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