Governor Rick Perry and U.S. Senator Kay Bailey Hutchison are sure to grab most of the headlines between now and the March 2 primary elections as they trade insults while seeking the Republican gubernatorial nomination, but Kinky Friedman spices up an otherwise bland field of Democratic candidates. The author and musician who's never afraid to say what's on his mind aims to stop the use of toll roads, legalize gambling, decriminalize marijuana use and reform the education and criminal justice systems.
"My slogan is Power to the People," Friedman tells Unfair Park. "I think that power's been hijacked by people like Rick Perry, politicians, special interests, big corporations and lobbyists. That power needs to be returned to the people. I can't do it nationally, but I think I can do it in Texas."
Friedman, who received 12.6 percent of the vote when he ran for governor in 2006, says he should have realized not to run as an independent because the only one to successfully do so in Texas was Sam Houston. "We came in there with nothing -- no money as an independent candidate. When you say that, you've got to figure out what [2006 Democratic nominee] Chris Bell would have got if he'd run as an independent. He wouldn't have gotten 13 percent. He would have gotten 1 percent if he were lucky."
Former state representative and Texas Rangers president Tom Schieffer, rancher Hank Gilbert, ex-Railroad Commission nominee Mark Thompson and teacher Felix Alvarado are also vying for the Democratic nomination, and Friedman stresses that he'll endorse whoever wins. "I would prefer any Democrat to Rick or Kay," he says. How does he stack up with Schieffer? "Oh, I don't even think about him. I don't know him -- never met him. I just know his smarter, older brother Bob."
Toll roads help the state, not the people, Friedman says, which is why he wants to not only ban future toll roads, but convert the current ones into free roads. "It's a public trust -- has been for over a 100 years. We pay our taxes, and the state builds the roads."
Untold billions of dollars in funding would be required to accomplish such an ambitious proposition, but Friedman says the Texas Enterprise Fund and money he claims is missing from the state's share of the lottery proceeds could be tapped. "There's lots of ways to pay for anything we want to do. It's never been a lack of money. It's always been a lack of leadership. Rick Perry can get money whenever he needs it."
Setting up a legalized gambling zone in Texas, which would include Galveston and Corpus Christi, is another way Friedman says the state can raise funds. "This is not common sense to be giving all our money to Louisiana, Oklahoma, Mexico and Las Vegas."
Friedman, whose parents were both educators, says as governor his appointees to the Texas State Board of Education would have experience in public school classrooms. He also would institute a $3,000 annual raise for all teachers and end the practice of teaching based on the Texas Assessment of Knowledge and Skills test.
"I believe education should be teaching kids to think for themselves," he says. "I believe it should start in the schoolroom and work out from there -- not be superimposed from the top down on the classrooms."
Three "unabashed champions of justice" according to Friedman -- Abel Dominguez (a Friedman campaign advisor and lawyer), Richard "Racehorse" Haynes (a prominent criminal defense attorney) and Jeff Blackburn (head of the Texas Innocence Project) -- have agreed to help him create the Timothy Cole Commission should he become governor. Cole was convinced of rape in 1986 and sentenced to 25 years in prison but maintained his innocence. Jerry Johnson confessed to the crime to authorities in 1995, but there was no investigation until Johnson sent a letter to Cole's family in 2007.
"For 12 years, they never listened to the guilty man or the innocent man, even though they were saying the same thing," Friedman says. "The system chews up black and brown people that don't have representation and puts them away like they did Timothy Cole."
Cole died of an asthma attack in 1999 while in prison, but he was posthumously exonerated by a state judge in February of this year after DNA evidence cleared his name. The commission would establish guilt or innocence in honor of Cole and require DNA tests of all Texas inmates on death row.
"When you have a guy who's as entrenched as Rick Perry is, he's gonna fight on the side of the state to keep the Innocence Project or anyone else from DNA or a dead body because he thinks it's stirring up trouble," Friedman says.
While he says legalizing and taxing marijuana is the "common sense approach" to dealing with the issue, Friedman instead promotes decriminalizing the drug, claiming law enforcement agrees that it's a waste of time to lock up pot smokers. Most people would misunderstand a legalization and taxation stance, he says, "But it's coming, just like getting rid of the death penalty is coming."
Although President Barack Obama has rallied the GOP in recent months, Friedman says he'll be an asset for him in the gubernatorial election. "There's no question that Obama has shown us that excitement equals turnout, and if you can excite the grassroots and get people involved, that's all to the good."
He says it's too soon to evaluate Obama's performance. "Some things have been good. Some haven't. He's got great inspirational chops."
And what about the president's controversial health care bill? "I think what he's saying about health care reform is mostly correct, and then when you listen to the other side, they're mostly correct too," Friedman says. "That's the problem. It's really complex stuff. All I've said is whatever they come up with will be better than the Bush health policy, which was: Don't get sick."
Friedman says he hasn't spoken to former President George W. Bush, who he calls a friend, in several years, but stresses that he loves Bush's wife Laura, who he speculates is a Democrat and claims would have made a great president.
"She's a librarian for God's sake," he says. "You can't go wrong."
Friedman begins a European tour September 22, which wraps up October 5 in France. "It's called making a living," he says. "They're sending me out of the state because they think my chances look so good for winning the primary that they don't want me to screw it up."
In addition to singing, he'll be promoting his new book, Heroes of a Texas Childhood. "When I'm governor, that will be mandatory reading in school because I'm shocked at the number of college graduates that have never heard of Audie Murphy or Barbara Jordan," he says. "If you really want to know who I am, find out who my heroes are."