Only when pushed, and then prodded and then finally pinned, will Richard Friedman explain why he's running as an independent candidate for Texas governor. Initially, he will offer only the glib, catchy one-liners that befit the songwriter nicknamed Kinky who once proclaimed, "They ain't makin' Jews like Jesus anymore." He will say things like "I'm for the little fellers, not the Rockefellers." He will inform you that people are tired "of the choice between paper and plastic." He will explain that the Capitol building in Austin is seven feet taller than our nation's Capitol, but that ours "was built for giants, and instead it's inhabited by midgets." He has a million of them, and by the time November 2006 comes around--hell, by the time you finish reading this story--no doubt you will have heard many of them several times.
But Friedman, in spite of the punch lines, wants you to know his candidacy is no joke. Already, you tell him, he looks like a candidate gathering votes on the dusty trail--a little tired, rough around the edges. "You sayin' I look like shit?" he says, his teeth wrapped around a Cuban cigar, one of dozens poking from two plastic bags in his suitcase. Actually, he just looks like he needs a shave, to which he will attend shortly by lightly wetting his face, barely using any shaving cream and then quickly and seemingly haphazardly scraping a blade across his 60-year-old flesh. You tell him you hope he doesn't govern like he shaves.
Sitting in his room at the Adolphus Hotel, Friedman's between wardrobe changes, having untucked his black denim shirt, doffed his black cowboy hat and shed the black leather vest he wore to breakfast. (Friedman proudly points out that Waylon Jennings gave it to him some 30 years ago.) Later, for his afternoon speaking engagement, he will put on the long black "preaching coat" he had made several years back, which is not exactly an outfit made for a 95-degree day.
Friedman insists that the campaign, not yet out of its bassinet, has invigorated and inspired him. For hours he pitches proposals that land somewhere between crackpot and genius. There's one called The Five Mexican Generals, which he insists would stem the flow of Mexicans illegally crossing the Texas border. The plan is simple: Divide the Texas-Mexico border into five districts, appoint a Mexican general to guard each, keep $1 million in a bank account for each official and then dock the accounts for every immigrant who slips across the border.
"That's just common sense," he says. "Common sense is having life without the possibility of parole instead of just inject or eject. And common sense tells me that if we're in a race to the bottom with Mississippi in almost every category and we're the first in executions, then something's a little bit wrong spiritually with our leadership. So, you got common sense, you got spirituality and, you know, Friedman's just another word for nothing left to lose. And when you've got nothing left to lose like Jesse Ventura or Kinky Friedman, you might just tell the truth."
The question of why Friedman's running seems more pertinent than wondering whether he's serious. Though he announced his candidacy in February from the steps of the Alamo, he will not know if he's on the ballot until next April or May. If he makes it long enough to persuade 50,000 Texans not to vote in the Republican or Democratic primaries next spring and then gets them to sign the petition that would put him on the ballot, then you will know he is serious. If he raises a few million in campaign contributions and pulls double-digit numbers in the polls, then you will know he is serious. If he is allowed to debate the Republican and Democratic nominees, then you will know he is serious. And if he's elected, sweet Christ, then you will know he is serious.
Yeah, sure, absolutely. He'll admit it up front. "It was kind of a lark," he says, something he tossed out to old friends and journalists and folks who'd show up at his book signings to see how it'd bounce. Sounded like a great gag, a way to get his name out there and move product.
But he meant it, too, in the way all young idealists talk when they grow older and realize they meant to change the world and wound up not even changing themselves. In the 1960s, he went from the University of Texas in Austin to Borneo as a member of the Peace Corps. He was inspired by John Kennedy "to do good work," but found himself writing songs instead, including a Holocaust hymn that would become known as "Ride 'Em Jewboy."
"I don't know when I decided to run," he says, sounding slightly irritated when pressed on the subject. "It might've started on stage in Ireland, when a guy came up to me in a pub there and said, 'You're not a musician, Kinky, you're a politician.' This was three, four years ago."
That, you explain to him, is hardly an inspirational answer.
