One year ago, Kinky Friedman was the swashbuckling independent running for governor with a cigar always in his mouth and a cowboy hat covering his curly black hair, selling himself with a list of witty one-liners and the promise of fresh leadership. But in the four-way race between him and opponents who he chastised for being career politicians -- Republican incumbent Rick Perry, Democrat Chris Bell and fellow independent Carole Keeton Strayhorn -- Friedman came in dead last.
"We won everywhere but Texas," Friedman said, regarding the national attention his campaign received, including a profile by Morley Safer on 60 Minutes and a write-up in The New York Times.
Wearing his signature getup with a fat cigar hanging from his mouth, Friedman seemed ready and willing to throw himself back into the governor's race once again -- but this time, as a Democrat.
"We're mulling the possibility," he said. "We've got to get the wooden horse inside the city."
He said he thought he would have done better last time around. The turnout, though, was only 28 percent, and the lower the turnout, he said, the better Perry fared. Perry earned 1.7 million votes to Friedman's 553,327. Though he didn't have the opportunity to start his leadership in 2007, he said, the seeds for the future were planted.
In the previous few months, Friedman said several leading Democratic operatives have spoken with him about another run as a Democrat, including Harry Thomason and his wife Linda Bloodsworth Thomason, the sitcom producers who are close friends and fundraisers for the Clintons.
And, he said, their argument makes sense.
"I think the Democrats are way overdue to win," Friedman said, and he thinks if he were to join the race (he said he will not make a final decision until the summer), he could pull it off because, he hypothesized, the voters in Texas would vote for the Ann Richards or Molly Ivins-type - those who talk about the issues with candor and wit and do not bother to beat around the bush. As for candidates who have had the Democratic nomination in recent elections: "They come off like a bad junior high debate team," he said.
He said he has a three-legged platform if he throws his hat into the ring.
# Fix education.
# Fix health care.
# Abolish the death penalty.
In a conservative state such as Texas, he acknowledged that his platform is a bit controversial - especially dumping the death penalty in a state often associated with its high number of executions.
With those issues, Friedman said, he can garner the support and the nomination from Democratic voters. Then, he can reap the sow of his previous run: the independents who voted for him in 2006 will do the same in 2010. So far, he said he is receiving a warm response, mainly from teachers.
"No good teachers teach to a test," Friedman said, "because good teachers don't do that." His solution: "Put the teachers back in charge."
He said his plan to take a chainsaw to education, promising to correct the system in four years, has them on his side.
He also figured that abolishing the death penalty could earn him Christian support. The question he posed was, "How can we trust people who can't run a post office to be killing people in our name?"
The last time around, Friedman said he was like the Ralph Nader of the race - the outside oddball fighting for a way into a system dominated by two parties. In 2006, he often stumped with his friend and political ally Jesse Ventura, the former independent governor of Minnesota, pushing for a break from two-party domination. Since then, Friedman realized that he could not do in Texas what Ventura did in Minnesota.
"I've realized we're not in Minnesota, Toto," Friedman sad. "I don't think it's possible in Texas ... I think God would have lost if he ran as an independent."
That realization is a part of his shift to the Democratic Party. But to him, it is a shift back to the party he had connected to for most of his voting life. "I was a Democrat before Chris Bell was," Friedman said. First lady Laura Bush was the cause of his one-time defection from the party in the voting booth, when he voted for President Bush.
The transition back into the two-party system does not mean he will become the politico he admonished in the last campaign, he said. "I wouldn't run as some kind of Democratic political hack." Instead, he'd push for a move back to the John Kennedy style of Democrats, which he said have always been better at listening to the voice of the people.
He could have a difficult time reaching that point because Democratic voters may wonder why he didn't seek the party nomination in 2006, said Hector Nieto, spokesman for the Democratic Party of Texas.
"He's obviously going to have to prove himself to Democratic voters," Nieto said. "He's going to have a difficult time doing that."
Nieto suggested Bill White, the popular mayor of Houston, could also seek the nomination. While White or other potential contenders could discuss the issues, he said, Friedman would have to spend a significant amount of time proving his Democratic credentials.
If Friedman were to make it past that point, he'd probably have to face R-Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison in her third term and a top vote-getter in state elections.
Hans Klingler, spokesman for the Republican Party of Texas, said Friedman as a nominee would push Democrats further outside the mainstream, and the party would relish the opportunity to oppose him. Though Hutchison's name has been thrown around the most as a potential nominee, Klingler said, "Everyone at this juncture that could conceivably run for governor is considering their options."
No matter who the Republican nominee is, or who their opponent, Klingler said the voters would continue the trend of backing Republican candidates in state races.
Though there is much discussion about him as a Democratic candidate, Friedman said, the decision as to whether he would run hasn't been made. He said he will decide this summer after answering the questions about it in his mind: "Is it different running as a Democrat than as an independent?
"Can I help get the Democrats elected?"
In the mean time, Friedman, 63, is busy with other projects, which were the reason for him coming to College Station earlier in October. He plugged his book You Can Lead A Politician to Water, But You Can't Make Him Think, the 26th for the man who was a prolific mystery novel writer before making the push into politics. And he stopped by Texas Ave. Cigars to showcase his cigar line, KFC (which stands for Kinky Friedman Cigars). He said the cigars are his pet project and business is doing well because "it's a political statement to smoke a cigar." In fact, he said jokingly, that society should tell kids "cigarettes bad, cigars good."
He's also reflected on the media's coverage of his campaign. "The media was lazy," Friedman said, because he thinks they spent more time looking into his use of the N-word on a stage at a comedy event 27 years ago instead of his side on the issues.
Back on his political soapbox outside the cigar shop, waving animatedly at the handful of students listening, Friedman said the trouble is there are not enough people voting in Texas. "We have a ribbon-cutter for governor," he said, which is a prime part of the problem. He said if he were governor, that is the biggest thing he'd have to change.
© 2007 The Battalion via U-WIRE