Heard the One About Kinky Friedman Running for Texas Governor?
By Peter Carlson
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, July 18, 2006; C01
Smoking an illegal substance, Kinky Friedman heads for the Flying Saucer.
Kinky -- nobody calls him Friedman -- is a comic country singer, mystery novelist and Texas humorist. The illegal substance is a fat, stinky Cuban cigar. The Flying Saucer is the Fort Worth bar where Kinky is about to deliver a speech in his campaign for governor.
But first he removes the cigar from his mouth and reveals the wisdom that his old friend, country icon Willie Nelson, imparted when Kinky began his campaign: "No pedophile jokes till after the election."
So far, Kinky has followed that advice, and it has served him well. The pols and the pundits said he was a clown who could never collect the 45,540 signatures necessary to get on the November ballot as an independent candidate. But Kinky showed them: He got 137,154 certified signatures.
He ambles down the sunny street, wearing his trademark outfit: black cowboy hat, black shirt, black leather vest, bluejeans and black cowboy boots. Those duds, along with the Frank Zappa facial hair and the Groucho Marx cigar, make Kinky look like the bad guy in a bad western. They also make him instantly recognizable all over Texas.
"Kinky!" yells a guy who recognizes him from across the street. He gives a thumbs-up sign. "I'm votin' for you!"
"May the God of your choice bless you," Kinky replies.
When Kinky steps into the Flying Saucer, the crowd erupts in cheers. The place is packed, with several hundred people sitting at tables and others filling the aisles. Nearly everybody is drinking beer, which is good preparation for any political speech, particularly one of Kinky's.
"Well, folks, it looks like the election is getting more and more interesting, " he says. "The other three candidates seem to have humor bypasses. If you're a politically correct person, you should vote for one of them. You have to be politically correct to be a politician, and the three of them are. Me, I'm a compassionate redneck."
The crowd cheers, and the man President Bush once called "a Texas legend" launches into his stump speech, a zippy combination of Borscht Belt humor and populist politics.
"As you know, I'm 61 years old, which is too young for Medicare and too old for women to care," he says. "But I care about Texas and I want to fix what's wrong with it. We are probably the richest state in the country, but we got potholes in the roads, we can't pay our teachers, we can't provide health insurance for our kids and they're trying to sell off the state parks!"
Kinky promises big changes. He'll legalize casino gambling and use the proceeds to fund public schools -- "slots for tots." He's the only candidate in the race -- or maybe anywhere -- who supports both school prayer and gay marriage. ("They have a right to be as miserable as the rest of us," he explains.) He'll clamp down on illegal immigration. And he'll run the state's school buses on the biodiesel fuel that Willie Nelson uses to propel his tour bus.
"We can make Texas number one in renewable fuels -- which is a helluva lot better than being number one in executions, toll roads, property taxes and dropouts!"
The crowd cheers and Kinky tells them that he can win this race. In the 2002 gubernatorial election, he says, only 29 percent of the voters even bothered to show up.
"Last time, they spent $100 million just to drive 71 percent of us away from the polls," he says. "This time, that 71 percent is coming roarin' back -- with pitchforks ! -- to throw the money-changers out of the temple!"
After the speech, Kinky's supporters swarm the merchandise table to contribute to his campaign by purchasing posters, T-shirts and a $29.95 Kinky doll that utters a couple of dozen of his one-liners when you push a button on its back. "How hard can it be?" the doll says. And: "I can't screw things up any worse than they already have."
An hour later, Kinky is still autographing these items for a long line of fans. It's hot, and he's sweating in a shirt he's already worn for two days. He turns to Jeff Shelby, his childhood friend and campaign chauffeur, and whispers, "Man, I just smelled my shirt -- whew!"
Shelby laughs -- he had told Kinky to bring more shirts -- then Kinky sticks his cigar back into his mouth, lays his wilted black sleeves across the shoulders of two middle-age women and smiles for a cellphone picture.
A Four-Way Race
Kinky Friedman is just a part -- one-quarter, to be exact -- of what Texas Monthly recently called "The Weirdest Governor's Race of All Time."
The Republican candidate is the incumbent, Rick Perry, whose amazing anchorman coiffure inspired the nickname "Governor Good Hair." In 2002, Perry won election with 58 percent of the vote. Since then his popularity has plummeted, the victim of an unpopular school finance plan and a new business tax. Recently, 15 longtime Republican contributors expressed their displeasure over the business tax by writing him checks -- for a penny or two.