"Well, it might've started in Cabo San Lucas five years ago while I was stranded on a cliff overnight. I think that was part of it--when I looked back on my life, when I was sure I was going to die."
It takes awhile, but Friedman recounts a story corroborated by his buddy John McCall, who made millions in the hair-care business and who invited the singer-songwriter-turned-author to Mexico for a beach vacation. Before dinner one night, Friedman, clad only in a shirt and shorts, decided to go for a walk on the beach, taking with him only a cigar. He would not return for almost two days.
McCall thought maybe Friedman was hiding, trying to get on CNN to sell a few books by pulling a disappearing act. Knowing Friedman as he had since the 1970s, he also figured maybe the Kinkster had met a woman and gone off with her. Wouldn't be the first time. The worst he could imagine was that Friedman had been mugged and robbed, but they wouldn't have gotten much, since he'd left behind his wallet and passport. McCall went to bed that night sure he'd see Friedman in the morning. But the next day, he went out to the beach and saw a pile of rocks at the foot of a cliff and feared Kinky was under there, smashed to bits in a landslide. McCall eventually made copies of Friedman's passport photo and hung "wanted" posters all over town.
As it turned out, Friedman had been walking along the beach when a huge wave caught him by surprise and washed him out to sea. He was dazed and disoriented and pretty sure that his pal McCall would find the Kinkster's wet moustache washed up on a Mexican beach. But another surge pushed Friedman back to shore and stranded him on a cliff. "It was dark, and I had nothing but a bathing suit and a soggy cigar," Friedman recalls, "and I couldn't get back." Some men building a house along the shore eventually discovered him.
"I just felt very close to my mother and my cat that night, both of whom were dead, as are almost everybody I care about," Friedman says.
This is Richard talking now, a man who peeks out from under the cowboy hat every so often to remind you he is, in fact, the thoughtful, well-educated son of the thoughtful, well-educated Min and Tom Friedman. Beneath the wisecracking and cigar-chomping is a serious, sentimental man raised by teachers who believed in leaving the world better off than when they found it. "He talks about that all the time," says friend Steve "Beano" Boynton, who carries the campaign's checkbook.
Friedman's mom was the possessor of a master's degree from Northwestern University and the first speech therapist in the Houston school system. His father received his doctorate in psychology from the University of Texas in 1963 and returned to the university to teach such courses as "Contemporary Social Problems" and "Problems in Higher Education" and "Individual in Society." In 1962, the Friedmans bought the 350-acre Echo Hill Ranch near Medina and opened a camp that still operates every summer. Min died in 1985, shortly before the publication of her son's first book, Greenwich Killing Time. Tom died in August 2002, exactly 40 years after he and the missus bought Echo Hill. The same year, Kinky opened the Utopia Animal Rescue Ranch on 40 acres of the Echo Hill property; Laura Bush and Willie Nelson are among the animal rescue's board of directors.
"I was just thinking, when I was on this cliff side all night, that I could've done something more with my life, and I don't mean give it back to the community or like that," Friedman continues. "I just mean that even though what I'd done was some good works, like Utopia Rescue Ranch, I was kind of a Ronald Reagan pitchman. When you're a Gandhi-like spirit, you promote, you tend to sell--like my friend McCall's theory that Jesus Christ and Michelangelo and those kind of people sold shampoo just like him. They made people feel good about themselves. A dealer in hope is what I am, you know? I hadn't thought of it in that way, and that's when I thought about, you know, there should be something more.
"A lot of people, when they're dying, think they should've done something more. But that's what I thought. And then later, the ideas came to me that I have achieved a lot of my dreams. If you just look at my life, you can say, 'Jesus, this guy's achieved a lot of his dreams. He's slept under two presidents at the White House, he's played the Grand Ole Opry, he's eaten monkey brains in the Peace Corps, traveled with Bob Dylan and Willie Nelson and is still friends with both of them, and that's great.' And so I figured the real reason I was running was because I have achieved those dreams, and I want to help other people, especially younger Texans, have a chance to achieve some of their dreams. That's really the reason I'm running."
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."
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 Hazzard from 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.
