” On casino gambling: “Read my lips: I don’t know!” He received healthy laughter, but when he went into high school graduation rates, a few women were heard to angrily harrumph. On “No more teaching to the test!” a lady Pachyderm said, “That’s right!” He picked up momentum as he shifted into straight comedy. “As the first Jewish governor, I’ll reduce the speed limit to 54.95!” Big laughs. “I’m a Jew. I’ll hire good people!” Bigger laughs. His Five Mexican Generals brought oohs and ahhs. “The thing is, I can’t screw it up any worse than it already is!” Heavy applause. Kinky pointed his cigar into the crowd and finished with his main slogan: “How hard can it be?”
Something just short of pandemonium reigned until Brown politely closed. “I’ll leave you with this thought from Ronald Reagan: ‘You can disagree, but don’t be disagreeable.’”
While many in the crowd went to shake the candidate’s hand, I spoke to a gray-headed Pachyderm ambling out with his wife. “Hell, yes, he deserves a chance,” he said. “We’re old. We’ve been lied to a lot longer than you have. We’re ready to give him that chance.”
THE PHONE IN MY HOTEL ROOM RANG at six-fifteen the next morning. Kinky was calling from the room next door.
“Where the hell are you?”
“In my room,” I said. “I thought we were meeting at six-thirty.”
“No, the coffee klatch started at six.”
“I’ll be right over,” I said, and in a couple of minutes I was.
The coffeepot was empty, all drunk up by Kinky, who sat at a table lighting his cigar. His spirits should have been high. After the Pachyderms, the fundraiser had gone well, attended by about 150 big-wheel Islanders, and Jewford estimated the take at about $10,000. And the book manager at the Hastings, where Kinky had signed some 75 copies of Texas Hold ’Em, had said it was the best-attended event of her tenure, not counting the midnight madness sale when the last Harry Potter book came out.
Nonetheless, Kinky was steaming. We’d talked on the drive down about an interview he’d recently done with a Dallas journalist and how the first question he’d been asked was if this was all just a book-selling gimmick. “That guy talked to me for thirty minutes before he acknowledged I might really mean this. So I blew up at him. I shouldn’t have done it, but I’d been campaigning late the day before and had only gotten three hours of sleep. And he f—ing pissed me off! Do you see what I’m up against here?”
He got up and paced the room, dragging the heels of his boots as he walked, then stopping to relight his cigar. He looked at his hands, then pulled a pair of nail clippers from his Dopp kit on the bed. “The governor has a hangnail,” he observed quietly.
He looked up. “That’s a pretty good line.” His eyes narrowed as he repeated it. “‘The governor has a hangnail.’”
He looked around the room and started to riff. “The governor is hot,” he said in a higher-pitched voice, waving his cigar in front of him. Then, as if to answer, he waved his cigar in the other direction. “No, the governor is cold.” Then, out of nowhere, “The governor would like a big, hairy steak.
“That’s a really good line,” he said. “Don’t let me forget that.”