One anti-Perry Republican, state Comptroller Carole Keeton McClellan Rylander Strayhorn, is running for governor as an independent. She's a formidable candidate: In 2002, campaigning for comptroller on the slogan "One Tough Grandma," Strayhorn -- the mother of former Bush press secretary Scott McClellan -- won 246,000 more votes than Perry. But her name was Rylander then and her new name doesn't have the same recognition, so she asked to appear on this year's ballot as Carole Keeton "Grandma" Strayhorn. The elections folks declined that request, ruling that "Grandma" isn't a nickname, it's a slogan.
The Democrats, who haven't won a statewide race in Texas since 1994, nominated Chris Bell, an obscure former one-term congressman from Houston. Bell doesn't have a nickname, but he's frequently referred to as "What's-his-name, the Democrat."
And then there's Kinky, the author of 23 books and dozens of country songs as leader of the 1970s band Kinky Friedman and the Texas Jewboys. Kinky's repertoire included the classic anti-bigot anthem "They Ain't Makin' Jews Like Jesus Anymore," which not only contains nearly every ethnic slur imaginable, but also manages to rhyme "Aristotle Onassis" with "ethnocentric racist." (His sidekick, Shelby, played piano in the Jewboys under the nickname "Jewford," and he became semi-famous in Texas himself.)
The campaign is a bizarre, four-way slugfest that has, the Dallas Morning News recently noted, "transformed what probably would have been an easy run for incumbent Rick Perry into a wide-open race."
Some polls show Kinky running second to Perry. Does that mean the Kinkster might actually win?
"I don't think there's any chance of that," says Jason Stanford, who is Bell's campaign manager.
"He'll come up woefully short," says Mike Baselice, Perry's pollster.
"He won't win," says Evan Smith, editor of the Texas Monthly, "but he'll affect who wins."
Kinky's campaign manager, Dean Barkley, the architect of Jesse Ventura's successful 1998 race for governor of Minnesota, is more optimistic. "If 40 percent of registered voters turn out," Barkley says, "Kinky will win."
Barkley figures Kinky's image as a straight-talking outsider will appeal to angry, alienated folks who seldom vote. Kinky's campaign has raised more than $3.4 million -- more than Bell but far less than Perry or Strayhorn -- while enlisting an army of volunteers who gathered the signatures that put him on the ballot. Now all Kinky has to do is get one more vote than anybody else: The election is winner-take- all, with no runoff.
"Kinky's gonna win," says John McCall, a hair-care products mogul who has donated $1 million to his old friend Kinky's campaign. "I have a business that deals with hairdressers. People talk to their hairdressers. And what I'm hearing is: Kinky's gonna win in a landslide."
Kinky squats down to pat his two little pit bulls, Valerie and Penny, then he lets them out into the back yard of his funky little ranch house in Austin.
"We can learn a lot from animals," he says. "How to be loyal. How to be ready for fun. How to get over things quick."
Kinky is one of Texas's most famous animal lovers. He donates the proceeds of his line of salsa -- Kinky Friedman's Private Stock -- to the Utopia Animal Rescue Ranch, a central Texas facility for abandoned animals that's on land donated by Kinky's late father, Tom. (Laura Bush is on the board of directors.)
"We've saved more animals than Noah," Kinky says. "It's Gandhi-like work, and I'm a Gandhi-like figure. Meaning I don't do any of the real work, I just promote it."
He ambles into the living room, which houses a pool table, and shoots a quick game of nine-ball. Then he heads to the bedroom to pack his bags.
It's another long day on the campaign trail. He was up at dawn to address a convention of teachers at an Austin hotel. Then he held a quick news conference, revealing, among other things, that he prefers campaigning among Hispanics because "their food is better." Now he's heading to Houston, first stop on a four-day campaign swing.
Jewford stuffs their suitcases into the campaign's rented Chevy Trailblazer, then gets behind the wheel. Kinky rides shotgun and fires up a cigar.
For the next several hours, he keeps up a steady stream of jokes, gripes and stories. He calls Democrats and Republicans "the Crips and the Bloods." He grumbles that election law forbids campaigns to pay the candidate. "And my staffers," he adds, "are such officious, honest [bleeps] that I can't suck any bucks out of the campaign." And he complains about people who complain that his speeches are full of one-liners: "All politicians speak in one-liners and sound bites. They're just not as funny as mine."