McCall, Boynton and Hattersley, in fact, are the reasons Hillsman and Barkley, who left the Senate in 2003, are working for Friedman.
Depending on who's telling the story, either Hillsman reached out to Friedman because he believed him an interesting and even viable candidate, or Boynton and Friedman called him first because they were huge fans of his book Run the Other Way: Fixing the Two-Party System, One Campaign at a Time, published last year.
"There's this inner circle of John McCall, Cleve, Kinky and me, and we were sitting down and saying, 'If we're gonna pull this off, we need more help than we can provide," Boynton says. "We were political neophytes who needed the best people in the country."
"Kinky was on the radar screen, and I do pay attention," Hillsman recalls. "I don't take independent candidates as the joke the media does. I take them seriously, because very often they're smart people--especially if they are entertainers, because they already have a rapport with actual voters. So when I saw that Kinky was not only considering but had announced and was referencing the Jesse Ventura race, I thought maybe it would be smart if he talked to someone who had actually worked the Jesse Ventura race."
Hillsman met Friedman at a book signing in Minnesota at the beginning of the year and agreed to have further meetings in Austin. In February, Friedman, McCall, Boynton and Hattersley met at Katz's Deli and felt each other out: They wanted to make sure Hillsman was up for a long and grueling campaign, and he had to make sure Friedman wasn't trying to sell books.
"Kinky was relatively cool and asked some pointed questions," Hillsman says. "It was more attitudinal: You gotta show us you get what we're trying to do...At first I wasn't sure what their real intent was. I don't like working for candidates where there's no real will to win or no real possibility of winning. Which is why when Donald Trump has talked to me or Hulk Hogan, you go, 'No, this is a publicity stunt.' I didn't expect them to know a whole lot about political strategy--it's all about intent at that point, anyway--and I thought if there's a path to victory, I can help. And the more I thought about it the more I thought, 'There is a path.' Don't ask me what it is, because I won't tell you. We've got enough problems."
For the moment, Hillsman will remain in Minnesota, where he's overseeing a handful of campaigns, including Russ Potts' bid to become the independent governor of Virginia in November. Once the '05 races have finished, he will come to Texas to join Barkley, who drove his car down here last week and intends to stay in Friedman's Austin home till Election Day 2006. In fact, Barkley's left his wife, 16-year-old daughter and 19-year-old son in Minnesota to tend to Friedman's campaign, something he did only after spending several days with Friedman and his "inner circle" and deciding that Friedman was just like Ventura, only more likable.
"When I met Kinky it was kind of like the American dream: Can a guy like me actually do this?" Barkley says. "Is the system capable of actually accepting someone like me to actually do it? So, he gave me the right answers that his motivations were right. His one-liners were entertaining, and his issues were right. I'm a social libertarian, as he is, and so his politics fit. He had the right tools to pull it off. My only other question then is could he actually raise enough money to run a viable campaign, and I'd say the jury is still out on that, but I think that it will not be a problem. I'll know a lot more in the next couple months."
For a while, Barkley will concentrate heavily on fund raising to keep afloat what's becoming an expensive operation running up bills of $50,000 to $60,000 a month. Boynton figures the campaign has raised about $300,000 at this point, about a quarter of that coming from Internet donations and checks sent to the office. The rest of the money's been evenly divided: Half the cash comes from fund-raisers, including several hosted in Dallas and Fort Worth by restaurateur Shannon Wynne; half comes from the sales of campaign posters, T-shirts and hats.
"And the money will come as we pick up more steam, credibility and viability," Boynton says. "Absolutely, the big thing is convincing people this is a real thing, not a joke. But what I do love about the fund-raisers is that when people meet Kinky and look him in the eyes, you can tell they get it."
One of Barkley's first jobs in Texas will involve getting Friedman on the phone with his rich and famous friends and asking them to pony up. By the time of the election, Barkley would like to have $5 million, which is but a fraction of the $60 million Democratic candidate Tony Sanchez spent to get his ass handed to him by Rick Perry three years ago. Barkley insists that if Friedman can raise the money, that alone will prove to the media he's a candidate to be taken seriously.
