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February 15, 2006 -- Mark Satin, Editor

Can Kinky Friedman take Texas
for the radical middle?

by John Avlon

A two hour drive from Austin into the strangely zen hill country of Texas lives a man who may redefine politics in 2006.

He's a former country singer and recently retired mystery writer who is now aiming for that rare third act in American life: to be elected the first independent governor of Texas since the state's patron saint Sam Houston.

If anyone can do it, Kinky Friedman can.

The candidate

Since his days as the lead singer of the original alt-country outfit, "The Texas Jewboys," to his lost years as a Texas expat living in Greenwich Village and playing weekly gigs at the Lone Star Cafe, Kinky Friedman has found success on his own terms. Typical politicians can't help but look like stale clichés standing next to the Kinkster.

Inside Kinky Friedman's modest ranch house, the wooden walls are lined with books -- from P.J. O'Rourke's "Parliament of Whores" to "The Gates of the Alamo." Fox News is quietly on in the background as his five hounds, known collectively as "The Friedmans," jump around the lord of the unruly manor.

He is grizzled with 60 years of hard living, unruly black hair often tucked under a black cowboy hat, smoking an ever-present Montecristo No. 2. His eyes have that squint of skepticism leavened by a dash of dark humor, reminiscent of no one so much as Mark Twain. He does not suffer fools gladly, unless he is the one playing the fool.

These days, nothing irritates him more than people thinking that his admittedly quixotic campaign is a joke. After all, the whole kabuki theater of deadlocked politics is the thing that's laughably absurd in his eyes. Kinky approvingly quotes a predecessor in humor and politics, Will Rogers, to make his point: "Every time they make a joke it's a law, and every time they make a law, it's a joke."

The policies

"This is the right time and the right race," Kinky says. "People are drooling for the truth, begging for a little bit of honesty. When I say that I support gay marriages and prayer in schools, they say 'this guy has got to be telling the truth'. . . .  Instead of politicians using gay marriage to take our eye off the ball, how about talking about real issues, like border security and education?"

While the policy positions of the campaign are still evolving -- they seem to spring instinctively from Kinky's skewed view of common sense -- the campaign has already staked out arguably radical middle positions supporting the political reform of open primaries, increased funding for education and children's healthcare, and the cultivation of renewable fuels like bio-diesel, proclaiming that "if its good enough for Willie Nelson's tour bus, it's good enough for Texas."

Refreshing among today's free-lunch politicians, Kinky actually has the decency to detail how he plans to pay for his plans, including legalized gambling -- "Half the license plates at the casinos in Mississippi and Louisiana are from Texas anyway."

The strategy

Kinky Friedman's campaign strategy is built around the fact that 71% of registered Texas voters did not turn out to vote in the last gubernatorial election -- which Kinky and Co. see as not a sign of shallow apathy but deep alienation.

With local politics in Texas now as completely controlled by the Republican Party as it was by the Democrats a generation ago, voter frustration is growing as the combination corruption scandals of Enron and Tom DeLay create a crisis of faith. There just may be an opportunity for an anti-establishment independent candidate.

"People are sick and tired of typical politics," opined Friedman campaign manager Dean Barkley, who previously ran Governor Jesse Ventura's Independent campaign in Minnesota. "I just cheered when Jack Abramoff started squealing. The more you start showing people how corrupt the status quo is, the better it is for us. . . .  But you've got to give them an alternative to change the dynamic, or it does not matter."

There are, of course, significant barriers to entry before ending up on the November ballot. After the March primary, the Friedman campaign faces a daunting 60-day window to receive 45,540 verifiable petition signatures of registered Texas voters who did not vote in either party's primaries.

But with 3,000 precinct captains already identified and more than 30,000 campaign volunteers signed up at the Web site, along with more than $1 million raised, there is reason for optimism.

The prospects

Mr. Friedman is already far ahead in money and support in the polls -- hovering around 20% in a crowded race -- compared to where Jesse Ventura was at this time.

Imitation being the sincerest form of flattery, Kinky's initial success has already inspired the Texas Comptroller (and mother of White House Press Secretary Scott McClellan) Carole Strayhorn to throw her hat in the ring as an independent rather than risking a primary with Governor Rick Perry, despite the fact that the incumbent has rarely cleared 50% approval ratings with Texas voters.

When two competitive independents are running for governor in Texas, it is yet more evidence that the rising tide of independent voters nationwide is the most important and under-reported demographic fact in American politics.

The Texas establishment was quick to write off Kinky Friedman's campaign as a colorful joke, but I'll bet they're going to find that the joke is on them come November.

Kinky's comparatively small campaign has already crossed the crucial threshold from being just a campaign to being seen as a crusade. Young people driving across country to work on an election campaign that is still nine months away -- that's real commitment, not political operatives' paid enthusiasm.

Behind the proliferation of t-shirts and bumper-stickers proclaiming "Kinky for Governor -- Why the Hell Not?" is something a lot more serious: the desire to take power from out of touch political elites and return it to the people. It's the oldest impulse in American politics, with roots right back to our original war for independence.

And that's no joke.


John Avlon, b. 1973, worked on Bill Clinton's re-election campaign, then worked for Mayor Giuliani from 1997-2001, starting out as an advance man and ending up as chief speechwriter.  He is the author of Independent Nation (Crown / Random House, pbk. 2005).


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