Longform

Seriously Kinky

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."

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Robert Wilonsky
Contact: Robert Wilonsky