"My old pal Evan Smith [editor of Texas Monthly] told me, 'Kinky, enough of the one-liners. Where's the real substance?'" Friedman says. "Yet he listens to Kay Bailey [Hutchison] or Rick Perry or John Sharp or Chris Bell and he thinks he's hearing substance, and that's ludicrous. I'll tell ya about one-liners. The kings of one-liners are probably Kinky Friedman, Henny Youngman and Oscar Wilde throughout history, but the defense of a good one-liner is that the cowboy uses one line between his saddle horn and the steer he's roped, and hopefully that one line is true and strong. Travis at the Alamo drew one line in the sand for the men to walk across. Jesus had one line on the cross: 'Father, forgive them for they know not what they do.' So if a one-liner is true and strong, it can save a soul. That's my defense of the one-liner. And I'm telling you, the campaign with the most substance is ours, merely because the candidate and the people around him don't come from politics. The closest we get to politics is Dean Barkley..."
"Hey, I resent that," Barkley barks. "Fuck you, asshole."
They look like a summer-vacation crowd, these men in Hawaiian shirts and women in pleated shorts. All morning, about 300 members of the Texas Press Association--folks from such places as Iowa City, Alvin, Hondo, Hereford, Fredericksburg, Marble Falls, Gatesville, Silsbee, Pleasanton and Wylie--have been sitting through (and sleeping through) speeches by Senators John Cornyn and Kay Bailey Hutchison, who, during her presentation, was still toying with the idea of challenging Rick Perry for the GOP's gubernatorial nomination. Waiting outside the Omni Mandalay Hotel in Las Colinas, Barkley informs Friedman that Hutchison referred to him as the afternoon's comic relief. Kinky says that's fine with him. "If a lifelong politician comes down here and says, 'I'm here to help,'" Friedman says, "you run the other way."
On the drive over, Friedman tells his constant companion and former Jewboy Jeff "Little Jewford" Shelby that his winning the governor's race is "a long shot, a quest," but that it's speaking engagements like this one that'll win it for him. These are his people, small-town folk who like their state a deep shade of red but don't mind their governor's sense of humor a little blue. This is the audience he needs to convert, folks who can galvanize their small-town readers to clear the backwoods brush for a Texas Jewboy who wants to be their governor.
"I think we're going to win Fredericksburg, and as Fredericksburg goes, so goes the state," he insists. "There are rednecks still left in this state, and the rednecks are for Kinky Friedman. That's the fact, OK?"
And, indeed, they're waiting for him the moment Shelby pulls up in their rented black SUV. "Here comes the man," says one man to another who's snapping pictures like a spastic paparazzo. A woman from Iowa Park, home to one of the state's largest prison facilities, asks if he's brought the petition. Friedman has to explain to her he can't start gathering signatures till after the primaries, and that she can sign the petition only if she doesn't vote in the primaries.
"So save yourself for Kinky," he tells her. It's a line he uses often, and it always gets a laugh.
Editors clamor to meet Friedman, to get their pictures taken with him, to get his autograph. "I'll sign anything except bad legislation," he says, scribbling his signature. Sometimes he'll add, "Love, The Gov." When he steps outside to puff on his cigar, one editor will tell another that he's gonna be the first in the state to endorse Friedman.
Laura Stromberg, Friedman's press secretary, finds Friedman to tell him what Cornyn and Hutchison said in their speeches. "I don't wanna hear any of their shit," he tells her. Someone asks Friedman if he thinks Hutchison will run.
"She'll split the party if she does," he tells her.
Barkley, hanging back in a tan suit and holding a cigar of his own, says, "We could use a few bloody lips on the other side." He tells Friedman that, by the way, he's not sure whether Hutchison's comic relief comment was meant as a compliment or an insult.
"But," Barkley says, "I hope they do underestimate you."
When Friedman takes the podium, with an enormous state flag as his backdrop, he looks like Rabbi Patton in Village People drag. The crowd gives him a warm welcome, their applause filled with, if nothing else, blessed relief that his will not be a dull speech. He insists this is not a joke, and that "the only joke is the Texas Legislature." The audience laughs and applauds.
