MEDINA, Texas - 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. 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."
"This is the
right time and the right race," he 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 ground 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."
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
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
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. 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 Secretary of State (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'd bet that they are going to find that the joke is
on them come November.
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 9 months away - that's real commitment, not political operatives'
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.
Avlon is a columnist for the New
York Sun and the author