He quotes Mark Twain. He quotes Oscar Wilde. He quotes a pig farmer he met while campaigning: "You ain't worth a damn," the farmer told Kinky, "but you're better than what we got."
He puffs on his cigar a while, then lets it go out and stuffs it into his pocket. A few minutes later he retrieves a different half-smoked cigar from his pocket and ignites it.
"Churchill said cigars are 'gamier when resurrected,' and he was right," he says.
Cruising into Houston on Interstate 10, the Trailblazer runs into a traffic jam. This makes Kinky cranky. He gripes about the traffic. He gripes about Houston. He calls his campaign headquarters to gripe about the next item on his schedule -- taping an ad for the Houston Comets, a women's professional basketball team.
"I don't like basketball and I don't like women's basketball," he grumbles into his cellphone. "If it was roller derby, it would be different."
He listens for a while, puffing away. "All right, I'll do it," he says, "and in September you'll have your candidate in a mental hospital."
He hangs up, then starts trying to figure out what to say in this ad. It's got to be something different, something funny, something . . . Kinky . He tries out a few jokes but rejects them. Then it comes to him -- the perfect line. He starts grinning mischievously.
The Trailblazer pulls into a parking garage beneath the Toyota Center, where the Comets play. A young woman leads Kinky into a TV studio and sits him down behind a fake anchorman desk. It's the Comets' 10th anniversary, she explains, and Texas celebrities are taping greetings that will be played at the arena during games.
The cameraman gives him the signal.
"Hi, folks, it's Kinky Friedman, here to wish the Houston Comets a happy tenth anniversary." He pauses, then leans forward and jabs his cigar at the camera. "Houston Comets basketball -- it's not just for lesbians anymore!"
The cameraman cracks up, then quickly stifles his laughter and asks Kinky to do something a bit more conventional. Kinky obliges, but he's not happy about it.
Back in the car, he starts grumbling again. "If those [bleeps] don't see that as the perfect slogan for them," he says, "they're crazy."
The Second Career
Kinky Friedman has lived a life that could, and soon might, inspire the world's most entertaining political attack ad.
"I've been stoned a lot of times," he says. "And I've been involved with a lot of beautiful women. And I don't regret any of it."
He was born Richard Friedman in 1945 in Chicago, but his parents soon moved to Texas. His mother was a speech therapist, his father a professor of educational psychology at the University of Texas. In 1952, they founded Echo Hill, a Jewish summer camp in the Texas Hill Country, where Kinky worked as a counselor and began performing with Jewford, singing old folk songs and a new one that Kinky wrote at age 11: "Old Ben Lucas, had a lot of mucus coming right out of his nose . . ."
"He was energetic, he was pushing the envelope and he was doing things to irritate people," Jewford recalls. "He was pretty much the same as he is now."
At the University of Texas, he was nicknamed Kinky -- a reference to his hair, not, alas, to anything more risqué. After graduating in 1966, he joined the Peace Corps and was sent to Borneo, where, he says, "I was supposed to teach agriculture to people who had been farming successfully for 2,000 years."
Back home in the early '70s, he formed the Texas Jewboys. Kinky, who played guitar, wrote some soulful, sensitive ballads, but what inspired a cult following were his outrageous comic songs: among them, a satire of anti-feminists called "Get Your Biscuits in the Oven and Your Buns in Bed," and a parody of Merle Haggard's "Okie From Muskogee" called "[Lower End of the Intestinal Tract] From El Paso," which suggested that men from that Texas city were a tad too fond of sheep.
Kinky had some success -- he played the Grand Ole Opry, joined Bob Dylan's Rolling Thunder Revue and toured with Willie Nelson -- but by the early '80s, his career was tanking, his longtime girlfriend had died in a car crash and he was doing way too much dope.
"He was high on 27 different herbs and spices," says Jimmie "Ratso" Silman, a Washington TV cameraman who has played backup guitar for Kinky off and on since the '70s. "He was a different person back then, definitely fairly repellent as a human being."
"I quit doing cocaine," Kinky says, "when Bob Marley fell out of my left nostril."
Actually, he quit doing cocaine when he moved into a trailer on the grounds of his parents' camp and began a second career writing comic mystery novels. The novels -- he wrote 17 -- feature a country singer-turned-detective named Kinky Friedman, who smokes cigars, cracks a lot of jokes and occasionally solves a case.