His stump speech, which is essentially a greatest-hits collection of one-liners he's used before in columns and conversation, plays well. They laugh at his promise to reduce the speed limit to 54.95 if he's elected, a holdover from his failed 1986 campaign for justice of the peace in Kerrville. They offer a smattering of applause when he comes out for gay marriage--"Love is bigger than government," he says, still sounding like a songwriter--but cheer his plan to allow teachers to create their own lesson plans. "They're just teaching to the test," he says, "and it's turned our teachers into Stepford Wives."
They giggle at his Five Mexican Generals proposal--"I like the name, too," he says, grinning broadly--and applaud his proposal to transfer sports out of the school districts' educational budget and put them in the hands of the corporate sector. Friedman, wandering through the crowd with a wireless microphone, "like a Jewish mariachi," even reads a short story, "The Hummingbird Man," about his mother, father and Echo Hill.
Perhaps there is indeed a message to his madness after all.
"That was the first time I heard his stump speech," Barkley says on the drive back to the Adolphus. "I liked it. He's got a similar style that Ventura had. He connects to the audience. He has that ability to make you feel like he's listening to you. He can do the one-on-one connection to audience people, which Ventura could do very well, too. So, they have very, very similar communications ability of connection to audiences, which was the key to Jesse. But he's obviously much more funny and more entertaining than Jesse ever dreamed of being. I wouldn't change a thing."
A few hours later, he sits behind a long table at Borders Books and Music in Preston Royal, where some 200 folks snake through the aisles to get their books and posters and bumper stickers signed. Barkley surveys the crowd and is confounded by the fact it's filled with young and old alike; he figured Friedman had a shot with the kids, not their parents. "Ya know, at this point," Barkley says, grinning, "I'm concerned about doing too well too early." Friedman sits and grins for almost three hours, spending as much as five minutes with each person, signing their copies of his new book Texas Hold 'Em, snapping a photo or two, just shooting the shit.
Among those in line is Sandi Soffar, wife of Max Soffar, who confessed to a triple murder in a Houston bowling alley almost 25 years ago and who is, most likely, innocent. Despite his confession, which came at the end of three days of interrogation without an attorney, there has never been any evidence to prove Soffar committed the murder and no witness to put him at the scene. In April 2004, a panel of the 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals ruled that Soffar hadn't received effective assistance of counsel in his criminal trial and ordered that the state either release or retry him. He's still awaiting a new trial. Friedman has written about the case twice, in Texas Monthly and The Jerusalem Post, and has become friends with Soffar. Sandi says Max used to want Friedman present at his execution, but now hopes he'll be able to make the release party. "I just hope he's not on the road campaigning," she says, adding, of course, that Kinky has her vote.
"When George W. was governor, we executed a man every two weeks on average," Friedman says. "I want to put an end to that. I hate for you to have to hear this from a Jew, but what would Jesus do about this? Would Jesus be interested in these men's death or their salvation? That's what you've got to ask yourself if you're a Christian."
If nothing else, you will never be in doubt about where Friedman stands on an issue. The writer possesses no internal editor.
After the book signing, at about 10 p.m., Friedman and Barkley and Little Jewford and a few others head to Al Biernat's steak house, where the gracious owner treats Kinky as though he's already the governor. It's during the second round of drinks that Friedman gets the call that Hutchison has announced she will not be running after all and, instead, will seek re-election to the Senate. Drinks are raised, and toasts are made. There's still the chance Texas Comptroller Carolyn Keeton Strayhorn will announce--and she does, the very next morning--but that doesn't matter at this moment.
"Good," Friedman says. "Rick's the one we want. I was kinda looking forward to a Texas death match between Kay Bailey and Perry, but I'm relieved. Rick Perry's people are feeling good tonight, and we're feeling good tonight--and one of us is wrong."
Friedman looks at Barkley and speaks as if talking only to him.
"We're one step closer," he says, tipping his scotch glass to take a long, deep sip.