Seriously Kinky

This Texas Jewboy wants to be the next governor of Texas, and if you think he's kidding, the joke may be on you

And for a minute, this thing about running for governor doesn't seem like such a joke after all. His voice resonates with sincerity and passion. Five, 10 minutes pass without his uttering a single joke. You buy the "mystical transformation" of which John McCall speaks when recalling that night in Mexico. Perhaps he's a changed man after all, a born-again humorist taking things seriously...

"Oh," Kinky adds, interrupting this reverie, "and I need the closet space."


There has not been an independent candidate elected as governor of Texas since Sam Houston in 1859, and his was a short-lived administration as he was forced from office when he refused to take the oath of loyalty to the newly formed Confederate States of America. There has not been a singer elected as governor since the 1938 candidacy of Wilbur Lee "Pappy" O'Daniel, a radio star and flour-company owner whose band was called the Light Crust Doughboys. But O'Daniel is recalled as one of Texas' least effective governors, an inept politician who "was unable to engage in normal political deal-making with legislators [and] vetoed bills that he probably did not understand," according to the University of Texas-published Handbook of Texas. But, the book also notes, "he was able largely to negate his ignorance, his isolation and his political handicaps with masterful radio showmanship."
A joint Ventura: Dean Barkley not only ran the former wrestler's campaign but also served as his chief adviser.
Mark Graham
A joint Ventura: Dean Barkley not only ran the former wrestler's campaign but also served as his chief adviser.
Sucking in the '70s: This throwback photo of Friedman suggests the possibility of a rhinestone governor.
Sucking in the '70s: This throwback photo of Friedman suggests the possibility of a rhinestone governor.

Kinky Friedman, singer-songwriter for his own band called the Texas Jewboys, would have to work very hard to do a worse job than the two-termer O'Daniel.

In fact, that's sort of his campaign slogan: "Why the hell not?" It is said that columnist Molly Ivins came up with this, though it is, in fact, the same thing most people say when they hear about Friedman's candidacy.

"This is Pappy O'Daniel all the way," Friedman says. "This is a flatbed truck out in front of a little courthouse. People are responding to that. They like the idea that here's a guy who likes to smoke a cigar anywhere he wants, who likes people to smoke anything they want anywhere they want. You know, I think there's too many laws. Too many stupid laws. I think common sense should be the measure. I think that's sorely lacking in our Legislature right now."

Friedman is not diving into uncharted waters, though he could always find himself stranded on a cliff again. He's preceded not only by the Ronald Reagans, Clint Eastwoods, Arnold Schwarzeneggers and Sonny Bonos of the world, but also B-list entertainers who overcame their novelty-act status to hold office: Fred Grandy, The Love Boat's Gopher, who served two terms in Congress; Ben Jones, Cooter on The Dukes of Hazzard, also a congressman from Georgia; and former Seattle Seahawks quarterback Steve Largent, who in 1994 was elected to the U.S. House of Representatives. The House has been littered in recent years with guys who were one election away from becoming the bottom right square on Hollywood Squares.

"Just because Kinky Friedman is who he is doesn't mean it's a prank candidacy," says Ben Jones, who appeared on The Dukes of Hazzardfrom 1979 till '85. "It might have started out that way, but why should anybody be precluded from consideration from public office in America?"

And then, of course, there is Jesse Ventura.

He had a nickname, too, before he was inaugurated as the 38th governor of Minnesota in January 2000. They used to call him "The Body," back when he was one of Vince McMahon's bad guys in the World Wrestling Federation and getting paid by the boo. Being a villain didn't keep him from getting elected on a good-guy platform.

But maybe it wouldn't have happened if Ventura didn't have working for his campaign two men who would come to understand the independent political movement as well as anyone in modern times. Their names were Dean Barkley and Bill Hillsman, sort of the Haldeman and Erlichman of the Ventura campaign.

Till he met Ventura, Barkley was a pretty unremarkable figure, a failed candidate for the U.S. House in 1992 and a two-time loser in his attempt to make it to the Senate. He became a senator by default, getting appointed in November 2002 only after progressive Paul Wellstone and his family were killed in a plane crash. Hillsman was the visionary behind the marketing of Wellstone's campaign, the man who proved you could sell a candidate using piggy-bank funds. He and Barkley hooked up to run Ventura's short sprint to the governor's mansion and became the brains behind the brawny gov. They may not have gotten him elected, but they made sure he didn't beat himself.

Hillsman and Barkley, by the way, now work for Kinky Friedman.

So do about 10 other people, all of whom are on the payroll and in the Austin office, on Congress Avenue in the shadow of the Capitol, every day. There's Laura Stromberg, the Associated Press-journalist-turned-press secretary whose job, at this point, consists of fielding interview requests from the likes of The New Yorker, The New York Times and Playboy. There's Ian Davis, the 27-year-old field director (and former John Kerry campaign worker) whose unbridled enthusiasm is such that senior staffers have warned him this is a marathon, not a sprint. John McCall is treasurer; Steve "Beano" Boynton, a four-year friend of Friedman's, writes the checks; and Cleve Hattersley does damned near everything else.

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