"The point wasn't the mystery, it was the voice," says Evan Smith. "The guy has got one of the most extraordinary authorial voices."
When Smith became editor of Texas Monthly in 2000, he hired Kinky as a columnist. The column was funny and very popular, but editing the Kinkster wasn't always easy. Once he did a column about . . . well, we can't say what it was about, for the same reason that Smith wouldn't run it.
"Kinky is 60 going on 12," Smith says.
A few years ago, Kinky called Smith at 7 in the morning, grumbling that he couldn't think of an idea for a column. Smith blurted out a suggestion: "Why don't you run for something?"
So Kinky wrote a column about running for governor. Smith thought he was kidding. So did everybody else. But Kinky -- who, in his only other stab at elective office, ran unsuccessfully for justice of the peace back in the '80s -- decided to make a serious run.
"I said, 'If you're really serious, you can't write for us,' " Smith recalls. " 'When you announce officially, I'm going to have to fire you.' "
Early in 2005, Kinky announced his candidacy on the Don Imus radio show and Smith fired him. Now, Smith hopes Kinky will lose so he can start writing the column again. He's fond of Kinky. In fact, he's fond of both Kinkys.
"There's definitely the act and the person," he says. "The person is more insecure and more sweet. He is one of the most genuinely sweet-tempered people I've ever met. You see it when he's with children or animals. . . .
"There's a definite sadness about him. He's alone. His mother and father are dead -- he was very close to them -- and he's not married. In a way, this campaign is a way for him to be out with a lot of people."
Hitting the Jackpot
"I gotta go to Vegas," Kinky says.
He's eating lunch at a Mexican restaurant in Fort Worth and longing for a slot machine. His campaign promise to bring casinos to Texas is not mere wonkery: Kinky loves playing the $5 slots. "It's meditative," he says. His love was reciprocated last summer, when he won $45,000 playing $5 slots in Louisiana.
"God help the small child who steps between me and a slot machine," he says, smiling.
His lyrical ruminations on gambling are interrupted when a woman comes to the table to ask for his autograph. A few moments later, a couple stop by to pose for a picture with Kinky.
This happens all over Texas. The previous day, in Houston, a Republican geologist recognized Kinky on the sidewalk and pledged his support. A few hours later, at a Waffle House in rural Ennis, two elderly cowboys said they'll vote for Kinky, too. Later, a waitress in Fort Worth told Kinky that her coven had voted to endorse him.
Now, in the Mexican restaurant, Kinky's shaking hands and posing for pictures.
"He'll get my vote," says Ray Lopez, 32, an auto technician eating with his family. "I know it's a cliche, but I like the underdog. And I like the individualism he brings to the campaign."
Kinky wallows in the love. "I'm predicting landslide," he says on the way back to the hotel.
As he strolls into the lobby, Kinky is recognized by a retired autoworker named Billy Vann.
"I like your style," Vann says. "If you get in, it'll be because of your style."
Always the Maverick
Chowing down on eggs Benedict, Kinky grumbles about his shirt.
It's the morning after his speech at the Flying Saucer and he's wearing the same black shirt that he'd found a tad too fragrant last night. It's a problem: He packed only one black shirt, and he can't very well appear in public out of costume. They need to go to a drugstore, he tells Jewford, to buy some of that Febreze stuff that you spray on shirts to de-funkify them.
It's crucial to get Febreze today , Kinky says, because tomorrow he'll be addressing a Dallas convention of the National Association of the Blind.
"They're blind, " Kinky says. "That means they have a heightened sense of smell."
Maybe he's joking. But he looks serious.
Anyway, there's no time for shopping now. They've got to hustle down the highway to join Willie Nelson for a news conference on biodiesel fuels.
A couple of hours later, the news conference begins at Carl's Corner, a biodiesel gas station off Route 35. But Nelson is a no-show, and a panel of earnest environmentalists drones on about renewable resources.
"This is stupefyingly dull," Kinky says, watching from the back of the crowd.
But he's got exciting news: He just thought of a great new line to use in his stump speech. He pauses dramatically, then reveals it: "I'm not like them."
He's smiling. He loves this line. He whips out his notebook and writes it down in big block letters: "NOT LIKE THEM."
He's right about that. No matter who "them" is, Kinky's not like them. If Texans want to elect a certified non-them as governor, they'll know where to find him.
© 2006 The Washington Post Company